Warning: This story contains some details of sexual exploitation
A Saskatoon judge is sending the former coach and athletic director at a Saskatoon Christian school to jail for "an act of violence on a child."
Aaron Benneweis pleaded guilty in October 2023 to sexually assaulting and exploiting a 13-year-old female student.
On Thursday, Judge Marilyn Gray sentenced Benneweis to two years less a day, to be followed by three years probation. This is the sentence that prosecutor Sheryl Fillo had proposed.
"This was a major sexual assault ... and a sentence of three to four years could be justified," Gray said as she delivered the sentence.
Benneweis preyed on Jennifer Beaudry when she was a student and athlete at the private Christian school formerly called Christian Centre Academy, now known as Legacy Christian Academy. He was a coach and athletic director at the school at the time of the offences, which began in 2008 — when Beaudry was 13 years old — and continued until 2012.
Typically, the media cannot name victims of sexual assault because of court-imposed publication bans, but Beaudry received permission from the court to have her name published so she could tell her story and fight for justice.
Outside court Thursday, Beaudry said she hopes the outcome gives hope to others.
"It's not a hopeless fight even though a lot of times it can feel like it," she said.
In a half-hour oral decision, Gray effectively rejected every mitigating point raised by defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle during sentencing submissions in January. He had argued for a six-month sentence, followed by 30 months probation.
Pfefferle said that Benneweis has taken responsibility for his actions and shown remorse and guilt. He has taken marital counselling with his wife and, independent of the court, raised $10,000 to give to Beaudry as restitution.
Gray expressed dismay at the financial offer, saying "it creates the appearance that sentences could be bought." She suggested that, were Benneweis sincere, he could have approached Beaudry much earlier and in a much more discreet fashion.
Gray said she doubts that Benneweis truly gained any insight into his criminal behaviour by going to marital counselling because it framed the offence as Benneweis meeting with an adult lover. She said that meeting with a marriage counsellor is not the same as getting sex offender treatment from a medical professional.
The acts he engaged in were not erotic or affectionate, but were rather "an act of violence on a child" and "deviant sexual behaviour," Gray said.
This point in particular resonated with Beaudry.
"Marital issues doesn't make someone go find a little child to be sexually involved in. That's a complete, ludicrous example," she said.
"So I think the judge did a really, really good job of laying out those things."
Former students from the school are currently engaged in a $25-million abuse lawsuit.
It was filed last year following a series of CBC News stories about the Legacy Christian Academy and adjacent Mile Two Church in Saskatoon. Dozens of students said they were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. The alleged abuses include beatings with large wooden paddles, exorcisms and solitary confinement.
Caitlin Erickson, of the students in the suit, said outside court Thursday that Gray's comments during sentencing will help the lawsuit.
"[Her comments] speak to how children in that type of environment were really just seen as nothing, and not important," she said.
"It really does give context for people who don't understand."
Three other former officials with the school are scheduled to stand trial this year on criminal charges related to their time at the school.
Support is available for people affected by this tragedy. The Hope for Wellness hotline offers immediate help to Indigenous people across Canada. Mental health counselling and crisis support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.
You can talk to a mental health professional via Wellness Together Canada by calling 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 686868 for youth or 741741 for adults. It is free and confidential.
Talking Stick is a Saskatchewan-based free anonymous chat platform that connects people seeking emotional support to a trained Indigenous peer advocate 24/7.