A Kelowna piano teacher was acquitted Friday of sexually assaulting a child who had taken lessons from him.
Neil Wong, 55, was charged in the spring of 2022 with sexual assault and sexual interference of a child, after a child accused him of sexually touching her over an eight-month period in 2021.
The child was elementary-school aged when the allegations occurred. Castanet is referring to the child as CV, as any information that could identify the child is protected by a publication ban.
During two days of trial in March of this year, CV testified that Wong ran his hands over her back, stomach and nipples under her shirt during her lessons. She said he also "put his hands on her bum in a weird way” when he hugged her. She said the allegations occurred multiple times, but she didn't know exactly how many times.
CV told her mother about the allegations in January 2022. She said she was scared something bad might happen to Wong if he she told on him, but ultimately decided it was important.
"It's not just about me, I'm worried about the other kids that are there as well ... I'm afraid for them," CV told an RCMP officer in March 2022.
Wong testified in his own defence at trial, claiming that the only times he physically touched the child was to adjust her posture during lessons.
“The long answer is that there was physical touch, but one was for musical teaching purposes, as I demonstrated before, to correct [CV's] posture, and the second time ... was when [CV] initiated a hug and I would respond in kind as most adults would do by hugging the child back,” Wong testified.
Wong also said he was surprised when CV hugged him following her first lesson. But he claimed CV's father told him that it was OK, as they were a “huggy” family and had raised their kids to be like that.
But CV's father was brought in by the Crown to testify Friday afternoon, and he denied that such a conversation ever occurred.
“I do not recollect having a discussion about hugging with Mr. Wong at that time, or at any other time,” CV's father testified. “I can't see myself ever having said something like that because we don't teach our kids to hug strangers.”
During closing submissions, Crown prosecutor Murray Kaay noted CV was able to give a detailed description of the allegations, describing Wong's hands as “dry” and “crumbly.” Kaay said that level of detail gives credence to her reliability, and differs greatly from Wong's testimony that he would only use a single finger over her shirt to adjust her posture.
Kaay called Wong's testimony “self serving.”
Defence counsel Grant Gray said CV likely misinterpreted Wong's posture adjustment as sexual in nature, and said the reliability of her testimony was “wholly lacking.”
Following closing submissions Friday afternoon, Judge Andrew Tam ultimately ruled the Crown had not proven the allegation beyond a reasonable doubt, as is required for a conviction.
“Other than the fact that it is at odds with [CV]’s evidence, there is no external inconsistencies to what Mr. Wong said. As a result, I cannot reject his evidence beyond a reasonable doubt,” Judge Tam said. “What [Wong] said can reasonably be true and the presumption of innocence in this case has not been displaced.”
Judge Tam said he had no issues with CV’s credibility, noting she appeared “sincere and honest, and tried her hardest to answer the questions truthfully.”
“An acquittal of an accused does not mean that he or she is innocent. It also does not mean that the court thinks the complainant is lying,” Judge Tam said.
But he said the test of guilt is not between whether CV’s version of events is more likely to be true than Wong’s, but whether the Crown has proven the case to the high bar of “beyond reasonable doubt.”
“All of this is premised upon the philosophy that it is better to acquit 10 guilty people than to convict even one innocent person,” Judge Tam said. “Whatever one thinks of that ratio, that is the law.”
Judge Tam acquitted Wong of all charges.
This is not the first time Wong has faced criminal charges. Wong was a music teacher at Kelowna Secondary School until he was suspended in 2013, when he was criminally charged with voyeurism. In 2014, he avoided jail time when he was handed an 18-month conditional discharge.
A conditional discharge means an accused person avoids a permanent criminal conviction and record if they abide by their probation conditions.
The details of the voyeurism case are covered by a publication ban to protect the identity of the female victim, who was 15 at the time.
The B.C. Commissioner of Teacher Regulation published an unnamed consent resolution summary that matches the timeframe and case details related to Wong’s voyeurism charge.
That report says the unnamed teacher used a school-issued laptop on two occasions to access sexually explicit material during school hours while he was working. He had also previously been issued a “letter of direction” after hugging female students in a way that made them uncomfortable.
He was suspended from the school district in 2013 and formally resigned in 2015.