Woman 'empowered' as former Christian school coach faces charges 10 years after alleged sexual exploitation
Warning: This story contains disturbing details.
Jennifer Beaudry will never forget her first kiss, but it's burned in her memory for all the wrong reasons.
She was a teen student at a private Christian school in Saskatoon when it happened.
Beaudry says the kiss was initiated by Aaron Benneweis, a popular coach and the athletic director of the Christian Centre Academy (CCA) at the time.
According to Beaudry, Benneweis was inappropriate with her while she was a teen student and he was in a position of authority. She alleges he began making eyes at her in 2008, when she was 13 years old, and that the behaviour escalated over years to secret meet-ups and sexual touching.
"There's a few reasons why I want to share my story," Beaudry said. "To bring closure and to bring some healing to myself and to actually have confidence that the situation is being dealt with properly."
Beaudry and her mom claim that when the church's pastor was told about the allegations, he encouraged them to file a police report. However, they say the pastor told them to tell police that it began when Jennifer was 16, not 13, to make it "easier on Aaron" — and they obliged.
In August 2022, Beaudry went back to police and for the first time, told them about the alleged conduct that occurred when she was under 16.
And this time, the 27-year-old pushed for consequences.
"I still felt like my story hadn't been heard and it hadn't been dealt with properly -- even though I had told people before and thought I had told proper authorities."
Coach facing criminal charges
On Thursday, CBC confirmed that Benneweis, 46, had been charged with sexual assault and sexual exploitation of a minor while in a position of trust or authority between 2008 and 2012. He turned himself into police on January 31 and was arrested then released with conditions.
He's scheduled to make his first court appearance in Saskatoon on March 13.
CBC News requested an interview with Benneweis on January 25, before he was arrested.
His lawyer responded saying that "based on related media coverage to date, Mr. Benneweis is concerned about the accuracy of the reporting, but on my advice, he does not wish to be interviewed."
They did not respond to the allegations which were detailed to them by CBC News via email.
Policy changes after complaints linked to school
Beaudry first decided to go public with her allegations after CBC Saskatchewan published an investigation in August 2022 that revealed 18 former students from the same school had filed criminal complaints, alleging exorcisms, coercion, traumatizing rituals, solitary confinement and violent discipline. More former students have filed complaints since.
After the news coverage, the provincial government appointed administrators to run the private Christian school and two others connected to it, giving the Ministry of Education increased authority.
The Saskatchewan Advocate for Children and Youth launched her own investigation because of the magnitude of the abuse allegations.
The province also updated its regulations for qualified independent schools, requiring the schools' directors or boards to notify the Ministry of Education within 24 hours of hearing about allegations of criminal activity or a criminal charge against a staff member.
Beaudry has joined a proposed class-action lawsuit alongside dozens of other former students who are alleging physical, sexual and psychological abuse by people who were in positions of power at CCA and the church. Close to 100 former students have expressed interest in signing on. The lawsuit is awaiting certification and the allegations have not been tested in court.
The civil statement of claim alleges that Benneweis "engaged in sexual relationships with students and minor adherents and congregants of the church."
As of last month, Beaudry was the only class action member who has made sexual allegations against Benneweis.
A tight-knit community
Beaudry was born into the tight-knit church community. Her parents had joined as young adults and her mom later became a teacher at the school.
She attended primary and secondary school at CCA until graduating in 2013. The school was run by the Saskatoon Christian Centre. The institutions have since been renamed Legacy Christian Academy and Mile Two Church.
As Beaudry grew up, she started to excel in sports. She says she got permission to join the school's senior volleyball team early, when she was in Grade 8.
WATCH | Former Sask. Christian school coach charged with sexual assault:
Benneweis was the athletic director of the school. He was best known for running the boys basketball team, but he also helped in other athletics, like track. Several former students and staff members interviewed by CBC News described Benneweis as charismatic, social and well-liked among staff and students.
Beaudry says she first remembers noticing the coach's eyes on her during a volleyball pre-game warm up in 2008, when she was 13. She says he would smirk at her or that his gaze would linger on her. Beaudry didn't notice any other adults looking at her this way.
According to Beaudry, she and Benneweis started spending more one-on-one time together after she began running track.
Beaudry remembers him calling her into his office to chat — sometimes with friends, but often alone. She says the conversations were about everyday things, from workouts to his memories of school.
"He started asking to meet up in the building in rooms that weren't being used throughout the day," she said. "Then, he started asking to meet up off site."
Beaudry's best friend at the school told CBC News it wasn't uncommon for students to chat in Benneweis's office. However, she said that it seemed like Benneweis gave more attention to Beaudry than other students.
CBC has agreed to leave the friend's name out of the article because she worries how it might impact her work.
An evening run
Beaudry remembers him calling her into his office one day when she was 14, and asking if she would be working out that night.
"I said, 'Yeah, I'm planning on going for a run later.'" Beaudry said. "He said, 'So am I.'"
She says the coach asked her to join him that evening.
"He had picked a spot in the north end of the city, kind of behind the soccer centre in the Lawson Heights area," she remembered.
Beaudry says she told her mom she was going for a run, left home and jogged to the park.
She says Benneweis was waiting for her there and that they held hands and went for a walk after meeting up. Beaudry says he mentioned having the school passenger van there and asked her to come with him to it.
"He tells me to get in the van and he tells me to lay down on one of the bench seats so nobody could see me," Beaudry said.
She says he drove them to a deserted school parking lot nearby, stopped the vehicle and crawled into the back.
"He's leaning back on the window and he told me to come sit with him, so I'm sitting in front of him pretty much on his lap, my legs on top of his, leaning back on his chest."
Beaudry says she felt awkward and uncomfortable, but ill-equipped to deal with the situation. The private Christian school didn't teach about consent, power dynamics, sexual education or healthy relationships.
"He put his hands on my shoulders and he turned me around and he started kissing me — he started like full on lip-to-lip, French-kissing me. I remember tongue and all."
It was her first kiss.
She says he then dropped her off a few blocks from her home so she could jog home.
Beaudry says she remembers at least 10 meet-ups that were inappropriate. She says she didn't reject his invitations, rather she felt compelled to trust people in positions of authority and make them happy.
She says that Benneweis emphasized secrecy "because his family life and his career depended on it."
Beaudry says this resonated with her. Their families were close because of the church; she knew his wife and she babysat the Benneweis children.
On the bed
When Beaudry was 16 and in Grade 11, she was helping officiate a track meet at Griffith Stadium. She remembers it was the spring of 2012 — just before summer break — and says Benneweis approached her about going to his place.
She says he said something like: "'Hey, you should come back to my house with me. I have the school van in the parking lot. Let's go for a lunch break.'"
Beaudry says she got in and laid down in the back of the van.
"Neither his wife nor his two kids were at the house, so I followed him inside and he led me to his bedroom."
Beaudry says he said something along the lines of: "'You can take off your shirt and your pants. I'm just going to go in the bathroom. I'll be right back.'"
She stripped down to her bra and underwear, then he returned in his underwear, she says.
"Once again, he starts making out with me. He pushes me back onto his bed, so I'm on my back. He's on top of me," she said.
"His hands go from being on my face to wandering down my neck, onto my shoulders, then down the front of me — all the way down south."
Beaudry says Benneweis fiddled with her bra clasp while kissing her, but then he stopped. She says they got dressed and returned to the track event as if nothing had happened.
She says she felt dirty and violated, but still kept silent.
"I felt like it was my responsibility to keep people's lives together," she said.
"It was really heavy."
Beaudry tells a friend
Eventually, Beaudry says she was unable to keep the secret any longer. She confided some details to her best friend.
That best friend was later talking to a mutual classmate of theirs. According to both women, who spoke with CBC separately, Beaudry's best friend told the classmate that Beaudry was "f--king the coach."
Although the former students used that phrasing, Beaudry tells CBC News she and Benneweis never had sexual intercourse.
That classmate said she felt compelled to tell an adult. CBC has also agreed not to name her because she escaped the church to start a new life, and wants to keep her past private from her current professional community.
"It got very serious very quickly and I was like, 'Oh, that's very illegal and just not cool on any level,' because he's married — he has kids," she said of her reasoning back then.
The classmate says she told her mom, who informed the pastor's wife. The classmate said she was then asked to explain directly to the pastor what she had learned.
"[The pastor] looks me in the eye in his office and says, 'I'm going to call his family. … Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We're going to take care of this.'"
In January 2013, Beaudry and her parents were called to a meeting with then-pastor Keith Johnson. Beaudry says they asked her what was going on.
"I knew I couldn't hide it anymore, so I spilled every detail," Beaudry said.
"My mom is sitting beside me, bawling her eyes out, asking if I'm still a virgin. My dad is sitting on the other side, just silently in shock."
Beaudry's mom, Dawn Beaudry, remembers crying beside her husband.
"We were horrified when we learned of what she had been hiding," Dawn said.
Be 'gracious' to the coach
The mother says the pastor was firm about the next steps: the school — which was run by the church — would fire Benneweis.
After that evening, they never saw him again. Multiple sources tell CBC that Benneweis was removed from the school.
The Beaudrys say the pastor suggested they report the allegations to police.
However, Dawn says the pastor also "advised" the Beaudry family to be "gracious" toward the coach and athletic director in the police report. Dawn and Jennifer both say the pastor suggested they tell police that Benneweis began pursuing Beaudry when she was 16, not 13.
"I'm sitting there feeling super shameful, super disgusting — like I'm telling them the most filthy thing I've ever been involved in in my life that's been happening for years — and [the church] wants me to lie so that it doesn't look so bad," Jennifer said.
Jennifer says she was overwhelmed and felt exposed. She says she also felt compelled to abide by the church's guidance, as she had been taught to do.
Dawn says she took Jennifer to the station to file a police report. She says they told police Jennifer had been 16, but didn't push for further action from police.
"Looking back, I just think I should have overruled [Jennifer's] emotions and everything that happened that day [at the police station]. Hindsight is 20/20 — we thought we were doing the right thing and handling this the right way," Dawn said.
"When we look back at what we agreed to, we see how easily swayed we were out of a sense of loyalty to our church family."
The age of consent within the Canadian Criminal Code has been 16 since 2008, but people under the age of 18 cannot consent to sexual contact when the other person is in a position of trust or authority.
Dawn noted they "were such a tight-knit community that [they] were thinking of causing as little damage to Aaron's wife and children as possible."
For Jennifer, their actions aligned with the values she'd been taught at school.
"We're supposed to try and be the best Christians we can be and, a lot of times, that's turning the other cheek and that's giving people second chances."
Church declines to respond
CBC has made multiple unsuccessful attempts to contact Pastor Johnson throughout 2022 and 2023. Lawyers at the helm of the proposed class-action lawsuit have also been unable to track him down to serve him with legal papers.
The church's current pastor, Brien Johnson, declined CBC's request for an interview and would not provide a written explanation about how the church handled the allegations.
"Due to the ongoing legal situation, we are not giving interviews at this time. We will continue to cooperate fully with the legal process and authorities," he wrote in an email.
Multiple sources say Benneweis and his family moved to Edmonton and connected with another church.
Beaudry wonders if he's still working around youth.
"He should not have any kind of authority or any kind of leadership role," she said. "I think it's about time that this be dealt with properly."
Jennifer says it took her years of reflection and personal growth to understand how her experiences shaped and harmed her.
"Once I was putting this all together, I was starting to actually realize what happened, the severity of it and how it's affected my life since then," she said.
A decade later, Dawn also sees how deeply this has affected her daughter.
"Knowing that it wasn't ever fully resolved is tormenting," she said. "I just want Jennifer to be able to carry on and live her life knowing that the right thing was done."
While the allegations have not been proven in court, she says she feels one step closer to healing now that Benneweis has been charged.
"[The court process] will bring a lot of closure and a lot of peace for me," she said.
"I'm happy this is happening — it's empowering."
Jennifer is also a mother now. Raising her own daughter has encouraged her to be brave.
"It definitely lit a fire in my heart," Jennifer said.
"If anything were to happen to her, I would want to be able to show her that this is how you actually take care of it and that mom will help you."
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.