Updated December 7, 2023:
A judge has said victims of sexual assault by a Ballarat massage therapist will suffer long-lasting effects.
In the Victorian County Court on Thursday, December 7, Judge John Smallwood sentenced Gary Sheppard, 60, for sexually assaulting three female clients between November 2020 and March 2021.
While referencing statements made by the victims, Judge Smallwood said the former massage therapist had devastated the three women's self esteem, relationships and trust.
"Each of them suffers to this day, hopefully not forever, but they will continue to suffer for a significant period of time," he said.
"Yours is a situation where I want to make it clear, had there been a jury and you were convicted, the sentence imposed would have been a very, very different one."
Sheppard had pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing on December 6, 2023, to touching the breasts and genitals of three customers at his "Hands on Massage" studio in Canadian.
Judge Smallwood described a 21-year-old victim of the man as "disgusted", after she was assaulted during her appointment.
He said the case had an unusual aspect, in that Sheppard had pleaded guilty on the basis he believed he had the consent to touch his customers intimately, but that this belief was unreasonable.
The 60-year-old had no prior criminal history, and Judge Smallwood said his risk of reoffending was "virtually zero".
Sheppard was convicted and sentenced to a three year community corrections order where he must complete 250 hours of community work.
If Sheppard had been convicted at trial, Judge Smallwood said he would have imposed a jail term.
A masseur who preyed on multiple clients by touching their breasts and genitalia, while operating a business called "Hands on Massage" from his Canadian home, has pleaded guilty to four charges of sexual assault.
Gary Sheppard, 60, appeared in the Victorian County Court, after being accused of the offences by three different women who attended his Geelong Road business between October 2020 and March 2021.
One of Sheppard's victims was a 21-year-old international student, who said in a victim impact statement read to court, she had struggled with post traumatic stress disorder, nightmares and sleepless nights since the assault.
On November 16, 2020, the 21-year-old visited Sheppard for the second time, where the then-masseur worked on her back, before having her roll over so he could work on her legs, neck and arms.
After a while, Sheppard began massaging the woman's sternum, and asked her if he was being too intrusive.
When she said it was okay, he continued moving his hands down towards her chest.
At one point, she told him she was on the edge of being uncomfortable.
Despite this, Sheppard lightly grabbed her breasts and massaged around her nipples with the towel no longer covering her upper body.
The victim said she was panicked while this happened, and was trying to figure out how to leave.
At the end of the massage, Sheppard told his victim "It's nothing sexual, it's just a massage, a lot of women actually like it when you massage their breasts."
After leaving, the woman called a friend to tell them what happened, and later reported the incident to police on December 21, 2020.
"I'm questioning my own worth, my value as a person has been shattered," the woman's statement said.
"The lowering of my boundaries has ruined my intrinsic value as a person."
The 21-year-old has since returned to Europe, but has travelled back to Australia on multiple occasions to give evidence.
She said the assault had costed her thousands of dollars in missed work, travel and medical expenses, as well as affecting her relationships with friends and family.
Sheppard used a similar form of massage on a 40-year-old woman on March 15, 2021, where he rolled the victim over and touched her breasts.
During the massage, the victim said she felt uncomfortable and thought it was weird, but said "yes" when Sheppard asked her if she was relaxed.
After moving his hands further down her body and massaging her stomach for a period of time, Sheppard moved his hands underneath the victim's underwear and touched her genitals.
The 40-year-old "froze" after the assault, and abruptly ended the massage when her alarm went off.
When asked if that happened to everyone he sees, Sheppard told the victim "I did ask for permission."
"That does not happen every time but you were so relaxed you deserved it ... hope it will not put you off coming back to me as we need to treat ourselves once in a while." he said to the victim in a Faceboook message sent later that afternoon.
Two days later, a 42-year-old woman reported Sheppard to police after he also touched her breasts during a massage.
She said she felt frightened and uncomfortable during the experience, and had her fists clenched throughout.
Sheppard was arrested by police on the night on March 17, 2021, and when interviewed told them there was nothing sexual about his actions, and he only massaged customer's breasts when they consented.
Defence counsel said Sheppard had no prior or subsequent criminal history, and he showed excellent prospect of rehabilitation.
They said he also had an impressive work history and was planning to return to a management role.
"He does not intend to, and won't return to any work of a massage nature," they said.
Judge John Smallwood said Sheppard had benefited his victim's by pleading guilty and not putting them through a criminal trial.
"It would have been very ugly had those ladies had to give evidence," he said.
The matter was adjourned until December 7, 2023, for sentencing, and Judge Smallwood indicated Sheppard would likely receive a community corrections order.
Affected by this story? There is help available.
You can phone the Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault, in Sebastopol, on 5320 3933, or free-call the crisis care line 24 hours on 1800 806 292.
Or phone Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380, or Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277.