Ruling on Chatham sexual abuse appeal could set precedent

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By Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative

A ruling by the lower courts of Ontario which allowed a survivor of sexual assault to reopen her case against the London Catholic diocese is being taken to the Supreme Court of Canada.

If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court’s decision, it could set precedent for survivors who have settled with other dioceses across Canada. 

Between 1971 and 1973 Irene Deschenes was sexually abused by Father Charles Sylvestre at St. Ursula School, Chatham. Deschenes was 10 years old at the time. 

In 1996, she filed a lawsuit against the diocese on the basis that they failed to protect her from abuse. 

The accused said they were unaware of Sylvestre’s actions until the 1980s, so Deschenes decided to settle with the diocese in 2000.

However, it was later learned that the diocese was made aware of three other accusations against Sylvestre in 1962. 

In a decision by Ontario’s Superior Court, Justice David Aston granted Deschenes her application to re-open the 2000 out-of-court settlement, acknowledging that she “would not have settled as she did in the fall of 2000 if they had known about the 1962 police reports.”

The London Catholic diocese appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal and lost in May.

“I felt really hopeful after Judge Aston’s decision to reopen my civil suit and I really didn’t think at that point that they would appeal. I really didn’t think they would. I thought that they would have some compassion towards me and this long battle that I’ve had, that’s gone on for decades. I thought they would do the right thing,” Deschenes said. 

Deschenes’ lawyer said it could take up to six months for the SCC to review the application. If the SCC does not agree to hear the case, the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal stands.

The case has several important implications, from setting precedent to looking at how the church treats survivors of sexual assault, according to advocates for the survivors.

In the 1970s and 1980s, in order to minimize or deny accusations of sexual assault, accused priests were often moved across borders within Canada and sometimes even between countries, according to Nancy Mayer, co-founder of Advocates for Clergy Trauma Survivors, Canada. 

If other dioceses have intentionally or unintentionally withheld important information from survivors during their settlement, they would have the ability to come forward to other victims and ask the courts to set their prior agreements aside, she added.

“I think one of the difficulties for so many survivors is there have been mixed messages from the pope from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops towards survivors. On one hand, they are pledging transparency and openness, they are pledging compassion and care for survivors who come forth, and yet they continue to appeal and fight them in all sorts of ways,” she said.

Michelle Schryer, executive director of the Chatham-Kent Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, said rather than drag Deschenes through another court process, it is time they set things right with survivors. People who have been victimized by clerics within religious institutions often report that they become more traumatized by the church’s reaction than the original abuse.

Schyer had the opportunity to be part of a project helping several survivors. But since 2015, the diocese decided to limit the financial support they provided for counseling victims and survivors of church abuse. 

Sylvester was arrested, charged and convicted of 47 counts of historical child sexual abuse, after several other survivors came forward. He died in jail with his status as a Catholic priest still in good standing.

The London Catholic diocese did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

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