Survivor of sexual abuse by Chatham priest calls on church to peacefully settle case

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Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative

A London woman now has the right to sue the church for the damage that she suffered as a result of being sexually abused by a priest in Chatham.

A ruling by the lower courts of Ontario allowing Irene Deschenes, a survivor of sexual assault, to reopen her case against the Roman Catholic Diocese of London stands after the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the case.

The court, by convention, gave no reason for declining to intervene in the case.

“Despite the Supreme Court of Canada ruling (Thursday), the reality is that I’m still involved in litigation with the Roman Catholic Church,” Deschenes said.

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

“In 1992, I went to the church to report that I was sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest when I was a little girl. Almost 30 years later, not once has anyone with authority come to me to comfort me. Not once has anyone with authority asked me honestly, or empathetically, ‘How can we help you heal, Irene?’” she said.

In 1996, Deschenes decided to file 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.

It was later learned by Deschenes that the diocese was made aware of three other accusations against Sylvestre in 1962, according to old police records from the Sarnia police that she had obtained. She decided to reopen the case based on misrepresentation.

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 before taking the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Diocese of London said they are “disappointed” with the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the leave of appeal, in a statement issued on Thursday.

“We felt strongly that the facts of the case deserved to be presented in court. Our appeals were motivated by this belief, as well as our obligation to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us,” the diocese stated.

It added that the 1962 report “would not have made a material difference” to Deschenes’ final settlement.

Deschenes said that the church is viewing survivors of abuse as a threat to church resources.

“They assume that victims will take advantage of them. The assumption goes to the very heart of how ugly the church’s response has been,” she said.

Deschenes’ supporters, including Michelle Schryer, executive director of the Chatham-Kent Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, called the diocese’s constant appeals and unrelenting litigation “legal bullying” which should not have made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“The diocese knew in 1962 – nearly 10 years before Charles Sylvestre got to Irene  – they knew that (he) was a threat to the safety of children, of young girls. They failed to protect Irene from him,” Schryer said. “It’s not OK that she has to keep fighting so hard and so long for justice.”

Deschenes is asking for $4.83 million in damages. The diocese has no appeals left to prevent her from reopening the case. It can only fight the lawsuit in court but Deschenes would rather they show compassion and settle right away.

The diocese responded that its settlement offered to Deschenes was fair and in line with the limited case law that existed at the time.

“It’s not too late for the Roman Catholic Church to do the right thing and support my healing process. It’s too late to take back the revictimization I have endured over the decades… But it’s not too late to move forward from here with actions that offer justice, compassion, or the Christianity that the church purports is their practice,” Deschenes said.

In 2007, Sylvestre was charged and convicted of 47 counts of historical child sexual abuse, after more survivors came forward.  He died in jail with his status as a Catholic priest still in good standing.

The diocese said that “with hindsight” it regrets not removing Sylvestre from active ministry following the 1962 police report and recognized that as a failing on the church’s part.

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