Abuse sur­vivor fights on

Irene Desch­enes wins the right to have her set­tle­ment with the RC Dio­cese of Lon­don re­opened

The Observer (Sarnia) - - NEWS - JANE SIMS NEWS

STRATHROY — When she ac­cepted a civil set­tle­ment from the Ro­man Catholic Church 18 years ago, Irene Desch­enes was de­feated.

“We are tired, we want clo­sure and are hes­i­tant to be­lieve we can or will get jus­tice from the court process,” she wrote in an email to her lawyer be­fore ac­cept­ing the terms in 2000.

What Desch­enes, the Ro­man Catholic Dio­cese of Lon­don and disgraced ex-priest Charles Sylvestre wouldn’t know is that set­tle­ment would set Desch­enes on a de­ter­mined course to ex­pose the abu­sive Sylvestre and hold the church ac­count­able.

In a ground­break­ing de­ci­sion, Su­pe­rior Court Jus­tice David As­ton, who quoted Desch­enes’ email, granted her mo­tion and al­lowed the sex­ual abuse sur­vivor to re­open her set­tle­ment af­ter al­most two decades

“My goal here is to hold the Ro­man Catholic Church ac­count­able for their un­speak­able treat­ment of sur­vivors,” Desch­enes said at a news con­fer­ence here Thurs­day. “This is a con­tin­u­a­tion of my fight for jus­tice, for me, and other known and un­known sur­vivors of sex­ual abuse by priests and other re­li­gions.”

When Desch­enes, abused be­tween 1970 and 1973 when she at­tended St. Ur­sula’s Church in Chatham, and an­other sur­vivor filed a civil suit against the dio­cese, Sylvestre hadn’t been con­victed of 47 counts of in­de­cent as­sault of lit­tle girls across the re­gion and the church hadn’t been swamped with civil claims.

Much of the credit for set­ting the crim­i­nal cases in mo­tion goes to Desch­enes, who went to Chatham po­lice in 2005 af­ter col­lect­ing sto­ries from women across the re­gion who had been abused at var­i­ous parishes by Sylvestre over four decades.

Her per­sis­tence led to the avalanche of vic­tims, the charges, the sub­se­quent guilty pleas and the then-84-year-old’s four-month jail sen­tence. He died while in­car­cer­ated.

Two months af­ter Sylvestre went to jail, the Dio­cese of Lon­don an­nounced an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant had dis­cov­ered state­ments from three 11-year-old girls made in 1962 to the Sar­nia po­lice that had been mis­filed in an ac­count­ing cab­i­net.

About the same time, Sylvestre was sent to Roxboro, Que., but there is no ev­i­dence the trans­fer was re­lated to the po­lice re­ports.

While no charges were laid at the time, the po­lice state­ments were for­warded to Bishop John Cody, but he died of a sud­den heart at­tack in De­cem­ber 1963, “ap­par­ently with­out telling any­one about the po­lice re­ports,” As­ton noted.

Or, as Desch­enes’ lawyer, Loretta Mer­ritt, said, “They hid them so well, they hid them from them­selves.”

That flew in the face of what the church had in­sisted af­ter Desch­enes had filed her civil claim in 1996.

“In that pro­ceed­ing, the dio­cese de­nied li­a­bil­ity, assert­ing specif­i­cally that it had no di­rect, in­di­rect ac­tual or con­struc­tive knowl­edge of the al­leged sex­ual propen­si­ties or acts of Sylvestre prior to the as­saults against the plain­tiff.”

The church claimed it only knew about any al­le­ga­tions af­ter 1989. Ev­i­dence was given that no one had any idea Sylvestre was a prob­lem un­til af­ter an­other priest alerted the dio­cese to al­co­hol is­sues.

Rev. Tony Daniels tes­ti­fied dur­ing the orig­i­nal lit­i­ga­tion that he had found noth­ing in the files. As­ton didn’t ques­tion that he did a thor­ough search, “how­ever the dio­cese is a cor­po­rate body. Fa­ther Daniels did not know about the po­lice re­ports sent to the dio­cese in 1962, but Bishop Cody did.”

And what the bishop knew in 1962 or 1963 is what the dio­cese knew.

As­ton agreed Desch­enes’ orig­i­nal claim was com­pro­mised be­cause she couldn’t prove the church knewSylve strew as sex­u­ally ab us­ing girls. The lack of dis­clo­sure was“a ma­te­rial mis rep­re­sen­ta­tion .”

Desch­enes set­tled for $100,000, the de­ci­sion said.

As­ton noted that since Des chen es’ orig­i­nal case, much has been ex­posed about coverups of pe­dophile priests by the church in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Since then, the dio­cese has dra­mat­i­cally changed its ways in South­west­ern On­tario. It has gen­uinely tried to make amends,” As­ton wrote.

“How­ever, it is still re­spon­si­ble for its his­toric con­duct . . . It would be wrong in the cir­cum­stances of this case to pro­tect the set­tle­ment.”

The Dio­cese of Lon­don de­clined to com­ment on the case be­cause it is still be­fore the courts.

Desch­enes won’t have to prove li­a­bil­ity — that was dealt with in As­ton’s de­ci­sion — but dam­ages still have to be es­tab­lished.

That may be de­cided in a set­tle­ment, but if the case must go to trial, it could be two to four years be­fore it’s fin­ished.

Desch­enes said if the church had acted on the 1962 re­ports and “done the right thing” by re­mov­ing the priest from the church, “I wouldn’t be here to­day and there wouldn’t have been more lit­tle girls harmed by Sylvestre.”

“They had all the proof. They had all the proof of his prior of­fences but kept it to them­selves, start­ing with the 1962 Sar­nia po­lice re­port.”

When she went to the church at age 31 to re­port the abuse, Desch­enes said, she had hoped the church would apol­o­gize and of­fer her help. In­stead, she says, there was more of an ef­fort to pro­tect the priest, not the vic­tims.

And it’s a global prob­lem. “Hope­fully, when this is all said and done, the church will have mended their de­spi­ca­ble ways,” she said. “An in­sti­tu­tion that pur­ports to hold the high­est moral stan­dards should re­spond with care and com­pas­sion when vic­tims come for­ward.”

To re­open a set­tle­ment is ex­tremely rare, both Desch­enes and Mer­ritt said, es­pe­cially one that is 18 years old.


With an im­age of her 12-year-old self be­hind her, Irene Desch­enes tells a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day she has won a court chal­lenge to re­open her civil suit against the Ro­man Catholic Church that had been set­tled in 2000. The photo be­hind her was taken by her abuser, for­mer Catholic priest Charles Sylvestre.


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