Church to Pay $1.5m to Victim of Sex Abuse
Sault Ste. Marie Diocese

By Joseph Brean
National Post [Canada]
September 17, 2003

The Catholic Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., has been ordered to pay almost $1.5-million to an Anglican man whose childhood interest in Catholicism was exploited by a sexually abusive priest.

The damages are the highest awarded in Canada for sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, the man's lawyer said, and far outstrip the settlements reached by many native victims of abuse in residential schools, which have averaged to around $100,000.

The 33-year-old victim, identified in court documents only by the pseudonym John Doe, endured savage emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of Father Thomas O'Dell, according to an Ontario Superior Court ruling released yesterday. In determining the damages, most of which are to compensate for past and future lost income, Madame Justice Katherine E. Swinton ruled Fr. O'Dell's diocese was vicariously liable for his actions and thus for the damages.

"[Fr. O'Dell's] priestly functions were inextricably enmeshed with his wrongful acts," the judge wrote. "[Mr. Doe] came to him for spiritual guidance and considered converting to Catholicism. Spiritual discussions and religious teaching with [Mr. Doe] were transformed over time into terrorizing threats of Hell and descriptions of children being burned alive because they did not obey the priest."

Fr. O'Dell would even point to nearby smokestacks, instructing the boy that this was where he would burn unless he agreed to the sexual abuse, which he testified began with touching, but proceeded to sodomy, oral sex on the church altar and sodomy with a crucifix.

"This case sends a very strong message that religious associations are going to be held accountable for harm that their employees cause that is closely linked to their work on behalf of the Church," Mr. Doe's lawyer, Peter Downard, said.

In her ruling, Judge Swinton did not level punitive damages against Fr. O'Dell because he had already been punished criminally with a 30-month prison sentence. He was released this summer.

In 1981, the young priest was posted to the Sault Ste. Marie diocese after his education at St. Augustine's Seminary in Toronto, where he graduated before psychological testing became mandatory. By the time he was transferred to Mr. Doe's hometown, which was not identified in court, court records show he had already sexually abused another boy at his first posting.

Mr. Doe is the middle child in a modest Anglican family of three boys. In his late childhood, Mr. Doe had become quite lonely, and had only one close friend. He was also increasingly preoccupied with "big questions" of a religious nature, his mother testified. His mother and doctor described Mr. Doe as "effeminate" and "depressed."

He was working as a paperboy with his older brother when he first met Fr. O'Dell in the front yard of the rectory. The boy "stopped to talk on two or three occasions, and the conversation ranged over God and heaven and what heaven was like," the judge wrote.

Mr. Doe convinced his parents to send him to the new Catholic school in town, where Fr. O'Dell taught. He went to a different school in Grade 7 and 8, but continued to see Fr. O'Dell in religious classes. The abuse began in private meetings with sexual touching and threats that failing to obey the priest would send the boy to Hell.

Soon, though, the priest forced Mr. Doe to indulge elaborate fantasies, dressing the boy up in the white gown of an altar boy, naked underneath. The priest would photograph him and call him his "little angel." When the boy showed Fr. O'Dell some photos of himself with a girl, the priest became enraged and threatened to show Mr. Doe's family sexually explicit photos of the boy.

Mr. Doe testified he recalled being drugged into unconsciousness by Fr. O'Dell, enduring sodomy, and once waking up on a couch in the middle of the abuse with the crucifix.

The abuse stopped after Grade 9, when Mr. Doe transferred to a public school and stopped seeing Fr. O'Dell.

The priest remained active in the diocese until 1990, when his first victim complained to the diocese and he was sent to a New Mexico treatment facility. In 1992, he was sentenced to six months in prison for these earlier abuses, and has not been in active service since.


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