Woman Sues over Abuse Complaint from 1970s
By Susan Gamble
September 5, 2003
A Simcoe woman has gone public with her lawsuit against the Roman Catholic church and the local separate school board.
Donna Dempsey, speaking at a media conference on Thursday, revealed details of a three-year relationship with the late Father Patrick Mackan, just after his tenure as principal of St. John’s College from 1968 to 1971.
Dempsey said she found the courage to go public with her story after seeing The Expositor’s coverage of a lawsuit that involved St. John’s College in the 1970s.
“It wasn’t until I saw those two former students come forward and I realized that that was the same time it was happening to me,” she said Thursday. “Then I got really angry.”
In a lawsuit filed in April 2002, Dempsey is seeking damages of $3 million for sexual assault and battery, harassment, mental and emotional suffering, breach of fiduciary duty and punitive damages. The lawsuit names the Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk Catholic School Board, the Hamilton diocese of the Roman Catholic church and the Congregation of the Resurrection. It does not name Mackan because he died in 1990 in his mid-60s.
In statements of defence, filed in the spring of 2002, the Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk Catholic District School Board, the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of the Diocese of Hamilton and the Congregation of the Resurrection all deny any knowledge of the allegations and any liability in the case. Each organization has also filed a cross claim, pointing any blame at the other defendants.
In her statement of claim, which has not been proven in court, Dempsey alleges that in 1972 she was connected to Mackan, who had recently been promoted from his job as principal at St. John’s College.
Dempsey statement of claim said she had previously been violently raped in Toronto by another man and she says Mackan urged her to see her pregnancy to term. The statement says Mackan promised to support Dempsey emotionally, financially, educationally and spiritually until the birth, even arranging for her to move to a house for unwed mothers in Hamilton.
But under the guise of counselling and guidance, Mackan removed the teen from the home both during days and at times, overnight, and drew her into sexual touching, masturbation and, eventually, intercourse, the statement says.
“He convinced me the best thing I could do for my unborn baby was to let the baby know that there was a father,” Dempsey said Thursday during the news conference. “He was willing to break his vow of celibacy just to help my unborn baby and me. I was 17 years old and he was 48 years old. I was naive and I believed he had my best interests at heart.”
The teen gave birth to twins, from the rape by the unnamed man, in the spring of 1973.
Dempsey claimed the relationship with Mackan continued, with numerous sexual encounters, until December 1975.
“There were mornings I would get up, after spending the weekend with him, and watch him say mass and have to see him at the altar,” Dempsey said.
“Even though I consider myself a very spiritual person, I haven’t been able to come to terms with the church. I can’t step inside a church without feeling sick.”
As a result of the relationship, Dempsey’s claim says she has suffered in numerous ways, including a loss of faith, problems with clergy and stress-related fibromyalgia.
The school board’s defence includes a statement that notes that, with the passage of almost 30 years, the death of Patrick Mackan and the loss of some records, it is difficult for the board to “satisfy itself” in regards to the allegations.
“On the best evidence available,” says the defence statement, “Mackan was not employed by the St. John’s College Private School in 1972 when the relationship between he and the plaintiff is alleged to have commenced.”
Education director Theresa Harris said in an interview Thursday that the time issues reflect the concern the board has with Dempsey’s statement.
“We don’t want to be seen as silencing a victim -- that’s not our intent,” said Harris, “but there are things being said that are not validated in any way. There’s been no hearing, no time in court.”
A spokesman for the Hamilton diocese said Thursday that Mackan was under the direction and responsibility of the Congregation of Resurrection, a group of Catholic priests with a special interest in education. As far as the diocese is concerned, the critical issue is to find the truth of the story, Monsignor Harvey Roach said.
“We want to reach the truth of the allegations and respond in justice. We want to be open,” said the monsignor.
“The bishop (who oversees this diocese) is very forthright in person and in dealings and will do everything in his power to see how the diocese is involved and to reach a just conclusion.”
A spokesperson for the Congregation of Resurrection could not be reached for comment.
Dempsey’s lawyer, Deborah Ditchfield, said the next step is for the parties to move into the discovery process.
Ditchfield said the purpose of Thursday’s news conference was not to litigate through the media or rustle up other potential victims, but to go public with the fact of this kind of sexual abuse in Canada.
“It was Donna reading another case of two young women that gave her the courage to speak out,” said Ditchfield.
The logistics of creating a case with evidence that’s almost 30 years old and an alleged perpetrator who has been dead for 13 years are difficult, Ditchfield admitted, but she said it will be fought with Dempsey's evidence.
“I kept journals,” said Dempsey. “I spoke to friends and eventually I saw a counsellor and we have the records from that counsellor. I also have photos of places he (Mackan) took me.”
Dempsey said meeting the man who became her husband, Brian Dempsey, gave her the strength to eventually cut her ties with Mackan.
The couple have been married 26 years and live in Simcoe. She has since been reunited with one of the twins she gave birth to in the 1970s as a result of the rape. The other has died.
Dempsey said the effort of going public with her story and the stress of making her announcement have taken its toll.
“I’m now on medical leave from my job.”
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