Even amid pandemic courage, abuse survivor’s bravery stands out

London Free Press

May 24, 2020

By Jane Sims

We’ve witnessed extraordinary acts of courage during the pandemic, from everyone from front-line health-care workers and grocery store employees to vaccine hunters and contact tracers.

A decision this week from the Ontario Court of Appeal is a reminder that courage doesn’t only show up during global crises. Sometimes the bravest people are in the middle of long, slow slogs.

Childhood sexual abuse survivor Irene Deschenes is one of the bravest people I know.

Ontario’s highest court dismissed the Roman Catholic Diocese of London’s appeal of a motion allowing Deschenes to reopen her 20-year-old civil settlement for what happened to her in the 1970s at the hands of predator parish priest Charles Sylvestre.

“She’s remarkable,” said her lawyer, Loretta Merritt. “The strength and conviction she has shown for these 20 years is inspiring. Her perseverance in the face of tremendous adversity is remarkable. “

Deschenes, 58, has said before she won’t stop until she holds the church and others accountable for how it treats survivors of sexual abuse.

I’ve known Deschenes for a long time. In 2006, I began covering Sylvestre’s shocking, persistent abuse of little girls over four decades in London, Windsor, Sarnia, Chatham and Pain Court parishes.

That case shaped my career covering the justice system. Many of the women were about my age. I saw myself in their old school photos, shown in a Chatham courtroom, when they were victimized from ages nine to 14. They gave a moving narrative about the long-term damage from childhood sexual abuse.

Deschenes, who was abused from ages 10 to 12, first went to the church to complain in 1992 when she was a married 31-year-old mom. The priest heading diocese’s sexual abuse committee offered counselling.

Convinced the church didn’t believe her, Deschenes placed ads in London, Windsor and Chatham newspapers asking for memories of Sylvestre. Many responses recalled him fondly, but a significant number were women who’d been abused just like her.

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