Clergy sex abuse survivor Irene Deschenes co-founds new group to help victims

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

November 19, 2023

Group wants federal government to take a role in investigating complaints of abuse

A London, Ont., woman who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest is now heading a new organization aimed at delivering speedier justice for victims.

This month, Irene Deschenes helped found Outrage Canada, a national non-religious advocacy group with a mandate to hold the church accountable for sexual abuse by the clergy.

The group proposes the federal government set up a national reporting centre to gather and investigate reports of clergy abuse. Deschenes said the current system re-victimizes people who file abuse allegations with the church.

“Right now, for folks their knee-jerk reaction is to go right to the institution that harmed them,” she said. “Priests and bishops, they’re not trained to investigate crimes.”

Deschenes said the Catholic Church can’t be trusted to investigate itself, and that it has a poor record of working with police to investigate sexual abuse by clergy.

Deschenes reported being sexually abused by Father Charles Sylvestre in 1994. He later pleaded guilty to abusing 47 girls when he worked as a priest in Southwestern Ontario. He died in prison.

In 2000, Deschenes settled a lawsuit with the dioceses for damages she suffered at the hands Sylvestre. The church claimed it didn’t know Sylvestre was a predator when he was transferred to Deschenes’ parish in the early 1970s.

However, Deschenes found documents that proved church officials did know about Sylvestre’s predatory behaviour as far back as the 1960s, and she has sought to reopen the lawsuit because the settlement was reached based on misrepresentation by the church. The Catholic diocese has fought the woman’s claim through every level of the court system.

In 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with Deschenes, setting aside an appeal application by the church. That decision effectively forced both sides to negotiate a settlement, which was reached in 2021 after two days of mediation. 

Deschenes was seeking for $4.83 million in damages. Details of the settlement were not disclosed.

Father John Comiskey of the London diocese said by email they are  “committed to ensuring justice for victims of clergy sexual abuse by our priests.”

“We are committed to provide a safe environment for all who come to our churches, and the prevention of any further abuse,” Comiskey said in an email.

Reaching the final settlement came only after a years-long ordeal Deschenes would like to spare other surviors.

“That’s why we’re hoping that there will be a national, independent reporting agency so that someone independent can be involved in the reporting,” she said.