Survivor of Catholic priest Charles Sylvestre's abuse aims to re-open civil lawsuit
By Jane Sims
September 24, 2018
|Irene Deschenes wants a judge to re-open her civil settlement after evidence was discovered that the Catholic Church knew about the sexual abuse of girls by Charles Sylvestre as early as 1962.|
Photo by Derek Ruttan
Irene Deschenes watched her former parish priest, her abuser, be led from the Chatham courtroom in disgrace for decades of sexually abusing girls.
With her was a room full of other survivors of Charles Sylvestre’s depravity, brought together largely because of Deschene’s persistence and determination to bring him to justice.
That might have been the end, the final moment for her in the summer of 2006.
It was a startling discovery two months later of long-lost 1962 Sarnia police reports investigating Sylvestre’s abuse of girls, that meant the long and painful journey wasn’t over.
“That’s when the light bulb went on,” she said. “That’s the evidence. That’s the proof they knew.”
Twelve years later, the 57-year-old survivor of sexual abuse will be back in a London courtroom on Friday for what could be a ground-breaking and historic move to bring the Roman Catholic Diocese of London to account for keeping Sylvestre working as a priest while knowing he was molesting girls.
Deschenes has filed a motion to re-open the settlement of her civil claim she signed in 2000, long before Sylvestre was charged and convicted.
On Friday, her lawyer, Loretta Merritt, plans to argue the settlement needs to be set aside because those police reports were never disclosed to Deschenes when she filed, then settled, her suit.
“She understood and they told her that they didn’t know Sylvestre was a child molester until the late 80s or early 90s, long after she was abused, so they had no way to know and couldn’t have done anything to stop him,” Merritt said.
If successful, Deschenes could re-open her lawsuit, which Merritt said would be precedent setting.
“I’m not aware of any other case where a settlement entered into with the church has been set aside based on this kind of non-disclosure,” said Merritt, who has 25 years working with sexual abuse cases.
The Diocese of London declined to comment. Spokesperson Nelson Couto said on the weekend the diocese doesn’t comment on active cases before the courts.
Ground-breaking is nothing new for Deschenes. Since disclosing Sylvestre’s abuses to the church in 1992, she’s been dogged in her quest to find out why the church protected priests over children.
Deschenes became one of Sylvestre’s victims starting when she was 10 until she was 12. She has a photo of herself, “a good Catholic girl” smiling and folding bulletins in St. Ursula’s rectory in Chatham where she was repeatedly molested.
She was a married, 31-year-old mother when she met with the head of the diocese’s sexual abuse committee. He was a priest wearing a collar. She had flashbacks. She wouldn’t take off her coat. “I was 12 years old all over again,” she said.
Deschenes said she could only tell them she was abused in Chatham. “Was it Father Sylvestre?” she was asked, before being told there had been one other complainant who didn’t need counselling, but it was available if she wanted it.
“I thought they would be as outraged and shocked as I was,” she said.
Deschenes felt alone and – after then the local church came out in support of another priest charged with sexual misconduct but with no clear explanation as to his innocence – that the church didn’t believe her. She decided to place ads in the Windsor Star, the Chatham Daily News and The London Free Press asking if there were people who remembered Sylvestre and promised confidentiality.
Most responses were from Sylvestre’s fans. But Deschenes also received letters from women who also were victims like her.
One of them was Joanne Morrison and they filed a civil suit against the church “because they were stonewalling us. They weren’t acting very Christian-like. They weren’t very compassionate or caring.”
“Shouldn’t they say that was wrong, that should never have happened to you and this is what we’re going to do to fix it? Instead they said to me me: ‘Prove it.’ I didn’t have any proof. They had all the proof,” she said.
Deschenes settled the suit and signed a confidentiality agreement in 2000. Four years later, in a Canadian first, the diocese agreed to drop the gag order, allowing her to talk freely about her ordeal.
That’s when she went to the Chatham police and filed a criminal complaint against Sylvestre. She brought with her boxes full of clippings and letters from other victims.
As the investigation rolled on, the number of charges increased steadily. Sylvestre ended up pleading guilty to 47 counts of indecent assault of little girls when he was priest in Chatham, Sarnia, Windsor, Pain Court and London, launching scores of civil suits. He died in prison in early 2007 at age 84, just months into his three-year sentence.
The Sarnia police reports were found two months after Sylvestre’s sentencing. The diocese said they were stuck in the back of a filing cabinet in the accounting department. Included was an interview with one girl who described how Sylvestre “put his thing on me.”
No charges were laid in Sarnia at that time. Sylvestre was sent to Montreal for counselling, then re-assigned to another parish.
The possibility of Deschene’s suit being reopened was referred to Merritt a decade ago and it’s been a slog to get it before a judge.
“It took us years to negotiate the agreed statement of facts, it took us years to get the cross-examinations done. It’s been a long road for sure,” Merritt said.
But that preliminary works means the case goes before a judge on the narrow motion instead of a trial.
And, Deschenes finds herself at a different stage in her life. She has a strong network of support. Standing up has come with a cost to her personal life, but she is working full-time and pushing forward.
“What happened to me when I was a little girl was so wrong, but I’m okay. I worked through that with my counselling. I’ve worked through that.”
There are still triggers. The recent news out of Pennsylvania and the 300 “predator priests” in six dioceses was traumatizing. “That day I was paralyzed. I couldn’t get off my couch…. I reached out to every survivor friend that I know.”
But unlike the 1990s, “I allowed myself to feel that and to go through it and remind myself I don’t want to go back there.”
Going back to court, she said, isn’t as much about her as it is about what’s happened with the long list of priests charged, convicted or sued for sexual misconduct and around the world in places like Pennsylvania, Boston, Spain, Ireland and Chile.
“Every single country and they all have the same playbook. They get in trouble, they cover it up, they move them out and they pay off the victim. They pay us for our silence. Nobody can give me enough money to pay for my silence,” Deschenes said.
“This is why this civil suit needs to be re-opened so we can expose what the Diocese of London has done, that they covered it up and that they misrepresent themselves and made mistakes.”
She said she was troubled both by Bishop Ronald Fabbro’s homily about Pennsylvania and recent cuts by the diocese to funding for counselling for victims of sexual abuse by priests.
What happens to victims, she said, when they are abused, is “soul murder.”
To survive, Deschenes said, victims need to surround themselves with personal and professional support. If they want to take the criminal or civil route, “I want to tell them to talk to somebody whose been through it, so they know exactly what to expect.”
She said she is more prepared this time to start down the civil suit road.
“I had to do what I had to do. That’s who I am at my core. Maybe that was a Christian value that was taught to me. How ironic is that?”