Supreme Court dismisses church appeal in historic sex abuse case

Irene Deschenes speaks to media via Zoom following the Supreme Court Ruling made February 11, 2021.

A woman sexually abused by a priest in Chatham decades ago says she’s hopeful the Diocese of London will show some compassion after the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the church’s appeal to reopen a settlement reached in 2000.

Irene Deschenes was sexually abused by Father Charles Sylvestre between 1971 and 1973 at St. Ursula School in Chatham. She was just 10-years-old when the abuse started. She filed a lawsuit against the Diocese in 1996 and, in 2000, reached a settlement after the Diocese said it was unaware of concerns about Sylvestre until the 1980s.

Deschenes filed a lawsuit to reopen the settlement after it came to light the Diocese was made aware of accusations against Sylvestre in 1962, 10 years before she was abused.

A lower court ruled the earlier settlement should be thrown out in light of the misrepresentation by the Diocese. The Diocese of London then attempted to appeal that decision and it was finally brought before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Canada announced Thursday morning that it was dismissing the appeal.

“I feel pretty optimistic that this is their last line of redress sort of speak, there are no more appeals,” said Deschenes. “It’s my hope that they will finally say ‘OK this is as far as we can go in litigating this poor woman so it’s time for mediation.'”

The lawsuit seeking damages for the harm that she suffered as a result of a lifetime of pain since being abused remains in place. It is now up to the Diocese of London whether it will settle out of court or move forward with civil court proceedings.

“It’s not too late for the Roman Catholic Church to do the right thing and support my healing process,” said Deschenes. “It’s too late to take back the revictimization I have endured over the decades including having to go through appeal after appeal, but it’s not too late to move forward from here with actions that offer justice, compassion, or the Christianity that the church purports is their practice.”

A statement from the Diocese of London said it is “disappointed” with the Supreme Court Ruling and that the previous settlement reached with Deschenes in 2000 was fair.

“While there is no financial commitment that can erase the damage posed by sexual abuse, the settlement that was offered to Ms Deschenes was fair and in line with the limited case law that existed at the time,” said the emailed statement from the Diocese.

The new lawsuit seeks $4.83 million in damages for the lifetime of suffering caused by the abuse.

“I’m tired. It’s in the hands of the church to decide what’s going to happen next and if they had any care or compassion for the victims they created they’d be on the phone with Loretta [Deschenes’ lawyer] by the end of the day,” said Deschenes

Deschenes’ lawyer Loretta Merritt said she is ready to pursue the lawsuit in court if necessary.

“I can’t imagine what possible justification the church would have now for not settling the case,” said Merritt. “Their liability and legal responsibility for Sylvester’s conduct is clear and undeniable.”

In its statement, the church maintains its belief that the 1962 report of Sylvester’s actions “would not have made a material difference” in the settlement reached with Deschenes in 2000.

“With hindsight, we regret that Charles Sylvestre was not removed from active ministry following the 1962 police report, as he would have been today. This was a failing on our part even though the way it was handled was consistent with the way this type of behavior and its impact was historically misunderstood,” said the Diocese of London in the statement.

Merritt said what happens from here on out and how quickly is in the hands of the church.

-with files from Paul Pedro