Judge grants sex abuse survivor's bid to re-open settlement in civil case against Catholic church

A judge has set aside an 18-year-old settlement in a child sex abuse civil case against the Diocese of London, saying the church failed to disclose key information that would have shaped the victim's settlement.

Judge says church made a 'material misrepresentation' by mishandling police reports about abuse

A judge has set aside a settlement child sexual abuse survivor Irene Deschenes signed with the London Diocese in 2000. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

In a rare legal decision, a judge has set aside an 18-year-old settlement in a civil lawsuit that child sexual abuse survivor Irene Deschenes signed with the Diocese of London, saying the church failed to disclose key information about previous sexual assault allegations that would have drastically changed the terms of the settlement. 

"I think justice has been served," said Deschenes, 57, at a news conference announcing the decision Thursday. "This might be the first step in a longer road to go down. But it feels good to be successful in my bid to re-open my civil suit."

Deschenes was abused by Father Charles Sylvestre between 1970 and 1973 while she was a young girl and a student at St. Ursula Catholic School and parishioner of the parish in Chatham, Ont. 

Sylvestre pleaded guilty in August 2006 to sexual assaults of 47 victims, all girls under the age of 18. The abuse happened between 1952 and 1986. Sylvestre died in prison in 2007. 

Deschenes started a legal action against the diocese in 1996. At the time, the church argued it had no direct knowledge that Sylvestre was a sexual predator of children, saying the church only became aware of his actions in 1989. 

Based on this information, Deschenes settled with the diocese in 2000 for $100,000. 

3 reports filed to Sarnia police

Then in December 2006, it came to light that in 1962 police in Sarnia, Ont., had taken reports from three 11-year-old girls in the company of their parents. The girls alleged Sylvestre sexually assaulted them. Police took no action but gave copies of the witness statements to the local church, which is part of the London diocese.

The statements were forwarded to a bishop who died a year later. According to information included in Justice David Aston's decision, the police interview summaries were discovered by Bishop Fabbro's executive assistant in December 2000, just months after Sylvestre was sentenced. They had "been misfiled with old accounting records." The reports were then sent to all lawyers representing Sylvestre's victims. 

In his six-page decision, Justice Aston said the church's failure to disclose those police reports "was a material misrepresentation and it was relied upon by the plaintiff in her decision to settle as she did."

"The plaintiff would not have settled as she did in the fall of 2000 if they had known about the 1962 police reports," the judge's statement says.

Justice Aston also wrote that setting aside a settlement isn't a decision the court takes lightly and only happens when "there is a compelling reason."

At a news conference on Thursday, Deschenes said that by mishandling the police reports, the Catholic church failed to protect her and other children from Sylvestre. 

"If the church had done what they were legally bound to do, Sylvestre would have been stopped from creating more victims," she said.

Deschenes said the church has repeatedly failed to put the rights of victims first when faced with charges of sexual abuse. 

"It's never about the victims," she said. "Or about how they feel, what happened to them or what's needed to help them heal."

Another trial now possible

Deschenes's lawyer Loretta Merritt said the diocese now has 15 days to file an appeal of Justice Aston's decision to set aside the 2000 settlement. 

If the diocese doesn't appeal, Deschenes intends to start a new civil action to pursue new damages. 

The diocese may offer a settlement. If that doesn't happen, Merritt estimates a new trial could take between two and four years to reach a conclusion. 

Contacted by CBC News Thursday, London Archdiocese spokesperson Nelson Couto​ would not say how the church plans to respond to the judge's decision.

"We don't comment on a case that's active before the courts," he said. 

You can read the judge's decision below:

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Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.