London Diocese takes child sexual abuse settlement challenge to Supreme Court

The Catholic Diocese of London is taking its fight against Irene Deschenes to the Supreme Court of Canada. Deschenes is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by Father Charles Sylvestre in Chatham between 1971 and 1973. She was 10 years old when it started.

Irene Deschenes was abused as a child by Father Charles Sylvestre in Chatham

Irene Deschenes at about 11 years old. (submitted by Irene Deschenes)

The Catholic Diocese of London is taking its fight against Irene Deschenes to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Deschenes was sexually abused by Father Charles Sylvestre between 1971 and 1973, while she was a student at St. Ursula Catholic School and a member of his parish in Chatham, Ont. She was 10 years old when it started. 

Deschenes reported the abuse in 1992 and filed a lawsuit four years later. She reached a financial settlement with the Diocese in 2000 believing church officials did not know Father Sylvestre was preying on young girls. 

He pleaded guilty in August 2006 to sexual assaults involving 47 victims, including Deschenes. All the girls were under the age of 18. Sylvestre died in jail in 2007. 

"On assurance from the Diocese of London that it had no information or knowledge that the priest had engaged in sexual abuse of other girls prior to the time Irene was so abused in 1971, Irene accepted an out-of-court settlement," reads a statement released Wednesday by the group Advocates for Clergy Trauma Survivors in Canada (ACTS-Canada).

History discovered

In 2006, it came to light that the Diocese had received police reports in 1962 detailing allegations against Sylvestre of sexual abuse involving three young girls.

Irene Deschenes will now have to wait for a decision from the Supreme Court of Canada on whether her settlement can be reopened. (submitted by Irene Deschenes)

That prompted Deschenes to go back to court to reopen her settlement. 

"This revelation (the 1962 police reports) contradicted the information that Ms. Deschenes relied upon during negotiations for settlement with the Diocese," said the ACTS-Canada statement.

A judge agreed that her case should be reopened, but the Diocese fought back, taking the case to the Ontario Court of Appeal. 

In May, the Diocese lost its case, leading the way for Deschenes to move forward with her suit.

Instead, her fight continues. The Diocese is now seeking leave to appeal the Ontario Court of Appeal decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"I'm very disappointed that, once again, the Diocese of London continues to bully victims into submission," said Deschenes, in a written statement.

"Being abused as a little girl by a Roman Catholic priest was harmful enough. That the Diocese continues to use all its vast resources to continue to legally bully me is very painful. I recognize that they have a right to legally defend themselves, but is it the right thing to do?" 

Diocese defends its decision 

Officials with the Diocese of London issued a written statement a full week after filing the appropriate paperwork to seek leave for appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, and a day after Deschenes went public with her concerns about the ongoing court battle. 

"The Diocese of London continues to offer our prayers and support to victims of clerical abuse. In all cases we believe we have treated victims with the empathy and respect needed to help them receive justice and begin the healing process. Being fair and just means that settlements are reached based on the specific circumstances of each individual case, including that of Irene Deschenes. The Diocese believes there are important legal issues that need to be considered by the Supreme Court.  The Diocese is very much aware of its responsibility to be a good steward of the resources entrusted to it.  Because this matter is before the courts, no further comment is possible at this time."

Deschenes offered one line in reaction to the statement.

"In pursuing a further appeal the Diocese is trying to protect its own interests, not help victims," she said.