Sexual abuse survivor uses vigil to pressure Catholic Diocese to end legal battle

Irene Deschenes, who survived childhood sexual abuse by a local priest, used a vigil on Tuesday to call on the Catholic Diocese of London to drop its appeal in a decades-long legal battle.

Irene Deschenes was abused as a child by now-deceased Rev. Charles Sylvestre

Irene Deschenes stands outside St. Peter's Basilica where she and other sexual abuse survivors protested all day Tuesday. She says they are challenging the Diocese to treat survivors with dignity and compassion, not legal battles. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News)

Irene Deschenes, who survived childhood sexual abuse by a local priest, is calling on the Catholic Diocese of London to drop its appeal in what has been a decades-long legal battle.

"We're challenging the diocese to do more, to treat us with more care and compassion when we come forward and not to call their lawyers when victims do come forward," said Descehens.

Deschenes and her supporters gathered outside of St. Peter's Basilica in downtown London for a vigil Tuesday.

The vigil comes almost a month after Deschenes learned the diocese was appealing an Ontario Court of Appeal decision in her favour to the Supreme Court of Canada. The lower court decision allows her to reopen a civil settlement she reached with the church for the abuses she faced as a child.

Deschenes says she feels re-victimized by the process which has dragged on for decades. 

"I want to stand strong for other survivors to let them know that there is justice and we can find it together," she said. 

"It's not easy to go public. Most survivors do not go public. But I started this and I think I should see it to the end."

Irene Deschenes, who survived childhood sexual abuse by a local priest, says she is standing strong for herself and for all other survivors. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News)

A decades-long battle

Father Charles Sylvestre 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. 

In Deschenes' case, she was sexually abused between 1971 and 1973, while she was a student at St. Ursula Catholic School and a member of Sylvestre's parish in Chatham, Ont. She was 10 when it started.

"To be sexually abused as a child is traumatizing enough. It changes who you are for sure," said Deschenes. "But to be sexually abused by your parish priest just adds another layer in and I don't think the church understands that piece."

She reported the abuse in 1992 and was able to reach a financial settlement with the diocese in 2000, believing church officials did not know Father Sylvestre was preying on young girls.

In 2006, it became clear that the diocese had received police reports as far back as 1962 detailing allegations against Sylvestre of sexual abuse involving three young girls. This prompted Deschenes to go back to court to reopen her settlement.

An Ontario judge agreed her case could be reopened, but the diocese fought back, taking the case to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

In May, the diocese lost that appeal, clearing the way for Deschenes to move forward with her suit.

Then in August, the diocese said it would appeal the Ontario Court of Appeal decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Diocese welcomes prayers for victims of abuse 

Tuesday's vigil, organized by Deschenes, coincides with the diocese's own annual mass for victims and survivors of sexual abuse, which falls on Sept. 15 — the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, in the Catholic calendar. 

In a news release from the diocese, Rev. John P. Comiskey invited people to pray for victims and survivors of abuse. 

"For all those wounded by abuse and for their loved ones, especially those separated from their faith-communities: May they find peace, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. May their faith and trust be restored, and may they not be inhibited from turning back to the church when in need. We pray to the Lord," reads the prayer.

Deschenes said prayers are not enough. She says the diocese needs to provide victims with support.

It's been 28 years since Irene Deschenes began her fight for justice. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News)

When CBC London reached out to Matthew Clarke, a spokesperson for the Diocese of London, he said the diocese was aware of Deschenes' vigil "and respect her right to peacefully gather with her supporters outside of our churches."

Clarke also shared the same statement the diocese released after the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

"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 Roman Catholic Diocese of London stretches across southwestern Ontario, with an estimated 450,000 Catholics attending its churches.