Supreme Court sides with London, Ont., woman suing Catholic church

The Supreme Court of Canada has sided with Irene Deschenes, the London, Ont., woman who is trying to open her civil suit against the Diocese of London, which she says knew about claims against a local priest who sexually abused her far earlier than officials claimed.

Irene Deschenes reported being sexually abused by Father Charles Sylvestre in 1994

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)

The Supreme Court of Canada has sided with Irene Deschenes, the London, Ont., woman trying to reopen her civil suit against the Diocese of London, which has tried to legally stop her for more than a decade. 

Thursday's dismissal of the diocese's appeal application marks the end of the legal road for the church, at least for now, and it means Deschenes and the church can begin renegotiating her claim. 

"It's in the hands of the church so we will see what will happen next. If they have any compassion for the victims they created, they'd be on the phone to us by the end of the day," said Deschenes at a virtual media conference after the ruling.

Diocese spokesperson Matthew Clarke said Bishop Ronald Fabbro will not be granting interviews about the matter, but in a statement said the organization is disappointed by the high court's decision. 

"We hope the resolution of these legal proceedings helps with the healing process for Ms. Deschenes. Having said that, we felt strongly that the facts of the case deserved to be presented in court," the statement issued by Clarke said. 

In 2000, Deschenes settled a lawsuit with the dioceses for damages she suffered at the hands of pedophile priest Charles Sylvestre. The church claimed it didn't know Sylvestre was a predator when he was transferred to Deschenes' parish in the early 1970s.

But Deschenes found documents that proved church officials did know about Sylvestre's predatory behaviour as far back as the 1960s, and she has sought to reopen the lawsuit because the settlement was reached based on misrepresentation by the church. The Catholic diocese has fought the woman's claim through every level of the court system. 

'Legal bullying'

Deschenes and her supporters characterize the diocese's unrelenting litigation against her as "legal bullying" that shows Fabbro and others have little regard to the feelings of victims of clergy abuse.

"They knew in 1962, 10 years before he got to Irene, that Charles Sylvestre was a threat to young girls. They failed to protect Irene from him, they failed all the other girls. That is not okay, it is not okay that she has to keep fighting so hard and so long for justice," said Michelle Schryer, executive director of the Chatham-Kent Sexual Assault Crisis Centre. 

Deschenes, her lawyer, and supporters, are urging the Catholic Diocese of London to begin negotiations about the settlement. Deschenes is asking for $4.83 million in damages. 

The diocese can still fight the lawsuit and ultimately take Deschenes to court. 

In today's statement, the diocese said "the settlement that was offered to Ms. Deschenes was fair and in line with the limited case law that existed at the time."

Deschenes reported being sexually abused by Father Charles Sylvestre in 1994. He later pleaded guilty to abusing 47 girls when he worked as a priest in Southwestern Ontario. He died in jail.

Deschenes reached a settlement with lawyers representing the diocese long before Sylvestre went to trial. But she now believes the agreement she signed was reached under false pretences, because the diocese claimed they had no knowledge of Sylvestre's sexual abuse. 

Court sides with survivor three times

Documents have surfaced since Deschenes' settlement that indicate the diocese did know about Sylvestre's sexual abuse years earlier. 

Thursday's decision is the third time the courts have sided with Deschenes. 

In 2018, the Ontario Court of Justice allowed her to reopen the civil case, but that was appealed by the diocese to the Ontario Court of Appeal. The diocese lost but appealed to the Supreme Court in August 2020, leading to Thursday's decision. 

Today the diocese said it regrets that Sylvester was not removed from active duty following the 1962 police report that prompted this case.

"This was a failing on our part even though the way it was handled was consistent with the way this type of behaviour and its impact was historically misunderstood," it said in a statement.