Activist files lawsuit alleging childhood sexual abuse by St. John's priest

“I was a child when I met this priest. To me he was like God," says Gemma Hickey

'I was a child when I met this priest. To me he was like God,' says Gemma Hickey

Gemma Hickey says it was important they go public with the lawsuit. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

As an advocate for victims of sexual abuse for more than a decade, Gemma Hickey says they had a lot to consider by putting their name on a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John's and Father Denis Walsh.

When allegations of sexual abuse are made, those making the claims usually remain anonymous, but Hickey says they did not want to use a pseudonym, even though that comes with risks.

"The cost of staying silent is too great for me," said Hickey. 

"The institutional response from the church has led me to where I am today. It's a very painful process," said Hickey, who added they want justice for the abuse they endured as a child.

Hickey was raised as a Roman Catholic in St. John's and attended church and church events at several parishes in the city.

In their statement of claim, Hickey alleges that during that time Father Denis Walsh engaged them in, among other acts, inappropriate touching and grooming, that he forced Hickey to masturbate him, and that he fondled their breasts underneath their clothing.

A young Hickey receives communion. (Submitted by Gemma Hickey)

Hickey said they were vulnerable, having grown up with an alcoholic father whom their mother left because of his drinking and because of their gender dysphoria from a young age.

"I was a child when I met this priest. To me he was like God. I went to church and he was the person I told everything to. I told him about my struggles with sexuality, my struggles with gender identity," said Hickey.

Hickey has been part of the national campaign to identify credibly accused clergy. Those are cases where, although there has not been a conviction, the church acknowledges abuse took place. The Catholic Church has still not released those names.

Hickey dealt with gender dysphoria from a young age. (Submitted by Gemma Hickey)

"I've tried to work with the church," said Hickey. "I've been to Rome, I've met with cardinals, I've met with the highest officials within the church in this country, I've met with local bishops. Yet nothing has happened."

Hickey's lawyer, Will Hiscock, says the claims against the church and clergy are serious allegations of molestation and egregious sexual crimes.

"The abuse of a priest has a particularly damaging impact on a person and it does form part of this case as well," said Hiscock, a lawyer with Budden & Associates, which has spent decades representing victims of sexual abuse by clergy, including the Mount Cashel case, which they won in the Supreme Court of Canada.

Hickey alleges they've endured physical and mental pain, suffering and anguish as a result of the abuse. (Submitted by Gemma Hickey)

In their statement of claim, Hickey alleges abuse they suffered at the hands of Walsh has resulted in serious psychological suffering, including physical and mental pain, impairment of their mental health and well-being, suicidal ideation and loss of faith.

"It's framed my entire adult life. It's followed me into my relationships and into everything that I've done," said Hickey

Hickey's allegations have not been proven in court. 

In a statement to CBC News, the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John, Peter Hundt, said, "We continue to work with counsel for all the claimants to ensure a fair and fulsome process. To ensure we maintain that process, we will not be commenting on individual claims."

Hickey was raised Roman Catholic in St. John's, and attended church and church events at several parishes in the city. (Submitted by Gemma Hickey)

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Chris O'Neill-Yates

National Reporter

Chris O'Neill-Yates is an investigative journalist and senior reporter for CBC News.