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Sex abuse survivor urges Catholic diocese to drop Supreme Court appeal at silent vigil

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TORONTO —
A woman who was sexually abused by a priest as a child has taken her decades-long legal fight with the Roman Catholic Church to its front steps as she urges the London, Ont. diocese to drop its Supreme Court appeal against her.

Irene Deschenes was abused by Father Charles Sylvestre for two agonizing years that began when she was just 10 years old, at St. Ursula Catholic School in Chatham, Ont.

Deschenes said Sylvestre was friendly at first, taking her and other children for bowling outings and to the beach, but things turned sinister quickly.

“I remember a nice, caring man that was friendly, funny,” Deschenes told CTV News. “Now in hindsight, I see that was all grooming.”

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In 2006 and decades after the abuse, Sylvestre pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 47 children in parishes across southern Ontario. He died in prison a year later.

Deschenes settled with the church for $66,000 after lawyer’s fees, but later found out the church knew about allegations concerning Sylvestre’s conduct for almost a decade prior to Deschenes’ abuse, without divulging this information to her.

Police reports dating back to 1962 had alleged that Sylvestre assaulted three young girls. The documents show the young girls — one of them 11 years old — alleged Sylvestre touched them inappropriately and exposed himself to them.

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As a result, Deschenes is trying to reopen her case.

“Their failure to act on the statements back then is what allowed Irene to be abused in the first place,” said Deschenes’ lawyer Loretta Merritt.

Ontario’s lower courts have all ruled that she can reopen the settlement, but the church continues to appeal the decision, which is now under consideration at the Supreme Court of Canada.

“I’m just one little person,” Deschenes said. “Why are they taking me to the Supreme Court of Canada when I did nothing wrong? And something that happened to me when I was a little girl.”

“I’m pissed off. I’m pissed off because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

This year’s annual vigil for the survivors of sex abuse at the Catholic Church was cancelled because of COVID-19, but it didn’t stop Deschenes, who instead held a smaller demonstration on Tuesday. Deschenes and a handful of supporters took turns standing silently along the pathway to the St. Peter’s Basilica in downtown London.

The Catholic Diocese of London declined to comment on the legal situation as it’s before the courts, but did acknowledge Deschenes’ demonstration, saying the church respects “her right to peacefully gather with her supporters outside of our churches.”

The Catholic Diocese of London’s spokesperson Matthew Clarke also forwarded a previous statement from when the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which notes that it believes the church has “treated victims with the empathy and respect needed to help them receive justice and begin the healing process.”

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“Being fair and just means that settlements are reached based on the specific circumstances of each individual case, including that of Irene Deschenes,” the statement reads. “The Diocese believes there are important legal issues that need to the considered by the Supreme Court.”

Meanwhile, another one of Sylvestre’s victims believes the church is simply trying to prevent large payouts.

“They will stop at nothing to protect the old boys’ club,” said Joanne Morrison.

Morrison said Sylvestre began abusing her when she was just eight years old.

“We got abused regularly: weekly, daily some of us,” she said. “He could walk into any classroom and point a finger … and off we’d go. No one did anything to protect us.”

With files The Canadian Press

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