Supreme Court dismisses appeal by Catholic diocese, abuse survivor can reopen civil suit
LONDON, ONT. -- Irene Deschenes was 10 years old when she suffered abuse at the hands of Father Charles Sylvestre in the early 1970s, now decades later, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that she can reopen her civil suit.
In a decision handed down Thursday morning, the court dismissed an appeal from the Roman Catholic Diocese of London, upholding the decision of the lower courts.
Deschenes' abuse at the hands of Sylvestre lasted for two years at St. Ursula Catholic School in Chatham, Ont.
In 2000, Deschenes settled a civil suit with the Roman Catholic Diocese of London for $66,000 after lawyers fees.
Then in 2006, Sylvestre pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 47 children in parishes across southern Ontario. He died in prison a year later.
At that time it was revealed that the diocese had knowledge of allegations against Sylvestre a decade prior to Deschenes’ abuse. Police reports dating back to 1962 alleged that Sylvestre assaulted three young girls.
Deschenes and her lawyers say that information was never given to them and so she has been seeking to reopen her civil suit.
In 2018, an Ontario Court of Justice ruled in her favour, but the Diocese of London appealed the ruling to the Ontario Court of Appeal.
That ruling was upheld so the diocese appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. The highest court has now also upheld the ruling.
In September those taking part in a vigil outside of St. Peter’s Basilica in downtown London, Ont. urged the diocese to drop its appeal.
Speaking in a virtual media conference after the court's decision, Deschenes said, "You know it’s my hope that they will finally say ‘OK, this is as far as we can go in litigating this poor woman, and so time for mediation.'"
She says she, and her lawyers, will continue to pursue the civil suit, but are hoping to settle out of court.
"I’m one person. One woman standing up to the largest corporation in the world. I’m still here. I’m still waiting. It’s never too late for the Catholic Church and the Diocese of London to support me."
Deschenes is seeking $4.83 million in damages, as her lawyer Loretta Merritt explains, "For the harm that she suffered as a result of a lifetime of suffering since being abused."
The Diocese of London declined an interview request, but issued this statement after the Supreme Court decision:
"The Diocese of London is disappointed by the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to dismiss our leave to appeal Deschenes v. Lalonde. Throughout this process, and in every case where victims of clerical abuse are brought to our attention, we believe in treating victims with the empathy and respect needed to help them receive justice and begin the healing process.
"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. Our appeals were motivated by this belief, as well as our obligation to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us.
"The finding in the Ontario Superior Court’s decision in 2018 (upheld by the Court of Appeal in May 2020) was that the discovery of a police report from 1962 about Charles Sylvestre could have affected the amount Ms Deschenes would have accepted in her settlement. We believe that report would not have made a material difference to the final settlement. We also note that the court held that this was an “innocent misrepresentation” on the part of the Diocese.
"While there is no financial commitment that can erase the damage posed by sexual abuse, the settlement that was offered to Ms Deschenes was fair and in line with the limited case law that existed at the time.
"With hindsight, we regret that Charles Sylvestre was not removed from active ministry following the 1962 police report, as he would have been today. This was a failing on our part even though the way it was handled was consistent with the way this type of behavior and its impact was historically misunderstood.
"We continue to pray for the comfort and healing of all victims of clergy sexual abuse."
- With files from CTV's Bryan Bicknell and Justin Zadorsky