The Supreme Court of Canada has dismissed a Roman Catholic diocese’s appeal of a May 2020 decision from Ontario’s top court that allowed a woman who was sexually abused by a priest as a child to sue the church for a second time.
The court’s decision on Thursday means that Irene Deschenes can now go ahead with her $4.83-million civil suit.
“It’s not too late for the Roman Catholic Church to do the right thing and support my healing process,” Deschenes said at a virtual event following the decision.
“It’s too late to take back the re-victimization I have endured over the decades, including having to go through appeal after appeal. But it’s not too late to move forward from here with actions that offer justice, compassion or the Christianity that the church purports is their practice.”
Deschenes initially filed a lawsuit in 1996, alleging she was sexually abused by Father Charles Sylvestre in the early 1970s in Chatham, Ont., and that the London diocese failed to prevent it.
She settled out of court after the diocese maintained it didn’t know of any concerns about the priest until the late 1980s, but it later came to light that the diocese received police statements in 1962, alleging the priest had assaulted three girls.
“The Supreme Court decision is final in terms of the issue of whether the previous settlement was binding. The court has implicitly affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, saying Irene should not be bound by a settlement based on a misrepresentation to her by the church,” Deschenes’ lawyer Loretta Merritt explained.
Merritt says Thursday’s development is “only the beginning.”
“Where we are now, from a legal perspective, is that Irene’s previous settlement has been set aside and she now has a right to sue the church for the damage that she suffered as a result of being sexually abused by Sylvestre as when she was a child,” Merritt said.
“We hope that the church will do the right thing and make a reasonable offer to settle Irene’s case.”
Deschenes said what happens next is up to the church.
“And if they had any care and compassion for the victims they created, they’d be on the phone with (my lawyer) Loretta by the end of the day.”
In a statement, the diocese of London said it was “disappointed” by the Supreme Court decision, adding that it doesn’t believe knowledge of the 1962 police report would have made a “material difference” in the settlement Deschenes previously accepted.
It also stressed that the court has held that the issue of the police report was an “innocent misrepresentation” on the part of the diocese.
“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,” the diocese said.
“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 diocese added that “with hindsight,” it regrets not removing Sylvestre “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 behaviour and its impact was historically misunderstood.”
Court documents show that in 2006, Sylvestre pleaded guilty to having sexually assaulted 47 girls under the age of 18, including Deschenes.
— with files from The Canadian Press’ Paola Loriggio.