Abuse Victims Fed Up With Church

October 7, 2008

By: Jane Sims, London Free Press

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LONDON -- Two years ago, Charles Sylvestre's victims watched their abuser priest be taken away to prison.

Their hope was the next part of their healing journey would not be as painful -- but many women are still waiting for their civil claims to be settled.

Yesterday, several women spoke out at a Chatham news conference that they are tired of waiting for the cases to be completed.

"What could be more important to the church than helping those victimized by their own priest?" said LouAnn Soontiens, 51.

"Help us now, not later."

Sylvestre was convicted of 47 counts of sexual abuse involving girls in his parishes in Sarnia, London, Windsor, Chatham and Pain Court. He was sentenced to three years and died after three months in prison.

There have been 78 women who have filed civil claims against the church. Thirty have been settled.

Unlike other civil litigations that can take years to be completed, Sylvestre's victims put their faith in Diocese of London Bishop Ronald Fabbro who promised to settle the cases quickly.

"I think what the women are emphasizing is they were under the belief and understanding from what Bishop Fabbro said was that this wouldn't be typical," said Rob Talach, lawyer for Ledroit Beckett. who has settled 16 cases and has 16 cases left outstanding.

"This would be different, this would be fast, this would be compassionate and they are just not feeling it."

The process hit an unexpected roadblock this summer when the diocese's lawyer, Peter Lauwers, was appointed a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice.

"We were glad for Peter but disappointed the process got derailed, said Mark Adkinson, spokesperson for the diocese. New lawyers are on board.

The cases have often dragged because of scheduling issues between all parties.

"I know it is a priority for the diocese to settle with all the victims as quickly as possible," he said.

One woman said she cancelled her honeymoon in August to make a mediation date -- only to have it cancelled because of Lauwers' judicial appointment.

"It's like a dark cloud hanging over your head," said Joanne Sullivan, 45, who married on Aug. 23.

Mary Leslie, 50, from Port Lambton, came forward in the days before Sylvestre pleaded guilty, but too late to be part of the criminal prosecution.

She said delays in the civil process have left her angry enough to consider protesting a bishop's banquet in Windsor at the end of the month.

"We are fed up. Enough is enough. We're done. They've hurt us enough," she said.

Karen Schram, 47, of Chatham, said the diocese was negligent when it protected Sylvestre throughout his career and is negligent now by delaying settlements.

"It just seems to me that they're trying to drag it on and drag it on so people will become frustrated and just take anything just to be done with it," she said.

Soontiens said while they suffer, the women are hearing comments from the community they are responsible for the closing of parishes.

Adkinson said the comments are not based on fact.

"Parish reorganization was in process before everything with Father Charles Sylvestre came out."

Soontiens, who was impregnated by the priest, said her frustration has reached a boiling point.

She has a trial date set for May.

"I'm fighting them all the way," she said. "I'm going to make sure everybody knows what they have done."

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