Avoid Trials, Says Abuse Survivor

April 26, 2011

By: Erica Bajer, Chatham Daily News

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After sitting through the three-week civil trial of a fellow pedophile priest survivor, Lou Ann Soontiens is disgusted by the process.

"She was on trial," Soontiens said of Kelly Murphy-Myers, who sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of London for the abuse she suffered at the hands of Father Charles Sylvestre.

"They blame it on the women. They were tearing her apart. I don't think it's fair."

Soontiens hopes to meet with Bishop Ronald Fabbro and urge him to push for settlements in the eight remaining Sylvestre civil cases.

She doesn't think any victim of sexual abuse should have to go through the trial process, especially in connection with a pedophile who admitted guilt.

"You can't move on because they rehash it over and over again," she said.

Mark Adkinson, director of communications for the diocese, said the diocese tries to avoid trial.

"Court is always a last resort," he said. "We've settled 69 Sylvestre cases and only one has gone to trial."

Murphy-Myers, of Chatham, was awarded $610,000 in a civil judgment for the abuse and said her case was about "getting my voice heard and the voices of the victims."

She was one of Sylvestre's dozens of victims over four decades.

Her award is the highest financial court judgment for a Canadian woman abused by clergy. There have been higher out-of-court settlements.

"It wasn't really about the money. It was about getting them to see, getting my voice heard and the voices of the victims," she said at a news conference in London last week.

"For every victim who came forward, there are 10 others that are too scared to say anything. My voice is just for the 10 others who can't speak."

Soontiens received one of Canada's largest monetary settlements — $1.75 million.

She said even though her legal process is completed, she's a shoulder to lean on for women still fighting for justice in civil court.

"I can't turn my back on them," she said.

Soontiens said she learned through Murphy-Myers' trial that the diocese can use information women share during counselling sessions it pays for.

Adkinson confirmed the diocese offers to pay for counselling of all sexual abuse by clergy survivors.

"Until the case goes to trial, all we do is pay the bill," he said, adding counsellors can be called to testify during a trial.

Soontiens said people shouldn't have to worry that what they tell a counsellor will be used against them in court.

"It's a slap in the face to us and it's not really helping us heal," she said.

Sylvestre was convicted in 2006 of 47 charges of indecent assault for abusing little girls in his parishes in Windsor, Sarnia, London, Chatham and Pain Court. He died in prison three months into his three-year sentence.

Murphy-Myers wasn't part of the criminal prosecution, but came forward with her civil claim later. She'd been a pupil at St. Ursula's school and a parishioner in Chatham when Sylvestre abused her.

Her lawyer, Robert Talach, said Superior Court Justice David Little's decision was "very positive" even though Little opted not to assess punitive — or punishing — damages on the diocese, saying the church has changed and has been punished enough for Sylvestre's abuse.

"We think it's very significant, especially for an institution like the church that says we are a moral authority, to be told by a judge by our court, you were negligent, you engaged in a cover-up, you knew about this guy and did nothing, and you did all this because you were putting yourself ahead of children and parishioners," he said.

He said Little was clear he didn't impose punitive damages because the church has "changed the way you do business."

But he said, it's clear the church has been more reactive, than proactive when dealing with issues of sexual abuse.

He produced a list of 22 priests in the Diocese of London who've been convicted, charged or sued since 1974 for sexual abuse.

Talach speculated a jury hearing a Sylvestre case might view the punitive damages in a different light. Another case is scheduled next month.

With file from Jane Sims, QMI Agency

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