Cecilia McLauchlin, 32, was a sex abuse victim of Charles Sylvestre, a Catholic priest, when she was a child. She says that victims “need to outlast” the church, as she did during a three-year civil case against the London archdiocese.
Father Charlie told the girl with the cascading brown curls and frilly frocks that she was pretty. Special. One of his favourites.
In the small Ontario town of Pain Court, a French-Canadian community near Chatham, Father Charlie’s attention was prized by devout Roman Catholic families like Cecilia McLauchlin’s. His interest in their daughter meant the popular priest, once described as “next to God,” publicly approved of how she was being raised.
So when a gynecologist examined the girl for recurring vaginal infections, it didn’t occur to anyone that Father Charlie was the cause of her physical pain.
Cecilia McLauchlin was only 5 years old.
Now 32, the Chatham woman is the youngest known victim of Father Charles Sylvestre, the smooth-talking priest who groomed his young prey with candies, trinkets and praise. He was convicted in 2006 of sexually assaulting 47 girls over four decades in southwestern Ontario — despite abuse complaints from victims to police, school and church officials during that time.
McLauchlin came forward after his conviction, as did 30 more women in a movement some expect foreshadows the church’s next crisis: a groundswell of female victims seeking justice.
From Mount Cashel to Ireland, most sex abuse scandals have involved boys as altar servers, at boarding schools or in orphanages. The most recent trouble also surrounds boys, with allegations Pope Benedict — who celebrates his fifth anniversary this week as head of all Catholics — knew about an American priest molesting 200 deaf boys in Milwaukee but failed to act.
An American study commissioned eight years ago and paid for by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops found that boys were overwhelmingly the likeliest target of predator priests. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice study, based on voluntary disclosure from church authorities (some refused to comply), determined boys accounted for 81 per cent of sex assaults. Most abuse for all victims occurred between 1960 and the 1980s.
But London-based lawyer Robert Talach, who represented McLauchlin and other Sylvestre victims, expects that male-female ratio to change within five to 10 years to reflect a trend that began in the 1970s when the church welcomed female altar servers. Researchers say disclosure of abuse is typically delayed for about 30 years, which means women assaulted as children are just starting to come to terms with what happened.
“In some of our Sylvestre cases, which are (from) the ‘70s, many of the women were victimized under the pretenses of ‘I’m training you to be one of these new, upcoming female altar servers,’" said Talach, who has represented more than 100 victims of clergy abuse, most of them male.
“We’ve seen priests using that to look innovative to their parishioners, but in reality it was to allow them access to women if their predilection was female.”
Father Donald Holmes, a modern cleric who rode a motorcycle, sported a beard, played hockey and preferred street clothes to his Roman collar, also preyed on girls as they began taking bigger roles in the church. He was convicted in 2002 of sexually abusing 12 girls around the Sudbury area between 1972 and 1984.
In general, girls in Canada are four times more likely than boys to be victims of sexual offences, according to police figures reported to Stats Canada.
Females are more likely to be attractive to clergy because the majority of priests are heterosexual — but some are psychologically and sexually immature, says former priest-turned-lawyer Patrick Wall.
“If they’re going to explore sexually, they’re going to explore with a little girl,” said Wall, a California-based expert on Catholic clergy abuse who now works with victims.
Wall’s perspective on the degree of female abuse is unique. He was a Benedictine monk for 12 years, working as a “fixer” dispatched to tidy up messy sexual problems of priests and laymen at troubled parishes and schools. He said when a girl required surgery after rape, the code was that she needed a “hernia” operation.
In a bizarre twinning, he counselled accused priests and heard confessions from traumatized victims. He also worked on cases where priests impregnated girls then procured abortions for them.
“That is so prevalent, it happens all the time,” he said of the abortion runs, which in part accounts for his belief that teenaged girls are the silent majority of priest-related sexual abuse.
By age 33, Wall deduced most, if not all, of the 195 parishes and hundreds of religious orders in the U.S. employed “fixers” like him to wipe down crime scenes that involved children. He quit religious life in disgust and scoffs at the Vatican’s pledge to better protect boys and girls from its surpliced predators.
“This is the biggest company in the world, they are not going to shift and move,” Wall said. “They’re going to keep building the Ford Pinto, they’re going to take their lumps (from public opinion) and move on.”
“It doesn’t matter what the law is, whether it’s the Canadian police or the U.S. police. They’re not going to tell anybody (about criminal behaviour),” he added.
Santa Clara University psychology professor Thomas Plante has treated and evaluated about 60 clergy sex offenders, including Catholic priests. He said most exhibited a variety of psychiatric troubles, such as personality and impulse control disorders, even brain damage as comorbidity factors complicating their sexual behaviours.
Plante said differing degrees of disorders means “these guys aren’t all alike” and range from ruthless serial offenders like Sylvestre to those who commit one act.
If mentally unhealthy priests are attacking children, it doesn’t prevent the church from using its formidable financial and legal resources to defend their accused, said Wall.
The former priest said the church is particularly vicious with women, deploying its “whore defence” to paint schoolgirls as harlots and intimidate them from pursuing criminal and civil complaints.
McLauchlin, now working and married, said victims “need to outlast” the church as she did during a three-year civil case against the London archdiocese. It was settled last September for an undisclosed amount.
During her case, the diocese demanded McLauchlin submit to a psychological assessment in Toronto. She said she was “interrogated” for 10 hours by a clinician and made to relive Sylvestre’s assaults in graphic detail — even though her mother had kept the “horrific” gynecologist’s report from 27 years ago.
“(The assessment) was very demeaning and at certain times, it was crude and it didn’t need to be,” said McLauchlin, whose abuse began when she was about 4 and ended at 6 when her unsuspecting family moved to Chatham.
“Ultimately, I stood my ground,” she said. “It’s a game of survivor (and church officials) just want to wear you down.”
McLauchlin kept Sylvestre’s abuse a secret from her family until the priest was arrested. By the time she approached Crown prosecutors, a deal had been struck with Sylvestre — then 84 years old, feeble and brain-addled with dementia — to plead guilty to all counts.
The priest who duped her parents with friendship to gain their trust — and access to their daughter — died three months into his three-year sentence in 2007. Though McLauchlin feels resolving her court case has given her a fresh start in life, she is haunted by why, despite 1962 police reports from girls he abused, the church shielded Sylvestre.
“I wish every single day of my life they had done something,” said McLauchlin of high-ranking officials in the London diocese, including archbishops who reigned during Sylvestre’s tenure.
“The last place he was a priest was Pain Court (and) this would never have happened to me.”