Sisters Suing Catholic Church

January 29, 2010

By: Brian Medel, The Chronicle Herald

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Women say priest abused them, seek $1.7m each

YARMOUTH — Two sisters originally from the tiny community of St. Alphonse, Digby County, are suing the Roman Catholic Church for $1.7 million each.

In documents filed in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, they allege they were sexually abused as young children by their parish priest, the late Rev. Edward Theriault.

Jeanne Doucette, 48, and Margaret Deveau, 55, now live in Yarmouth County. They have filed civil lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Halifax and the Diocese of Yarmouth, claiming general and special damages.

The priest was convicted in a 1993 criminal case of sexually assaulting Margaret Deveau in her own home between 1962 and 1969. Father Theriault, then 67, admitted his misconduct in Nova Scotia provincial court.

"I’m sorry for hurting the church, sorry for hurting the victim, sorry for hurting the family that I tried to help while I was their pastor," he said at the time.

Father Theriault was placed on probation for two years. He was also ordered to pay a $10 victim fine surcharge and perform 500 hours of community service.

On Thursday, Margaret Deveau said she wants to make the Roman Catholic Church accountable for the suffering and abuse perpetrated by its priests.

"Just from when we grew up and knew what was happening then, I know there’s many others," she said, referring to the possibility there are other victims of Father Theriault.

"But it’s really hard for people to come out."

Ms. Deveau confronted Father Theriault before the 1993 criminal case and he denied any wrongdoing.

"I wasn’t ready for that," she said. "He just said, ‘no, well that’s not true. That didn’t happen.’ "

But she confronted him again and he admitted it.

Father Theriault was also charged in 1993 with assaulting Ms. Doucette. She allowed the charge to be withdrawn when Father Theriault agreed to plead guilty to assaulting her older sister.

"I’ve regretted it every single day since," Ms. Doucette said Thursday.

She also confronted Father Theriault about his abuse, begun when she was three years old.

"I remember one of the times that we did confront him, he looked at me and he said, ‘you were so cute,’ " she recalled. "That . . . really, really upset me. I guess I was just speechless."

The sisters said they want other victims of Father Theriault to come forward to start their healing.

"I deal with it every day . . . what’s happened to us. You never get over it," said Ms. Doucette

Father Theriault also served Catholic parishes in Salmon River, Wedgeport and Shelburne. He died in 2008.

The Roman Catholic Church had little to say Thursday about the new lawsuit.

"That material has been received by our lawyers. It is a civil suit so we don’t have any particular comment that we can make," said Marilyn Sweet, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Halifax.

"We will certainly be attending to it and continue to be very concerned about all issues (surrounding) sexual abuse and children," she said Thursday.

The church will have time to file a defence. The typical 20-day deadline will likely be extended, said a lawyer from the firm representing the sisters.

"Usually in cases that are this old, with priests that (are) deceased, there’s a general understanding that that deadline is a soft deadline," Aaron Lealess, a lawyer with the London, Ont. law firm Ledroit Beckett, said Thursday.

"It’ll likely be a couple months before we receive statements of defence."

By coming forward now, the sisters hope to get some emotional healing and reach out to others who have been abused, said Mr. Lealess.

Two other women alleging to also have been victimized by Father Theriault have also contact the law firm, he said.

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