Sylvestre Victim Gets $1.75M

May 8, 2009

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LONDON -- A victim of a notorious pedophile priest says she's finally found closure after winning the largest settlement for an individual sexual abuse case in Canadian history — $1.7 million.

For five nightmarish years in her childhood, Lou Ann Soontiens of Chatham was sexually assaulted by Rev. Charles Sylvestre — including weekly rape sessions and penetration with a broomstick.

Now 53, Soontiens has a message to Sylvestre's other victims with outstanding lawsuits against the Roman Catholic church: "Don't back down. Get the money that you deserve. I'm not saying it's all about the money, but … you're getting them back for what they did to us.

"They did us wrong. They could've stopped it and they didn't."

At a news conference Friday, lawyers for Soontiens announced that the London diocese has agreed to pay her $1,745,000 plus legal costs in lieu of going to trial.

"Our approximation is that (the final figure) will easily be in excess of $2 million," said Rob Talach of the law firm Ledroit Beckett.

Soontiens had launched a lawsuit against the diocese due to the abuse she suffered at the hands of Sylvestre from 1968 to 1973, when she was between the ages of 12 and 17. The trial was set to begin Monday.

"I was going. I was prepared," Soontiens said. "I knew, in my heart, I was going May 11."

Talach said the settlement follows the terms of the firm's pretrial offer "lock, stock and barrel."

According to Talach, other settlements the firm has seen on sexual abuse cases have rarely exceeded seven figures. Describing the sum awarded to Soontiens, Talach said: "It's leaps and bounds forward in the right direction."

Asked why the diocese agreed to the settlement, Talach said "We can only speculate."

But he noted that if the case had gone to trial, the court would have heard evidence that the diocese received complaints about Sylvestre dating back to 1953 — 15 years before he was assigned to Soontiens's parish in Chatham.

Talach detailed a "pattern of shuffling" by the diocese where Sylvestre was moved from parish to parish as complaints arose. Media coverage of a trial would have provided daily reminders to the public of such details. "There's a horrific track record here, and that may have been part of the motivation (of the diocese to settle)," Talach said.

At the news conference, lawyer Paul Ledroit described an escalating scale of abuse that began with sexual touching, developed into regular rapes, and eventually involved "perversions" such as the use of the broomstick.

"That would've come out in the trial. It would've been very graphic at the trial. Exactly what happened, and when," Ledroit said.

Ledroit said there was a period when Sylvestre raped Soontiens at least once a week, "and sometimes more often."

He said medical records show Soontiens eventually became pregnant, and Sylvestre arranged for her to undergo a "back alley abortion" that almost took her life. Her grandfather drove her to a hospital in London after she began hemorrhaging.

"What she does remember in the urgent trip from Chatham to London in her grandfather's car was holding a blood-soaked towel between her legs," Ledroit said.

Pointing to Sylvestre's role as a priest and his influence over Soontiens, Ledroit said: "You cannot take a mind and screw it up worse than that."

Ledroit said Soontiens has told him she has never once enjoyed sex. "I have talked with many of the Sylvestre victims, and invariably, they all say the same thing."

At least 47 females came forward in the trial that led to Sylvestre's conviction on sexual assault charges in 2006. He died in prison in January 2007.

The majority of the lawsuits related to Sylvestre's crimes have been settled. Ledroit said his firm has about 16 that remain to be resolved.

Asked what the latest settlement means to those cases, Ledroit said every case is unique. But, he added: "I hope it means early settlement of the rest of the cases. We're already talking about mediation dates in August."

For Soontiens, the settlement means the end of a chapter in her life. She said she still has nightmares about Sylvestre, but counselling and the support of her family have lessened them.

Asked what she plans to do with the money, she said she wants to help her two sons with their mortgages. Otherwise, she said little will change about her existence in Chatham.

"The same as what I've always done. I cut my grass. I don't travel. I'm a homebody. I don't plan on changing at all, other than trying to heal a little bit more."

Another thing that won't change is Soontiens's view of the Catholic church. "I have no faith. I don't believe in God. And I'm sorry to say that," Soontiens said. "I think that if there was a God, why didn't he help me?"

Soontiens said she's now on her third marriage, and her husband is a devout Catholic who goes to church every Sunday. "That's his faith, and I'm not going to take that away from him. We have different views on the Catholic religion."

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