Sylvestre Victim Lawsuit Settled Prior To First Witness

October 1, 2010

By: Jane Sims, The Chatham Daily News

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LONDON — It could have been a civil case that would have put the Roman Catholic Diocese of London's knowledge of Rev. Charles Sylvestre's sexual abuse of children under the microscope.

Instead, Anne Heathcote's case against the diocese, retired bishop John Sherlock and Bishop Ronald Fabbro ended abruptly with a settlement Wednesday, but not before a jury heard the opening remarks of both sides.

That was remarkable given that 64 civil cases concerning Sylvestre's sexual abuse of young female parishioners have been settled before reaching the trial stage. More than 10 remain to be completed.

What was clear from the opening remarks by Heathcote's lawyer, Robert Talach, and the church lawyer, Chris Blom, the case would be more about what the church knew and did — and if it should be punished — than an examination of Sylvestre's crimes over four decades.

Sylvestre was convicted in 2006 of 47 counts of indecent assault involving 47 women who were in his parishes in Windsor, London, Sarnia, Chatham and Pain Court.

The majority of the victims in the criminal case were women who'd attended St. Ursula's parish in Chatham. Heathcote was one of them and Sylvestre pleaded guilty to molesting her as part of the case.

He died in prison at age 84 in early 2007, just months into his three-year sentence.

Heathcote had launched a $4-million claim, including $1 million in punitive — or punishment — damages years ago. Details of the settlement Wednesday were kept confidential.

Outside court, Heathcote said the settlement hadn't sunk in but was relieved the case was done.

"It's not a process for sissies," she said.

Before the two sides reached agreement, both outlined what their cases would have been over the four weeks set aside for the trial.

Talach told the jury Heathcote was in Grade 2 or 3 when she was abused by Sylvestre. He'd arrived at St. Ursula's in 1966 when Heathcote was just two and stayed for 12 years.

Years later, the abuse as a child sunk the over-achieving student and award-winning university graduate into depression, Talach said. She was unable to keep jobs or relationships afloat.

Talach said the diocese knew Sylvestre's track record long before Heathcote was molested — as far back as 1953, when a girl in Hamilton reported abuse by the young Sylvestre to her parish priest when Sylvestre was posted there.

Sylvestre was moved from Hamilton to Windsor, where he was reported again.

He was then sent to Sarnia where three girls reported him in 1962 to the police. Copies of those reports were found misfiled in the diocese in 2006.

Sylvestre was sent, Talach said, to Quebec to a retreat to pray and amend his ways. He was soon back in the parishes.

Talach said the bishops should have known "what (Sylvestre) was capable of," at least when the Sarnia police investigation began.

But Blom asked the jury to consider the response relevant to the time period.

While modern responses to sexual abuse are much more vigilant, in the 1950s and 1960s the reactions was completely different because of a limited understanding of sexual abuse.

Blom said there was no question Heathcote was due some damages given what happened to her, but that the church shouldn't be punished.

The case would have examined canon law and the appropriate response when then-bishop John Cody sent Sylvestre to Quebec for treatment.

Both sides had planned to call experts in canon law to argue if the response to Sylvestre's activities was adequate given the conduct.

Blom said it was unlikely subsequent bishops to Cody knew of Sylvestre's activities because of his untimely death in 1963. Sherlock, he said, would testify he didn't know about Sylvestre until 1989.

He also outlined the steps taken by the diocese since Sylvestre's convictions to apologize and reach out to help victims.

Before the first witness was called, the two sides reported to Superior Court Justice David Little they had a settlement.

Outside court, diocese spokesman Mark Adkinson said it was important to recognize "that we know and acknowledge Sylvestre did very bad things to the young girls."

The diocese wants to help victims and to settle cases, he said, "but it has to be a fair and reasonable settlement."

"It just took a little bit longer than we anticipated to get to that settlement," he said of Heathcote's case.

Talach said he was happy Heathcote was able to get "justice without having to endure the entire trial."

"But as someone who's worked on these cases, there is a true sense of disappointment that we didn't (get) to let the public know the full story and full extent of the diocese's involvement with Sylvestre."

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