Beckett Personal Injury Office In Downtown London

March 16, 2011

Victim Chases Justice

by Jane Sims, The London Free Press

It’s the first civil case not settled out of court

Kelly Murphy-Myers is not unlike many of Charles Sylvestre’s victims.

Raised in a devoutly Roman Catholic family in Chatham, she was a happy, well-adjusted primary pupil at St. Ursula’s school in Chatham.

UNTIL THE END OF GRADE 3.

That’s when her friendly parish priest, who made her feel special, started sexually abusing her at the church, at the school and on the playground over a period of two years.

“I felt bad about myself. I was confused and hurt and scared,” she testified in a London court Tuesday.

“I didn’t understand why this man was hurting me.”

What sets Murphy-Myers apart from the other Sylvestre victims — Southwestern Ontario’s worst case of abuse at the hands of a cleric — is that her civil case is the first of 77 filed that’s gone to trial without a settlement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of London.

Sylvestre died behind bars in 2007, months into a prison sentence for 47 convictions of indecent assault against 47 girls.

Murphy-Myers’s $3.5-million lawsuit names the diocese and former Bishop John Sherlock. She wasn’t part of the criminal prosecution against the priest.

Tuesday, Murphy-Myers, 41, a cellphone salesperson from Chatham, described in Ontario Superior Court abuse at the hands of the disgraced priest that began when she was eight.

Superior Court Justice David Little also has heard Murphy-Myers’ father contacted another Chatham priest in 1979 after his daughter disclosed the abuse to his wife. That priest, Rev. John Betkowski, has testified he went to Sherlock directly and told him of “inappropriate touching” by Sylvestre involving an unnamed victim.

Shortly after, Sylvestre was removed from St. Ursula’s parish and sent to nearby Pain Court.

Murphy-Myers described a warm and loving home life with three brothers. She was adopted when she was a month old and her parents each year marked both a birthday and a “happy day” for her adoption.

Her parents were her biggest boosters when she danced, figure-skated and competed in school sports. She had a neighbourhood full of kids with which to play and a best friend down the street.

Her family went to mass each Sunday at St. Ursula’s church and the only priest she remembers was Sylvestre.

Just before she began Grade 4, she and her pal went into the newly-built church after roller-skating on the new asphalt parking lot, to pray that her friend’s dog would come home.

Murphy-Myers described Sylvestre sitting between them and putting one arm around each. She was taught, she said, the priest “was the nearest thing to God.”

After that exchange, Sylvestre often came out of the church to watch the kids roller-skate. Once in awhile, she’d go into his office to talk.

“He made me feel special. He made me want to hang out with him,” she said.

He let her call him Charlie. She considered him to be a friend.

He would always give her a hug, like he did other children. At the end of Grade 3, Murphy-Myers said he kissed her “like your aunt kisses you at Christmas.”

But the kisses soon became more intense, with the priest putting his tongue in her mouth.

“He asked me if I liked it,” she said.

He would sometimes brush her chest outside her clothing. But the signal that things would become more confusing was a day when he had her on his lap in his office, unzipped her jumper and put his hand inside. He was interrupted by a secretary walking in and launched the little girl off his lap.

“That incident confused me and frightened me,” she said. She threw the jumper in the garbage.

Grade 4 saw the assaults become weekly, more intrusive and unwanted. Sylvestre would select Murphy-Myers from the classroom to fold bulletins. He’d get her alone in his office or the rectory, hug and kiss her and touch her both over and under the clothes.

He often smelled of alcohol. He always wanted her to sit on his lap.

“I can remember trying to change the way I dressed so it would be more difficult to have access to me,” Murphy-Myers said.

The assaults became more intrusive, with Sylvestre grabbing her inside her underwear. “I was really, really scared,” she said.

When her big crinoline under her dress caused her to slip off his lap, Sylvestre repeatedly hauled her back, grabbing under her skirt, until he was sexually assaulting her.

No one saw it. She recalled looking toward her teacher and wondering, “Why aren’t you helping me?”

When Murphy-Myers would stop visiting the priest, he’d call her house. She said her mother wanted her to go back and was proud she was “a really good little Catholic girl.”

She started to pretend to be sick so she wouldn’t go to school. She couldn’t concentrate for fear Sylvestre would arrive to take her out of class. She couldn’t do her homework and thought “there’s no way God would let this happen.”

The last assault involved Sylvestre exposing himself and asking her to touch him. “I don’t know how it ended. I assume I left,” she said.

After that incident, she says she must have told her parents — she doesn’t remember — but knows she never had to return to church and was placed in a public school the following year.

She started Grade 6, but was put back to Grade 5. She retreated into her shell and stopped all activities.

When she found out Sylvestre had left Chatham, she regained some of her self-esteem.

In high school, she was placed in the general program and was a cheerleader to satisfy her parents’ expectations. As a relationship with a boyfriend when she was 16 intensified, she tried to kill herself by taking her mother’s heart medication.

Murphy-Myers told her mother it was because of Sylvestre. She was told to “suck it up” and not let it control her.

She went on to get her hair-styling diploma.

Years later, in 2005, she finished her degree in psychology from the University of Windsor.

The trial continues.

THE SYLVESTRE CASE

47: Convictions of indecent assault in 2006 involving 47 girls from parishes he served in Windsor, Sarnia, London, Chatham and Pain Court over four decades.

3 YEARS: His prison sentence.

3 MONTHS: Time the disgraced priest served in prison before dying at 84.

64: Civil cases involving Sylvestre settled by the Roman Catholic Diocese of London.

13: Cases yet to be settled

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