What The Bishop Knew

March 24, 2011

By: Jane Sims, The London Free Press

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PRIEST ABUSE: Charles Sylvestre’s victimization of little girls can be traced at least as far back as the 1950s

Bishop John Sherlock says now he wishes he could have helped an abusive Southwestern Ontario priest’s sexual-assault victims “better than I did.”

“In hindsight, I would do it differently,” the 85-year old retired bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of London said at a civil trial in London Thursday.

But Sherlock testified he didn’t fail the diocese in his dealings with the late Charles Sylvestre, and acted as he should have as bishop, when he knew about the priest’s abuse of little girls.

“I don’t have any bad conscience for what I did,” he said as he was cross-examined by lawyer Robert Talach.

Sherlock and Bishop Ronald Fabbro both testified — Sherlock, speaking publicly about Sylvestre for the first time — at the trial examining how much the church knew about Sylvestre’s activities.

Sherlock said he didn’t know anything about Sylvestre’s sexual misconduct until 1989 — even though Sylvestre’s abuse can be traced back to the 1950s. Sylvestre was convicted in 2006 of 47 counts of indecent assault involving girls in parishes in Windsor, Sarnia, London, Chatham and Pain Court over four decades.

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

Kelly Murphy-Myers, 41, of Chatham, the plaintiff in the civil case in London, is a cellphone salesperson who was one of Sylvestre’s young victims at St. Ursula’s parish. She’s suing the diocese for $3.5 million.

The diocese has handled a deluge of lawsuits since Sylvestre’s criminal convictions. Murphy-Myers’ case is the first of 77 lawsuits filed that’s made it to trial. Sixty-four have already been settled before reaching a public hearing.

Some of those victims were in the courtroom Thursday to finally hear what the bishop who had Sylvestre on his watch for 15 years had to say about his fellow priest.

Sherlock is a bit unsteady on his feet, but is clearly sharp in his mind. But his memory was sometimes foggy about specifics surrounding the Sylvestre affair.

He first met Sylvestre when they were young priests in Hamilton in the 1950s, but said he didn’t know about any abuse of children until 1989. He said Sylvestre was “a man divided, disastrously.”

“I think this double life he was leading was completely hidden. It was hidden from the people and it was hidden from the bishops,” Sherlock said.

In the early days, Sherlock said Sylvestre was a “priest of real zeal and enthusiasm.”

Sherlock said he never heard of any problems. But the court has heard there was a complaint in Hamilton.

Sherlock said he was unaware of complaints in Windsor, but Superior Court Justice David Little has heard there were such complaints.

Sherlock was appointed an auxiliary bishop in the diocese in 1974 and lived in Chatham serving at St. Joseph’s parish just a couple of kilometres from where Sylvestre was in his 12-year term as priest at St. Ursula’s. Sherlock said Sylvestre was a popular priest and instrumental in the building of the new St. Ursula’s church.

When Sherlock became the bishop in 1978, taking over the post from Bishop Emmett Carter, later appointed a cardinal, Carter never told him anything about Sylvestre or any other abusive priest, he testified, and didn’t mention 1962 police reports about Sylvestre from Sarnia that would have been seen by Carter’s predecessor, Bishop John Cody.

Those reports didn’t surface until 2006, at the back of a diocese filing cabinet, weeks after Sylvestre was sentenced.

Sherlock said he has no memory of a face-to-face meeting with Rev. John Betkowski, who was serving at Ursuline College “The Pines” secondary school in Chatham, about Sylvestre inappropriately touching little girls in Chatham.

Betkowski has testified he drove to London to tell Sherlock after Murphy-Myers’ father called him about what had happened to his only daughter. Betkowski never mentioned the family by name to the bishop.

“I have absolutely no recollection of that happening,” Sherlock said, adding had be known “I would have taken action.”

Talach, Murphy-Myers’ lawyer, listed 11 priests whom police had investigated involving allegations of sexual abuse over the years Sherlock was bishop, and suggested he had ample experience dealing with wayward clergy.

Sherlock said his first awareness of Sylvestre’s abuses came in a phone call from the principal at the Pain Court school, Paul Belanger, who told him Gr. 8 girls were “making fun” of the priest and calling him “Father Touchy-Feely.”

Sherlock said he sent the head of the diocese’s sexual abuse committee to speak to Belanger and Sylvestre and plans were made to send the priest to Guest House, a rehab facility for priests, to address his alcoholism.

Sherlock said the priest “adamantly denied” any sexual misconduct.

But an allegation from a girl in Pain Court was made. Then, in October 1989, Carol Mieras, a former St. Ursula’s pupil — who’d later be part of Sylvestre’s criminal prosecution — reported abuse.

Sylvestre was sent to Windsor’s Hotel Dieu hospital as a chaplain, with orders he not be allowed near young children.

Talach asked if his familiarity with Sylvestre clouded his judgement on how to act deal with him. “I don’t think so,” Sherlock said,

He said he didn’t announce Sylvestre’s activities to the parishes because people would be “shocked and scandalized.”

Talach said his client and other St. Ursula’s victims would have known they weren’t alone.

“I wish I would have come to help victims more rapidly and successfully,” he said.

Fabbro testified to helping victims beginning with his decision in 2004 to allow victim Irene Deschenes to lift a confidentiality agreement on her civil case.

The trial resumes Monday.

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