Letter: Catholic church failed to live up to its moral authority

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Would the Diocese of London, part of the Roman Catholic Church, have some moral authority?

Let’s see in brief. The church is one of the world’s most powerful and wealthy organizations. It is hierarchical, non-democratic and unaccountable. It does not treat women equally, nor does it intend to. It does not treat victims of its own institution with respect or decency. It does not live up to its own words, like we ought to care most for the oppressed. Nor does it demonstrate the principles of compassion or values of truth. When challenged and found in legal violation by three levels of courts, does it acknowledge that it is time to exhibit moral authority? Tragically, the church fails to own up to wrongdoing in the case of Irene Deschenes.

Now, let us take a cursory look at the case of the victim. Irene attended St. Ursula Catholic school in Chatham, where she acted with faith and trust in the Catholic Church. The one she believed who had high moral authority was the priest, Father Charles Sylvestre. In the early 1970s, he invited her to be of service to the church by folding bulletins when she 10 to 12 years old, where he sexually abused her. In 1996, Irene sought justice through the institution that supported this perpetrator. The church claimed that it did not know of previous abuse by Sylvestre. Due to being revictimized by the church, and the oppressive nature of filing a claim – and believing that the church did not know of former abuse cases – Irene settled out of court with the Diocese in 2000.

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Given how badly treated she was by the church, Irene did not trust that children were being protected by the church. She reported the matter to the police in 2004. Dozens of women, of all ages, also came forward and reported their experiences of abuse by Sylvestre to the police.

In 2006, Fr. Sylvestre was arrested, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting 47 girls under the age of 18, including Irene Deschenes. These proceedings revealed evidence that the diocese had indeed received police statements that Fr. Sylvestre had sexually assaulted three girls in 1962. This is almost a decade before Irene was sexually assaulted as a 10-year-old child.

If the church had performed its duty of care, and focused foremost on the victims rather than protecting the perpetrators, the sexual assault of Irene Deschenes and 43 additional girls could have been prevented. This was a big piece of evidence. The church knew and did not act. Reasonably, Irene sought to have her original settlement overturned.

Of course, a decent person would expect the church to do the right thing. Did the church finally exhibit moral authority? No. It continued to strive to oppress Irene and her rights. It appealed to three levels of courts to protect itself. In alignment with two lower courts, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled this past week, in favour of Irene, that fairness and justice have not been served.

A child abused by a priest goes as young woman to the church for help where she is further victimized and bullied. This woman has had to live with the trauma of abuse since the 1970s, where she was acting in good faith with the church. What is the church’s behaviour now? Did they finally acknowledge decades if wrongdoing and make it right?

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I was one who had faith in the church and had several leadership roles. I could no longer abide an institution that cared more for themselves than caring for victims. Irene, an individual with her own burdens to bear (imagine what is would be like to fight one of the world’s wealthiest and authoritative institutions), has been a person of decency and rightly demanding justice, not only for herself, but for the dozens of victims. She is one of the most principled and positive people that I have the privilege to know. I stand together, with many others, in justice for Irene.

Where does the church stand and on what moral authority?

Dr. Kathleen Kevany

Chatham

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