Man's Life Was Destroyed by Abuse at Hands of City Priest
Former City Priest Thomas O'Dell Threatened to Get Him and His Brother If He Told about Horrific Abuse

By Carol Mulligan
The Sudbury Star [Toronto]
June 27, 2003

Local News - TORONTO - A Sudbury man who was sexually abused as a boy by a priest was terrorized with threats of "smokestacks where they burn the children who disobey the priest," says the lawyer representing the man in a civil lawsuit.

The plaintiff, who was 10 to 15 years old between 1981 and 1986 when the abuse occurred, was also told he would burn in hell, that the priest would get the boy's brother and that the devil would eat him, Peter Downard told the Superior Court of Justice in Toronto on Thursday.

The man, who is now 33 and cannot be named to protect his privacy, launched a $4-million lawsuit against the former Rev. Father Thomas O'Dell and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie.

The lawsuit claims O'Dell is liable for sexual assault, battery, negligence and breach of fiduciary duty. The diocese is accused of negligence for not ensuring the priest conducted himself properly in carrying out his priestly duties.

O'Dell, a former parish priest in Lively, was convicted in 2000 of one count of gross indecency and one count of indecent assault for offences including sodomizing the victim with a crucifix and pinning him against the altar of the church and forcing him to perform oral sex.

O'Dell, 56, appealed the conviction and lost, and is now serving a 30-month sentence at Kingston Penitentiary.

Downard told Madam Justice Katherine Swinton that the abuse done to his client and O'Dell's priestly functions were "inextricably enmeshed ... Every phase of that relationship is deeply bathed in the religious wash of symbolism and psychological manipulation," he said.

During six weeks of testimony, counsel for the plaintiff attempted to prove the fiduciary obligation of O'Dell to the victim, the vicarious liability for that breach of fiduciary obligation by the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie and the fact that there are no time limitations on the breach of fiduciary obligations in Ontario. During testimony, a doctor called the abuse the victim had suffered "severe, extreme and enduring," and said it arose from a relationship that had its foundation in spiritual guidance and instruction.

Gross perversion

"It was a classic situation - a gross perversion of a Bing Crosby movie scenario," said Downard.

The relationship between O'Dell and the victim developed because, as a boy, the plaintiff had an "unusual interest" in spiritual matters, said Downard.

While he was not Roman Catholic, the boy did attend a Catholic school where O'Dell taught religion classes.

O'Dell had religious discussions with the boy both at school and privately, and acted as a "special friend and mentor," the lawyer said. Even when the relationship became abusive, it maintained its "religious teaching," Downard said.

In the "innocent phases" of the relationship, O'Dell instructed the boy in church sacraments such as confession. When the relationship became abusive, O'Dell followed it with a "perversion of the confession process."

He demanded the victim confess his sins, and locked him in a confessional.

Downard said it appeared O'Dell was "overwhelmed with what he had done" and attempted to transfer that guilt to the boy.

"The abuse had a profoundly religious character," he said.

"The incidents with the crucifix and the altar speak for themselves."

During testimony, Downard said Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe said it was important that priests "connect" with children, and that implied a spiritual and emotional closeness with them.

That connection is a "central part of what a priest does," said Downard.

But O'Dell turned his "legitimate job functions to improper use."

Downard also said the diocese didn't do enough to prevent sexual abuse by priests.

Had someone come to Plouffe and told him O'Dell had stolen $100,000 from a bank account, and Plouffe had confronted O'Dell and he had denied it, "he (Plouffe) probably would not have sent O'Dell to New Mexico for eight months to get better."

During testimony, court heard that Plouffe had told parishioners O'Dell was taking a sabbatical when he was in the United States receiving treatment for sexual abusers.

'Scandal and embarrassment'

That was because of the "scandal and embarrassment" that admission would have caused the church, he said.

Declaring the diocese vicariously liable for the damage done to his client would act as a "strong incentive to the church to take a proactive approach" when dealing with sexual abusers," Downard told the court. The plaintiff's lawyer reminded the justice that the diocese had known that O'Dell had abused minors, two brothers, in his previous parish of White River, and that the church was "aware of the general level of risk" he posed when he was given the Lively parish.

O'Dell served a six-month sentence after being convicted in 1992 of sexually abusing two brothers

Downard said he was seeking three types of damages for his client, whom he called a "walking textbook of child sexual abuse symptoms."

Court has heard the plaintiff had trouble in school, has had difficulty holding a job and has suffered psychiatric problems because of the abuse he suffered from O'Dell.

Downard spoke yesterday after the victim's suicide attempt and ongoing erectile dysfunction, which he attributed to the sexual assaults.

The lawyer is seeking general damages for pain and suffering for his client, pecuniary or out-of-pocket damages, such as those he has incurred by not being able to work at times, and punitive damages against both O'Dell and the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie.

There should be no question about general damages because of the pain and suffering his client has endured, said Downard. "To this day, the pain is still with him."

He recounted the fact that the victim, as a teenager, had suffered such serious nightmares he had awakened his entire household with his screams.

The plaintiff has suffered damaged relations with his father because he was "plain afraid to reveal his authentic homosexuality."

While a doctor for the defendants said the victim was "always homosexual," the plaintiff's doctor said the victim is "profoundly confused sexually."

But, said Downard, "whether my client is authentically gay or not is a red herring."

Downard described the plaintiff as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorder, substance abuse and degrees of depression as a result of the sexual abuse.

Dismissed claims

Downard dismissed defence claims that the victim had pre-existing problems that would have resulted in the kinds of psychological difficulties he later experienced anyway.

Speaking to the matter of pecuniary damages, Downard spoke of his client's loss of earning capacity. While the defence suggested the victim had learning disabilities before the abuse, the plaintiff's doctor said they were confined to the area of mathematics, but that he had an interest in the arts and reading.

"Who knows how far he could have gone? Who knows?"

Downard addressed the defence claim that his client should have taken steps to mitigate his "losses" resulting from the abuse. The defence said he should have gone for treatment in 1992, when he first told his mother he had been raped and he thought he was gay.

"If so, he would have recovered in two years and been a functioning member of the workforce."

Lawyer Jennifer McAteer, another lawyer for the plaintiff, said her client didn't seek serious psychological counselling for his problems until after O'Dell was convicted of his crimes in 2000.

She and Downard argued that statutes of limitations that might otherwise preclude their client from seeking damages are applicable because he didn't fully understand the ramifications of the abuse until he received intensive counselling.

Defence lawyer Josee Forest-Niesing, of the Sudbury law firm Lacroix Forest, said the vicarious liability of the diocese is "at the heart of this case."

She told the court that the defence had a job to do in this case, no matter how difficult, "and the plaintiff said he understood."

But, "at the end of the day," she said, the case is about "monetary compensation" and the fact that the plaintiff considers this a "hallmark case."

On the issue of limitations, Forest-Niesing said, while the client might not have been fully cognizant of the abuse, he had always had a memory of it."

While the plaintiff maintained it wasn't until he attempted suicide in 1996 that he made the full connection, he had told his brothers for years before that that he had a "big secret" and that "you don't know what I've been through."

She said the plaintiff had made "some kind of connection" with what had happened to him as early as 1982, although he may not have been able to deal with it.

On the charge that the diocese was negligent in ensuring "duty of care" to the plaintiff, Forest-Niesing said "the fact the plaintiff was not a parishioner affects the ability of the diocese" to ensure duty of care.

Non-parishioners such as the plaintiff and his family wouldn't have had an opportunity to "make themselves known" to the bishop and the diocese, so the diocese wouldn't have known that abuse might have been going on.

O'Dell's actions were clearly "contrary to the (religious) tenets he was to uphold," said the defendants' lawyer.

"They were unknown, unforeseen and clearly unauthorized."

Because there was little awareness of sexual abuse in 1981, there couldn't have been "sufficient awareness for the diocese to act or acknowledge the epidemic," said Forest-Niesing.

The defence lawyer was to complete her final submission today, and the plaintiffs' lawyer was to have an opportunity to rebut her submissions as well.


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