Priest Pleads to Abusing 47 Girls

By Lee Palser
August 3, 2006

A retired Roman Catholic priest, who lives in Belle River, Ontario, has pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 47 girls over a span of 34 years during his service in parishes from Windsor to London.

Many of the victims, now all women, were in a packed Chatham courtroom Thursday morning when Charles Henry Sylvestre, 83, entered his guilty pleas to 47 charges of indecent assault.

Several observers in the courtroom, including family members of the victims, wept as the court clerk read out the charges and Sylvestre responded in a calm, quiet voice.

The women ranged in age from nine to 14 years old at the time the assaults took place in parishes in Windsor, Chatham, Pain Court, Sarnia and London between 1952 and 1986.

Ontario Court Justice Bruce Thomas granted requests by 10 of the victims to have the publication bans on their identities lifted. Court-ordered publication bans are normally granted to shield the identities of victims in sexual assault cases.

Following Sylvestre's pleas, Crown Attorney Paul Bailey began reading the details of each case into the court record. Later, many of the victims were expected to make statements to the court about how the abuse affected them.

A lawyer from a London firm preparing to sue Sylvestre on behalf of some of the woman was also in court to observe. Aaron Lealess, of London-based Ledroit Beckett, said he's representing 14 of the women and that the Catholic church's London diocese will be named in the pending civil suit because it was Sylvestre's employer.

It is potentially the largest clergy sexual abuse case involving female victims in North America, Lealess said.

Another London law firm — Legate and Associates — announced it was filing lawsuits Thursday on behalf of 21 of the victims.

As well as Sylvestre, the lawsuits name the Diocese of London, the Windsor-Essex Catholic School Board, the St. Clair Catholic District School Board for southwestern Ontario, the Order of the Grey Nuns and the Sarnia Police for failing to prevent the sexual abuse.

Bishop Ronald Fabbro, of the London diocese, responded immediately to Sylvestre's guilty pleas with a written statement of apology Thursday.

"I sincerely apologize to the victims and their families for the abuse that they endured at the hands of Father Sylvestre, and for suffering the consequences of that abuse over the years. I apologize as well for the failure of the Church to protect the victims and their families from Father Sylvestre," Fabbro says in the statement.

"The abuse of minors has been a scourge in the Diocese of London that must end, and I pledge myself as Bishop of London to do my utmost to end it."

The bishop is to apologize in person during a mass Sunday at St. Ursula's Church in Chatham on Sunday, says a release from the diocese. A full text of his sermon will be posted on the diocese website the same day.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.