Retired Priest Pleads Guilty to Scores of Sexual Abuses
Assaulted 47 Girls over a Span of 34 Years

By Lee Palser and Trevor Wilhelm
Montreal Gazette [Canada]
August 4, 2006

Lawsuits were filed yesterday on behalf of victims of retired priest Charles Sylvestre in what could be the start of North America's largest clergy sexual abuse case involving girls.

Sylvestre, 83, a retired Roman Catholic priest living in Belle River, Ont., pleaded guilty yesterday to sexually abusing 47 girls over a 34-year span in parishes in southwestern Ontario.

Many of the victims, now adults, were in a packed Chatham courtroom yesterday morning when Sylvestre 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 courtroom, the largest in Chatham, had extra chairs set up for the overflow crowd. Boxes of tissues were placed around the room and used by victims and their families throughout the day.

The women ranged in age from 9 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, some of the victims made statements to the court about how the abuse affected them.

"I was a child victim," Joanne Morrison, who now lives in British Columbia, said in her impact statement. "I did no wrong and will not hide behind shame or guilt."

Sylvestre was "in her head" for years after the incidents, which occurred sometime between 1969 and 1972 in Chatham. "I couldn't get him out. ... I smelled him until I was 35 years old."

Two London, Ont., law firms announced lawsuits on behalf of many of the women.

The lawsuits name Sylvestre, as well as the diocese of London, the St. Clair Catholic District School Board, the Order of the Grey Nuns, Sarnia Police, the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, Le Conseil scolaire de district des ecoles Catholiques du Sud-Ouest, which is the French-language Catholic school board in the region, and others.

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

Proceedings continue Sept. 22. Sentencing submission and possibly sentencing are set for Oct. 6.


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