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Cornwall Public Inquiry

Victim's pain, shame eased by settlement  

LAWSUIT: Lou Ann Soontiens was a favourite sexual target of Charles Sylvestre  

      

LONDON FREE PRESS

 

Sat, May 9, 2009

 By JANE SIMS 

It's the pain Lou Ann Soontiens remembers -- a numbing, horrifying pain every time she was with her parish priest.

"(It's) horrific pain I went through when I was 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, of all the abuse he did to me," she said. "Getting pulled out of class or going to church. Knowing if there was going to be a knock on the door it would be for me. Going to the church to be raped over and over and over again."

Soontiens, 53, of Chatham was a favourite sexual target of disgraced Rev. Charles Sylvestre. The retired Roman Catholic priest died in 2007, three months into a three-year prison sentence for 47 counts of indecent assault on girls from parishes in Windsor, London, Sarnia, Chatham and Paincourt.

Sylvestre abused her. He impregnated her. He destroyed her life.

Yesterday, Soontiens said the weight of shame and guilt was lifted with what is thought to be the largest settlement of a single sexual abuse civil case in Canada.

 

"Now I have that sense that finally somebody believed me," Soontiens said.

 Lawyer Paul Ledroit of Ledroit Beckett said at a news conference that the settlement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of London was $1.745 million.

With legal costs it will top $2-million. With a strength that has blossomed since she stepped forward, Soontiens said she hoped her settlement would speed up remaining civil cases by Sylvestre's victims that haven't been resolved.

 "I would wish that Bishop (Ronald) Fabbro when he hears this would help the other victims have closure in this part of their lives."

The diocese has overhauled its sexual abuse policies. It offered its apologies again yesterday and is grateful "a fair and reasonable settlement" had been reached.

"The abuse she suffered was terrible. It was horrible," spokesperson Mark Adkinson said.

"All we can do is apologize and we can't apologize enough."

Adkinson said Soontiens and Sylvestre's other victims were "courageous" for stepping forward. The diocese continues to offer counselling to victims.

"Charles Sylvestre is not the Church," he said.

More than 50 of about 70 lawsuits filed by Sylvestre's victims have been settled since August 2006. Since January, one claim has been settled a week.

Soontiens was a perfect victim for the pedophile priest. Abandoned by her mother, she was raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather was a devout Catholic.

In 1968, Sylvestre invited her grandfather to allow Soontiens help him with errands around St. Ursula's church. She was 12.

The abuse started with hugs. Within a month, he raped her the first time.

Soontiens told her grandfather, but he didn't believe her and punished her. He spoke to Sylvestre, then took her back to him.

Sylvestre told her not to tell. For the next five years, she was raped at least once a week, sometimes four times a week.

She told a teacher -- a nun -- and was punished for accusing a priest.

Sylvestre also took graphic photos of her. He forced her into other sexual acts. He would pull her out of class at Ursuline College.

At 17, Soontiens discovered she was pregnant. Her grandfather called on Sylvestre for advice. He arranged for what Ledroit described as a botched "back alley abortion."

Soontiens remembered a trip to London with a blood-soaked towel between her legs. Victoria Hospital records dated Feb. 21, 1973, indicate she underwent a followup procedure to an incomplete abortion.

Sylvestre was the only person who visited her.

Once she recovered, she left home forever. She was 17, with a Grade 9 education and little hope.

Soontiens has been married three times and has two grown sons.

She had recurring nightmares and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She thought she was the only victim until she walked into a Chatham courtroom and saw 46 others who had been damaged by Sylvestre's sexual appetite.

"We trusted him. We were doing what he asked us to do. We didn't think it was wrong. We had a feeling that it was wrong but we were told that what we were doing was right. We were special girls and we were to do what we were asked to do."

In 2006, Soontiens sold her dog grooming business partly because of the stigma attached to coming forward. "One woman said to me, 'Thank God it was a priest who did it to you and not just a stranger off the street.'

 "It hurt. I had phone calls that I was closing churches and we were money-grubbing bitches and that we need to cease."

But Soontiens didn't stop. During one of Sylvestre's court appearances, she fainted and had to be taken away by ambulance.

But as her civil court case approached -- it would have started Monday -- her resolve strengthened.

"I said all along I was going to go to trial," she said. "I wanted to let the public know what they did to me and others and they could have stopped it and they didn't."

Lawyer Rob Talach said there was evidence the church knew of Sylvestre's sexual perversion sooner than previously believed -- in 1953 in Hamilton.

Soontiens said she has no faith. "I think if there was a God why didn't he help me and he didn't," she said. ---

SYLVESTRE BY THE NUMBERS 47: Number of convictions for indecent assault

5: Number of parishes where victims came forward

3: Number of years Sylvestre was sentenced to prison

3: Number of months Sylvestre served before his death in early 2007

70+: Number of civil actions against the Roman Catholic Diocese of London.

$1.745 million: Settlement with Lou Ann Soontiens, more than $2-million when legal costs are included.  

Victim of abuse by priest awarded more than $2M

 CTV News

Fri May. 08 2009 8:14:30 PM

The Canadian Press 

LONDON, Ont. — A southwestern Ontario woman has found justice in the criminal and civil courts for the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of pedophile priest Charles Sylvestre.

But Lou Ann Soontiens's monetary settlement from the Roman Catholic Diocese of London, one of the largest in Canadian history, can never buy back the innocence she lost.

 "I feel really good that this part is over," Soontiens, 53, said Friday during a news conference at the London offices of Ledroit Beckett Litigation Lawyers.

The Chatham, Ont., woman feels vindicated that the diocese settled the case, which was scheduled to go to court next week.

The overall settlement of all claims and costs is more than $2 million.

"For all those years I kept it inside," she said, noting when she disclosed the abuse to two adults, including her grandfather and a nun, she wasn't believed.

"Now, I have the sense that someone believed me."

Soontiens said while she's come a long way on her journey towards healing, she still struggles with nightmares and guilt.

She said the money won't dramatically change her life she will remain a homebody and continue doing everyday chores such as cutting the grass.

She will also continue working at coming to terms with her stolen childhood.

 Sylvestre, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to indecently assaulting 47 girls over four decades while serving at parishes in the southwestern Ontario communities of Chatham, Pain Court, London, Windsor and Sarnia, died three months into his three-year prison term.

Of all the horrible stories of abuse by Sylvestre, Soontiens's is one of the worst.

The abuse Soontiens suffered included years of rape starting at age 12, lawyer Paul Ledroit said Friday.

"It went on over the next five years at least weekly and sometimes more often," he said.

The ongoing rapes resulted in an abortion at age 17, he said.

Sylvestre went to his grave never admitting any allegations of rape.

"The abuse she endured was every imaginable form and beyond," Ledroit said. "It would have been very graphic at trial."  

Lawyer Rob Talach said the size of the settlement is indicative of the heinous nature of the abuse Soontiens lived through.

"It is extremely large (settlement) compared to the past track record in the area," he said. "It's leaps and bounds forward in the right direction. This is the largest individual settlement we know of."

Soontiens plans to stay involved with Sylvestre's other victims, many of whom are still in the civil court process.

She hopes her settlement will help others.

Mark Adkinson, director of communications for the diocese, said more than 50 cases connected to Sylvestre have been settled.

"The circumstances of Lou Ann's case are the worst that we've seen," he said.

Adkinson said Sylvestre's sins have had a major impact on the diocese.

"This has really shaken the diocese to the core, that a priest, one of our own, could have done this to children," he said. "It's a very courageous thing that Lou Ann and these other women have done -- coming forward and sharing their stories."

He said Bishop Ronald Fabbro personally apologized to Soontiens during the civil process. "We're sorry, we're sorry, we're sorry," Adkinson said.

"We're sorry for all the hurt she and others have experienced as a result of contact with Charles Sylvestre. We're doing everything we can to make sure something like this never happens again."  

Soontiens said protecting children from pedophile priests is the most important thing the Catholic church can do.

The church could have protected her and the other victims but instead protected Sylvestre, she said. "They did us wrong. They could have stopped it and they didn't," she said.

Reports of sexual abuse against the priest to church authorities are numerous and were recorded as far back as 1953, Ledroit said.

"Lou Ann did not meet Sylvestre until 1968," he said.  

 
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