A test of faith: He was molested by a priest — then ordained as a priest with his abuser in the room

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The National Post

07 December 2014

Joseph Brean

CORNWALL, ONT. — It is raining outside under heavy grey skies as a dozen elderly francophone Catholics gather for mass at dawn in the little parish of Ste.-Thérèse-de-Lisieux.

They pray aloud together as they wait for Father Claude Thibault, who lives in an adjoining house partly built by his late father, to put on his vestments.

Fr. Thibault, a genial and chatty man with a sly sense of humour, has attended this church all his life. He was baptized here. As a child, his family took up an entire pew. As a teenager, he read scripture. In July, he became its priest.

Part of his manipulation was protecting himself, by not only working at appealing to us, but also pushing others away, creating mistrust of others, sometimes in very subtle ways

Given what he has endured, though, it is a wonder he is here at all.

This was once the stalking grounds of a sexual predator, a priest at the right hand of the local bishop who abused the youth of this parish and the local high school, and kept them silent through what a judge described as the “spiritual manipulation of consciences.”

Fr. Thibault, now 54, was one of the victims. He was repeatedly molested by this priest, who was a false friend and mentor who encouraged his vocation to the priesthood, even formally vouched for his worthiness at his ordination as deacon, a ceremony spoiled by suppressed rage. When he tried to speak up, the cloistered Catholic hierarchy leapt to denial, and shuffled the abuser to other parishes, where the abuse complaints continued.

Tyler Anderson/National Post

Tyler Anderson/National PostFather Claude Thibault, a victim of sexual abuse by a notorious priest whose crimes and coverup were exposed by a major inquiry, poses for a portrait in Cornwall, Ont.

This is by now a well-known pattern in the Catholic Church, which has been rocked by historical allegations of abuse and failures to act. But it has left a particularly deep scar in this Eastern Ontario city, where a four-year public inquiry uncovered how people in positions of power and trust — the police, the Children’s Aid Society, the Catholic Church and others — chose to keep silent, protecting abusers and not children.

Silence and healing are dominant themes in the modern Catholic Church, each in tension with the other. So long as silence lasts, recovery is elusive. But the truth is devastating to hear. For every public gesture of penance and reconciliation, such as Pope Francis’s meeting this summer with sexual abuse victims and his call for the church to “weep” for its “complicity,” there is a new revelation of abuse.

For many Catholics, the tension is so great that their faith is simply broken. Full recovery, for the Church in society, might be impossible.

Fr. Thibault has suffered grievances that would turn most people off the institution, if not the faith. Instead, his surprising story of finding solace in the ancient traditions of Rome is a modern parable of Christian ethics, of forgiveness freely given, even when the sinner denies the sin, and of a Church that looks to the divine through flawed, sinful, human eyes.

As he puts it, “I didn’t become a priest because I couldn’t do anything else.”

Claude Thibault was born in Cornwall in June 1960, the youngest boy in a family of five sisters and a brother. His mother ran the house, and his father, a contractor who wished for his children a better education than he had, was a firm, fair authority. Home was a refuge, a place of support.

Courtesy of Claude Thibault

Courtesy of Claude Thibault  Claude Thibault’s First Communion in 1968.

At school, though, he was a bit of a nerdy kid, earnest, smart and faithful. He did not have many close friends. Skinny like a pack of bones, his French surname morphed in the schoolyard into the English taunt “T-bone,” and though he was competent at solo sports, and still cycles a lot, he was always among the last picked for team sports. Later, at the local high school La Citadelle, he “got along with people okay but there was never a close relationship. … There was a desire maybe to be more popular.”

He found his place in religion. He became leader of his parish youth group, an altar boy, and a reader at mass. There was even a smugness in his sense of his own virtue. He would not stoop to associate with peers who did not display “exemplary behaviour.” Perhaps not surprisingly, he did not have girlfriends, nor rebel in the traditional ways. Rather than buying his first legal beer, for example, he spent his 18th birthday at a religious retreat.

“I was a very obedient kid, and I was proud that I never went through a teenage crisis, proud and almost condescending,” he says. “I analyze everything. I tended to be very judgmental.”

In time, he would turn those judgments on himself, but by Grade 11 and 12, he was still gaining a new confidence. He became an enthusiastic early member of a Catholic youth group, under the guidance of the charismatic new school chaplain.

I was a very obedient kid, and I was proud that I never went through a teenage crisis

Gilles Deslauriers was ordained a Catholic priest in 1970 by his close friend, the late Bishop Adolphe Proulx.

He was known as a character: funny, smart, approachable, unconventional, but reserved about his personal background and family, except to tell students he had graduate degrees in philosophy and psychology, with a focus on sexual problems. This, as Fr. Thibault later learned, was one of many manipulative lies.

Fr. Deslauriers also claimed to have worked in Haiti with the Jesuits, the famously cerebral Catholic scholarly congregation, and had to leave with just the shirt on his back. Fr. Thibault recalls this as one of several stories that should have tripped a warning. Maybe he was never there, Fr. Thibault says, or maybe he did not leave so much as got chased out.

“I don’t think what happened in Cornwall started in Cornwall,” Fr. Thibault says.

Courtesy of Claude Thibault

Courtesy of Claude ThibaultFather Claude Thibault delivers mass in 1986.

When Bishop Proulx moved on to the Diocese of Hull in 1974, his successor, Bishop Eugène LaRocque, immediately noticed a tension in the diocese between Fr. Deslauriers and the other priests. They found him controlling and manipulative, traits that a psychologist in criminal proceedings would later describe as possible signs of borderline personality disorder, a condition characterized by intense interpersonal conflicts, persistent social delusions and neediness in counterpoint with aggression. It is frequently diagnosed in hindsight, after some disaster.

Bishop Proulx had a cottage near Cornwall, where his sister lived with Jeannine Séguin, principal of the Cornwall high school La Citadelle, which was then public, not formally Catholic, although its students mainly were. Ms. Séguin was well-loved by her students, known as “Ma Tante [my aunt] Jeannine,” and it was on her advice, encouraged by Bishop Proulx, that the new Bishop LaRocque named Fr. Deslauriers as school chaplain.


File Gilles Deslauriers was named school chaplain at the Cornwall high school La Citadelle in 1977.

It was September 1977. Fr. Deslauriers, then about 40, took stewardship of the school’s Catholic club known as R3, “R-cubed,” based on the ideal of meeting (“rencontre” in French) God, self and others. He had great success.

“He brought a very significant turnaround in the whole atmosphere of the school,” Fr. Thibault says. “The whole faith aspect really blossomed. … It kinda became cool to be involved in the Church.”

But suspicion also flourished, as Fr. Deslauriers used his humour to denigrate and mock other priests to the students in what seemed to Fr. Thibault almost like an expression of jealousy.

“Part of his manipulation was protecting himself, by not only working at appealing to us, but also pushing others away, creating mistrust of others, sometimes in very subtle ways, so that basically we wouldn’t tend to confide in others about things that were happening with him,” Fr. Thibault says. “It was enticing.”

As part of his chaplaincy, Fr. Deslauriers started a Saturday afternoon question period, one each for girls and boys, in which students could ask anything they wished. Naturally, questions were often about sex, sometimes at Fr. Deslauriers’ suggestion.

“In a subtle way I still haven’t figured out, he created a problem in our mind, but presented himself as a solution, because he was so knowledgeable,” Fr. Thibault says.

As a teenager on the straight and narrow who had never had a girlfriend, but hoped to one day be a good husband, Claude Thibault was lured into these conversations on sex, which by January had given way to private counselling with Fr. Deslauriers in his office at a nearby church.

Tyler Anderson/National Post

Tyler Anderson/National PostFather Claude Thibault conducts the morning mass at Paroisse Sainte-Thérèse-De-Lisieux church in Cornwall, Ont.

The teenager was nervous about the sexual aspect of marriage, and Fr. Deslauriers said he could help ensure a healthy relationship in accordance with marriage’s status as a Catholic sacrament.

The abuse consisted of sexual touching, some by Fr. Deslauriers and some by Claude Thibault himself, framed as an exploration of the teenager’s arousal. It was “really presented as a therapy, and kind of an introspection.” As he did it, Fr. Deslauriers would ask, “How do you feel? What comes through your mind?”

Fr. Deslauriers was never obviously aroused. “He was very stoic, if I can use that term … very professional. Never did I get the sense that he wanted me to do something to him.”

Courtesy of Claude Thibault

Courtesy of Claude ThibaultClaude Thibault in Sept 1975, when he was 15 years old.

By not rushing him and emphasizing trust, it was almost “respectful,” Fr. Thibault says. “That’s sly too.”

“I never denied that I consented. He had so convinced me that I needed that therapy that that’s why I went back for it,” he says.

A recurring theme was how special the young Claude Thibault was, and how Fr. Deslauriers would not do this for anyone else, which was also a lie.

For the confused guilt he felt about the abuse, the teenager was offered the sacrament of confession from his abuser, in an outrageous violation of canon law. In the name of God, Fr. Deslauriers ordered him to perform penance to absolve his sins.

“It was kind of weird,” Fr. Thibault says. “He was offering [the abuse] as therapy, so it was clear that in his mind there was nothing wrong. But I felt it was wrong. So I was telling the person who didn’t think it was wrong that I thought it was wrong. That’s how messed up it was. I look back and I laugh at myself.”

The abuse spanned eight months, and ended that fall when Claude Thibault went away to university in Ottawa. To this day, Fr. Thibault does not think it was for Fr. Deslaurier’s own sexual gratification.

“On the one hand I believe he really wanted to help, in a very warped way,” he says. “I also believe that, for some reason, he needed to be needed. He needed to be valued. And he felt he could make a positive difference in our lives.”

There is a French expression, “bâtir un château en Espagne,” to build a castle in Spain, that Fr. Thibault thinks captures the curious charisma of Fr. Deslauriers, who seemed to believe and build upon his own lies and deceptions, possibly because the enormity of the truth became too great.

“In his mind he had built a castle that he really believed was true,” Fr. Thibault says.

The young student was not yet mature enough to see through the fantasy. “He was my idol,” Fr. Thibault says. “I wanted to be a priest like him. He was my hero.”

A few years later, Claude Thibault was enrolled in the seminary and pursuing the priesthood in earnest. But he was in crisis. Fr. Deslauriers had become his vocation director, and as a result, the novice was at risk of being expelled due to increasingly rebellious behaviour. He was fearful of what Fr. Deslauriers would do to protect himself if the truth came out.

“When I say rebellion I was also trying to search, to understand, because it didn’t become clear overnight what had happened. So in that search and in that confusion, I closed in on myself,” he said. “The dilemma was I couldn’t just drop Gilles.”

Tyler Anderson/National Post

Tyler Anderson/National PostFather Claude Thibault, a victim of sexual abuse by a notorious priest whose crimes and coverup were exposed by a major inquiry, poses for a portrait in Cornwall, Ont.

He realized he was becoming a priest not for God, but for “Father Gilles.”

He decided to confide in Bishop LaRocque about part of the abuse, describing the manipulative power Fr. Deslauriers had over him, but leaving out the sexual aspect. He was trying, as he puts it, to open a door.

Rather than offer an empathetic ear, however, Bishop LaRocque cautioned him against making such “grave accusations.” It was a response the bishop would come to regret, as he has publicly testified, and it silenced Fr. Thibault for many more months.

Over time, though, thanks especially to two supportive friends, the young seminarian steeled himself to confront Fr. Deslauriers directly.

“I had become aware of the control he had on me. I needed to break that. I was terrified of him,” Fr. Thibault says. When they met in a Cornwall church office, Fr. Deslauriers said only that he was sorry the therapy had not worked. But Fr. Thibault said something he knows by heart decades later, a phrase that has taken on the quality of a prayer.

“The control I’ve given you over my life, I’m taking it back,” he said, in French. “I really broke the spell that day.”

After the confrontation, Fr. Thibault felt free, but not yet unburdened. So a week after his ordination in early 1986, he went to see Bishop LaRocque again and told him the whole story of sexual abuse. This time, he was believed.

Despite this, the abuse remained an internal Church matter, probed by a secret ad hoc diocesan committee set up by Bishop LaRocque. It found reasons for suspicion, even a bank account with $150,000 in Fr. Deslauriers’ name that an auditor believed had been collected for church activities. The committee heard testimony from many of Fr. Deslauriers’ victims and their families, if they offered to speak, but made no effort to seek out others. Fr. Thibault himself was not invited.

Courtesy of Claude Thibault

Courtesy of Claude Thibaul  tA bishop imposes hands on Claude Thibault’s head at his ordination to the priesthood in 1986

When the family of another victim, a friend and classmate from La Citadellle already known to church officials, felt the committee was stalling, they went to the local press. Soon after that, police acting on a tip came calling on Fr. Thibault.

Two detectives met the young priest at his rectory, and Fr. Thibault panicked. There was a gathering of priests and the bishop there that day, and he worried what they might think. He lied to the police, said there was no abuse, but added that they were “on the right track.” He feared Fr. Deslauriers would go to jail and he did not want that.

Immediately, he regretted it. “I was raging inside because I was part of that cover-up,” he says.

That night, he consulted a lawyer, who called police back and changed his statement to “no comment.” The detectives had not believed him anyway, and charges soon followed.

A few months later, Fr. Thibault testified as a victim, his identity protected by a publication ban, at a preliminary inquiry, after which Fr. Deslauriers was committed to stand trial on seven counts of indecent assault and four of gross indecency. There had been as many as 30 other complainants in Cornwall. It was the first time Fr. Thibault learned the true extent of Fr. Deslauriers’ abuse.

Just before trial, Fr. Deslauriers pleaded guilty to the four gross indecency charges, and was given a suspended sentence and two years probation, ordered to undergo therapy, and to be supervised by Bishop Proulx, his former boss. Fr. Thibault was one of the four confirmed victims.

As Judge Fernand Gratton said in court, Bishop Proulx’s offer to supervise Fr. Deslauriers “indicates a confidence he has in the future of this person.” Whether that confidence was misplaced or manipulated is difficult to tell. But it hardly mattered. When Bishop Proulx died at his cottage halfway through Fr. Deslauriers probation, that condition simply fell by the wayside.

Tyler Anderson/National Post

Tyler Anderson/National PostParishioners listen as Father Claude Thibault delivers mass at Paroisse Sainte-Thérèse-De-Lisieux church in Cornwall, Ont.

Before his death, Bishop Proulx had shuffled the newly convicted priest discreetly out of Cornwall to Quebec. Fr. Deslauriers arrived in the diocese of Saint-Jérôme in early 1987, and was put in charge of Saint-Adèle parish, outside Montreal. He was formally installed there the next year, an appointment renewed in 1990.

The past never really caught up with him, but new troubles emerged.

In December 1996, Fr. Deslauriers was removed from his post, “officially for reasons of health,” according to Msgr. Pierre Morissette, the current Bishop of Saint-Jérôme. Behind the scenes, however, he said there were “difficulties” in the parish, and that people are divided on this subject.

Courtesy of Claude Thibault

Courtesy of Claude ThibaultClaude Thibault in 1986.

The sacristan — often a lay person who is in charge of maintaining the sacristy, where vestments and the tools of communion are kept — had accused Fr. Deslauriers of sexual touching, and there were rumours that young boys had been abused, according to Msgr. Morissette.

A Quebec police investigation did not result in charges and, according to Msgr. Morissette, discarded the possibility of sexual abuse against minors.

Fr. Deslauriers, now 77, has not performed ministry in the Church since, and lives in another diocese where the bishop is aware of the situation. Msgr. Morissette declined to reveal which diocese, or how to reach Fr. Deslauriers. The last known address, which even the diocese of Saint-Jérôme is unsure of, is a small house in a Montreal suburb. The National Post did not succeed in efforts to contact Fr. Deslauriers.

Like many repentant sinners, the Church believes it has changed for the better.

“It seems evident that, today, with the protocols set in place by the dioceses and the new norms of Rome, it is no longer possible that a priest, with a history like Mr. Deslauriers, could be incardinated successively in three different dioceses and to continue to exercise ministry,” said Msgr. Morissette.

“Now we have to call the police. That’s one of the differences,” said Archbishop Anthony Mancini of Halifax-Yarmouth, co-treasurer of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and chair of its committee on sexual abuse. “Much has been learned by everyone, from the Pope on down. … We won’t have a knee-jerk reaction of denial.”

Despite all this, Fr. Deslauriers remains a priest in the eyes of God and the Church.

“A priest is always a priest. You can call him an abuser but he’s still a priest,” says Archbishop Mancini. Priests can be removed from ministry, but ordination cannot be undone.


3 Responses to A test of faith: He was molested by a priest — then ordained as a priest with his abuser in the room

  1. Sylvia says:

    Strange. Why this article now?

    Father Claude Thibault testified at the Cornwall Public Inquiry seven years ago.

    Please read the blog I posted 02 October 2007 regarding Father Thibault’s testimony at the inquiry. The link is posted on his page as: 02 October 2007: BLOG Good point (Damage control? and reference friendship with Father Stephen Amesse who contributed to CCCB’s sex abuse guidelines From Pain to Hope. )

    I suggest that those who want to see exactly what was said read the transcripts:

    01 October 2007: Father Claude Thibault transcript of testimony at the Cornwall Public Inquiry

    02 October 2007: Father Claude Thibault transcript of testimony at the Cornwall Public Inquiry

    One more thing, Father Gilles Deslaurir should be defrocked. He should have been defrocked years ago.

  2. Marion says:

    How typical and sad this and related stories are about the psychological manipulation of priests and bishops. How clever (and sick) they are in keeping their sexual deviation justified and hidden. The power they had over the minds/consciences of those who served them is not as great any more because the access is not there. Thank God for that. But we are all still healing from what has been revealed through the courageous voices of the abused. Abuse was/is rampant but embezzlement within the clergy is also big. We parishioners should ask more questions and demand answers but we are even afraid to face that crime head on. We shouldn’t be more lenient with clergy than with anyone else. Crime is crime. I am reminded of the documentary Holy Money.

  3. Richard Daigneault says:

    This article really strikes home, and brings me back to a dark place. I was there at La Citadelle in Cornwall, late 70s to 81, and was a close friend of Deslaurier and involved in R3. Everything that has been said here is true, including how manipulative Deslauriers was. I was never caught in his scheme, as he knew cleverly how to pick his victims. I had many one on one private meetings with him at school and at his church and yes, the subject would often turn to sex. He would ask questions about my sexuality and masturbation. He would put his hand on the knee, perhaps thigh, I remember that well…but he never tried to touch me. I had no idea what was going on at the time, and have to say that I liked him a lot. I was close friends with the Brisson family, so when everything came out I was devastated. Since 1986, I have know many guys that have been abused by him, always in the same way. I believe there was clearly a cover-up, that the church handled it poorly, that Deslauriers should have rotten in jail for a number of years for what he did, and largely because of this I am no longer a believer in the catholic church and of the Christian beliefs. People like this bastard have ruined it for many. Why he is still a priest is beyond belief, but only demonstrates how the church is a false institution that cannot practice what it preaches. I hope Deslauriers goes to hell, even though I don’t believe in hell..but whatever hell there is, he belongs there.

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