The Good Father
Father Sylvestre: convicted pedophile
But, for more than four decades, beginning in the 1950s, at least one Catholic priest preyed on the young girls of his parishes. By the time he was arrested and convicted, Father Charles Sylvestre was identified as one of the worst pedophile priests in Canadian history. The number of his known victims is in the dozens, but is potentially far greater than that.
In the autumn of 2006, the fifth estate began investigating the priest's history of abuse, who knew about it and when and why he was able to serve in parishes for more than forty years.
What the fifth estate found was that senior clergy in the Diocese of London knew as far back as 1962 that young girls had complained about Father Sylvestre's abuses. Their response, at the time, was to send Sylvestre to a retreat in Montreal before police investigators could question him. They would send him two more times to treatment facilities. Over time, victims reported the abuse to their teachers and parents; many weren't believed, and "Sylvestre the Molester," as he became known, kept on. He retired in 1993.
Victims speak out publicly
But, some of his victims, now grown women, began to speak out publicly and in 2005 the Chatham-Kent police arrested the 82-year-old priest on charges of indecent assault, rape and sexual intercourse with a female under 14. He pleaded guilty in August, 2006 to 47 counts of indecent assault, one for each of his 47 victims. He went to prison for three years on October 6, 2006. He died in a prison hospital of natural causes on January 22, 2007.
Charles Sylvestre left a legacy of what one crown attorney calls "psychological carnage". The fifth estate's Hana Gartner, through interviews with some of Sylvestre's victims, establishes a decades-long pattern of abuse, and through documents and interviews, establishes a decades-long pattern of silence about that abuse by members of the Roman Catholic church.
In The Good Father, the fifth estate examines a story of power, abuse and a reckoning with a painful past.
interview with Rob Talach, a lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse cases and represents 21 of Father Sylvestre's victims.
Hana Gartner: WHAT PERCENTAGE OF YOUR PRACTISE DEALS WITH VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ABUSE BY CLERGY?
Rob Talach: I would say victims of sexual abuse in general is about ninety percent of my practise and about half of that is Clergy.
Hana Gartner: THAT SOUNDS LIKE A LOT.
Rob Talach: It is a lot. I mean, one is too many. But there are American attorneys that I've dealt with who have done this as exclusively, clergy abuse, as a career for over a decade now.
Hana Gartner: THAT IS A STUNNING THOUGHT, THAT A LAWYER CAN MAKE HIS CAREER OUT OF SEXUAL ABUSE BY CLERGY?
Rob Talach: Right. And it's a real strong indication that this is more than the odd case. This is some sort of systemic, large scale problem that lawyers can have decades of dealing with this specific type of litigation.
Hana Gartner: PUT THE CASE OF DOC, OR, PUT THE CASE OF FATHER SYLVESTER IN CONTEXT FOR ME. HOW BIG IS IT, IN SCOPE AND IN SIZE?
Rob Talach: It's the largest we've seen here, out of this office. I think the largest we've seen in Canada with respect to a single perpetrator and number of known victims. So, it's large.
Rob Talach: I think it's simply though is a case where more the victims have been identified than in other cases. I mean, the fact that he had fifty-some victims over a career as a pedophile priest, I don't find is unusual, because we have other cases where we have identified dozens of victims. The issue is do you ever find them all? How long has this person left in the field operating?
"I would be confident in saying there'd be over a hundred victims.
I'd base that on our experience that we usually only get to identify the tip of the iceberg about a third of the known victims."
Hana Gartner: WELL, WHEN YOU EXTRAPOLATE, I MEAN, THIS IS, THIS IS A MAN WHO HAS HAD A CAREER THAT STARTED IN THE EARLY FIFTIES - SO WHEN THERE ARE FORTY-SEVEN VICTIMS IN A CRIMINAL CASE, HOW MANY WOULD YOU SUSPECT THERE ARE ACTUALLY?
Rob Talach: Over a hundred. I would be confident in saying there'd be over a hundred victims.
Hana Gartner: AND YOU BASE THAT ON WHAT?
Rob Talach: I'd base that on our experience that we usually only get to identify the tip of the iceberg about a third of the known victims, and, I take that from cases where Priests have said, you know, I have twenty-five victims, and we can only identify a third of them by name. And they're of no assistance in identifying the others, and I honestly think they have so many victims, at times, they forget.
Hana Gartner: COULD YOU GIVE ME A SENSE OF THESE WOMEN, A PROFILE?
Rob Talach: These women have struggled with this issue and it's really interrupted their lives, and a lot of them have tried to help others as a result of what they have gone through. I find many of these women have went into professions, or attempted to go into professions where they help others. There are some women that I have interviewed that still have grave difficulty even speaking about the abuse, and a handful of our clients are almost to the point of being dysfunctional as a result of having gone through the criminal process and the stress that that created.
Hana Gartner: THEY WERE LITTLE GIRLS. THIS ABUSE HAPPENED, IN SOME CASES, THIRTY YEARS AGO AND IT'S STILL SUCH A LARGE PART OF THEIR LIVES?
"It's hard for people to really wrap their head around the impact of childhood sexual abuse.
When you start to work with the victims or you get into the literature, you'll realize that this is a devastating event on a young person's life."
Rob Talach: It's hard for people to really wrap their head around the impact of childhood sexual abuse. When you, when you get into it, you'll start to work with the victims or you get into the literature, you'll realize that this is a devastating event on a young person's life. I mean, it is when you're being formed as a human being, you have this traumatic event or series of traumatic events. It has lasting impact on a person's life. There is no question. Defence experts, both sides of this issue agree that it is a significant interrupter in a person's development.
Hana Gartner: HOW TYPICAL IS THE LONDON DIOCESE BECAUSE IT HAS HAD AN EXTRAORDINARY AMOUNT OF CONVICTIONS OF PRIESTS FOR ABHERRANT SEXUAL BEHAVIOUR.
Rob Talach: I don't know if I'd call it an anomaly here in London, and I would base this on the fact that a lot of my cases due to geography involved the Diocese of London. We do have cases with other Diocese in Ontario and I can tell you that this pattern of the silent shuffle and this institutional foot-dragging in the litigation seems to be common across the board.
Hana Gartner: BUT WHAT ABOUT SHEER NUMBERS?
Rob Talach: Sheer numbers, it is interesting that London's had so many. I think London has probably had more exposure through the media, through litigation, through some of the criminal process.
Hana Gartner: THERE HAVE ALREADY BEEN TWELVE CONVICTIONS OF PRIESTS HERE.
Rob Talach: I am not surprised with that number of convictions here in this Diocese and I would think that if other Diocese were really put under the microscope, we'd start to see some, some similar numbers.
Hana Gartner: BISHOP FABRO AND MANY, EVEN THE CRITICS OF THE CHURCH, HAVE APPLAUDED HIS CARING STATEMENT, THE FACT THAT HE APOLOGIZED TO THE VICTIMS OF FATHER SYLVESTER. HE ADMITTED THAT THE CHURCH, AS AN INSTITUTION, FAILED TO PROTECT THOSE VICTIMS. HOW FAR DOES THAT GO TO SETTING THINGS RIGHT?
Rob Talach: I'd like to see that same proactive approach or mandate directed to his litigation counsel in these matters.
Hana Gartner: WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
Rob Talach: So that we could get some movement on these cases and we could get some resolution for some of the victims that need that now.
Hana Gartner: SO WHAT HE'S TALKING NICE AND THE LAWYERS ARE DRAGGING THEIR FEET?
Rob Talach: I think there's some truth to that.
Hana Gartner: WHAT ARE YOU TELLING ME?
"I appreciate that litigation takes time, but I really think in the circumstances these Sylvester cases should be further along than they are.
Let's just say that the public face of the Diocese on this matter doesn't exactly match up with the litigation phase."
Rob Talach: I appreciate that litigation takes time, but I really think in the circumstances these Sylvester cases should be further along than they are. Our firm proposed some sort of alternative dispute resolution mechanism quite a few months ago, and it really hasn't gone anywhere. I don't want to get too much into the litigation and the negotiations surrounding that, but let's just say that the public face of the Diocese on this matter doesn't exactly match up with the litigation phase.
Hana Gartner: THERE IS MUCH TALK ABOUT CHANGE, THAT THIS HAS IT SHINED A LIGHT ON THE CHURCH AND THE WAY THEY WERE DOING THINGS, AND MAYBE THEY WERE REMISS. THERE'S MUCH TALK ABOUT A NEW DAWN. YOU'RE NOT BUYING THIS, CLEARLY.
Rob Talach: I've done this probably too long, to really buy into that right away. I think actions need to speak louder than words. We've said before, apologies and homilies are great but it's fleeting, and it's not enough of a demonstration of a real intention to change.
Hana Gartner: AND THERE HAVE BEEN MANY APOLOGIES AND HOMILIES IN THE PAST.
Rob Talach: I think the best example of the institutional foot-dragging and making change here is we went as a law firm on behalf of the number of victims to the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops when they met in Cornwall this year, and, and gave them three concrete, easy-to-implement proposals. And their response was, we can't organize as Bishops, sorry.
Hana Gartner: BUT THEY ARE ORGANIZED AS BISHOPS. THEY'RE A CONFERENCE OF BISHOPS.
"They're organized to fight same sex marriage. They're organized to weigh in on the abortion debate when it raises its head. But, their defense to our suggestions was that they can't organize on this issue of sexual abuse by their own clergy. "
Rob Talach: They're organized to fight same sex marriage. They're organized to weigh in on the abortion debate when it raises its head. But, their defense to our suggestions was that they can't organize on this issue of sexual abuse by their own clergy.
Hana Gartner: WHAT DID YOU SUGGEST?
Rob Talach: We suggested that there would be automatic defrocking application upon criminal conviction for sex abuse.
Hana Gartner: THIS DIDN'T MAKE SENSE TO THEM?
Rob Talach: Didn't make sense to them.
Hana Gartner: BUT ON WHAT GROUNDS? I'M CURIOUS. WHAT DO THEY SAY?
Rob Talach: Well, their position is, they can't force individual Bishops to enforce these policies because each Bishop is king in his own Diocese. So they didn't even really approach the merit of our suggestions.
Hana Gartner: BUT IT'S NOT ABOUT BISHOPS AND AUTHORITY. IT'S PRIESTS HAVING SEX WITH PARISHIONERS.
Rob Talach: That's right. I mean, it seems very common sense to me. I think if you went to a day care and asked them to automatically terminate anyone who was employed there and was convicted of sexual crimes with children, that would be a no-brainer.
But there seems to be a resistance within the institutional church to do this. Their suggestion is that they need to be compassionate, deal with cases on a case-by-case basis, and that ultimately, the defrocking decision is left up to the Vatican. We simply asked they make the application. And we can't even get that far.
Hana Gartner: WHAT ARE THE OTHER TWO RECOMMENDATIONS YOU BROUGHT BEFORE THE CONFERENCE?
Rob Talach: We wanted a publicly posted list of Priests that are still practising or serving the church in some capacity that have been convicted. And we'd ask that be done by Diocese.
Hana Gartner: THERE'S, THERE ARE CONVICTED SEXUAL PREDATORS STILL GIVING SACRAMENT IN THE CHURCH?
Rob Talach: Well, there are Priests out there who have had serious allegations against them, or that have been investigated, or even in some cases, that have been convicted who still practise or perform some service for the church.
"There are Priests out there who have had serious allegations against them, or that have been investigated, or even in some cases, that have been convicted who still practise or perform some service for the church. "
Let me use the example of Father Barry Glendenning who is a notorious offender from this area, who we went to the civil trial with. When we tracked him down at the early stages of litigation he was a lecturer at Saint Paul's Seminary in Ottawa. Having been convicted in the nineteen seventies, and having been chased around this country with allegations, the church kept him in service until his normal and full career was completed.
So, the other problem is we don't know who is where. I mean, it's very difficult to track Priests. It's very difficult to determine where a Priest was and where he is now. The advantage the church has is it can cross international, cultural and linguistic borders easily.
Hana Gartner: SO THERE ARE PRIESTS ON THE LAM NOW?
Rob Talach: Well, there's Priests that have fled the U.S. as you know that are public knowledge, in response to criminal investigations or civil cases.
Hana Gartner: IN CANADA, HERE?
Rob Talach: We have a Priest that was in Canada that was accused of impregnating one of his parishioners, a woman that he was counselling with regards to marriage counselling. And he is now in the U.S. So, this movement of Priests across borders and the silent shuffle, I would like to, to make clear, continues to this day.
Hana Gartner: AND THE THIRD RECOMMENDATION?
Rob Talach: The third recommendation was some sort of uniform policy with respect to counselling. Now, to the kudos of some Diocese in Ontario - and London Diocese is one of them - they now provide without prejudice counselling, as soon as you bring forward the claim or the complainant. So, that means they will pay for the psychological counselling and the short term until litigation is concluded. Some Diocese do that easily. Some Diocese in Ontario make it very difficult. So, we wanted a uniform policy, sort of a guaranteed wait time.
Hana Gartner: HAVE THERE BEEN ANY PRIESTS THAT YOU KNOW OF THAT HAVE BEEN HANDED OVER BY THE CHURCH, VOLUNTARILY HANDED OVER TO POLICE? OR HAS IT ALL BEEN THROUGH THE INITIATIVE OF THE VICTIMS?
Rob Talach: I don't know of a single Priest, in my experience, that has been voluntarily handed over to the Police.
Hana Gartner: NOT ONE?
Rob Talach: Not one.
Hana Gartner: NONE OF THE ONES THAT HAVE BEEN CONVICTED IN THE LONDON DIOCESE?
Rob Talach: Not a one that I am aware of.
Hana Gartner: I'M THINKING ABOUT SYLVESTER. IS IT ABOUT, IS THE CRIME ONE PRIEST DOING TERRIBLE THINGS? OR IS IT BIGGER THAN THAT?
Rob Talach: It's much bigger than that because if it was about one Priest doing horrible things, unsupported by others, he would have been taken to the Police in 1954 when it was first reported to the Pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Windsor.
"There is an institutional veil of secrecy, and an inability to deal with these issues at the church level.
There is the issue of the Bishops making political decisions rather than moral decisions by deciding to avoid scandal and move this man on to another parish."
But, the fact that there was an institutional support, inadvertent support. I'm not saying they directly said keep up what you're doing, but there is an institutional veil of secrecy, and an inability to deal with these issues at the church level. There is the issue of the Bishops making political decisions rather than moral decisions by deciding to avoid scandal and move this man on to another parish.
So, there's many issues here which are at the heart of all clergy sex abuse cases and Sylvester is a perfect case for those issues to really surface and be heard in a trial and for the public to become exposed to just the depth of the problem. This is only one example of something that I see as a systemic institutional fault.
Hana Gartner: AND YOU SAID, YOU THINK THIS IS NOT HIS, AN HISTORIC PROBLEM, IT'S A PRESENT DAY PROBLEM. WHY DO YOU NOT HAVE FAITH IN THE CHURCH TO CHANGE?
Rob Talach: I guess I've seen too much of it and I feel that there's still a difficulty for them to understand, A, the depth of the problem. We still get the feeling when we deal with the church that they treat these as individual anomalies - this bad Priest here, this bad Priest there - it's not a systemic problem.
And there's really generally been no change as far as we can see in how they deal with it. I mean, the fact that Father Shibilski was moved to another parish a few years before the Swayles' trial, in 2000 shows that there's no change. I mean, by 2000 they were more than aware of the problems, the silent shuffle creates, but it continues.
Hana Gartner: WHAT IS YOUR BURNING QUESTION FOR BISHOP FABRO?
"My burning question for Bishop Fabro is, how many more are there in this Diocese?
I think transparency is important here if the Diocese is to gain credibility on this issue of change."
Rob Talach: My burning question for Bishop Fabro is, how many more are there in this Diocese? I mean, I think transparency is important here if the Diocese is to gain credibility on this issue of change. And, I would welcome him to open his books on the complaints he's received and have someone of some independence look into these. I mean, are there other Priests in this Diocese that have been moved recently because of allegations, complaints or rumours in which there was an inadequate investigation by the Diocese?
There's a lot of reasons that the Diocese would want to move these people. I mean, there's the avoidance of scandal. There's the fact that this would really shatter a parish to have this allegation float forward.
Hana Gartner: BUT SURELY THEY WOULDN'T WANT TO EXPOSE MORE VICTIMS TO THIS PRIEST?
Rob Talach: You would hope so. I mean, I really, truly hope so. I hope there's change. I hope this is all just a cynical litigation lawyer who has seen too much of it from the past. But I have my concerns. I mean, it is a devastating experience for a young person. And if the church isn't doing everything that they can to avoid this repeating itself, then they need to do more. And I mean, opening their books, defrocking all these gentlemen, coming out and dealing with things in a new fashion, would be very refreshing.