CNWE-Canada Applauds Supreme Court Ruling in Favour of Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivor, Irene Deschenes in her Battle for Justice Against Diocese of London

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 11, 2021

While justice has been done today, Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE) -Canada calls Diocese of London to enter into mediated settlement with Irene Deschenes, rather than re-victimizing Irene with another civil process. 

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in favour of clergy sexual abuse survivor Irene Deschenes and her right to a new settlement with the Diocese of London. The Diocese misrepresented itself in the initial settlement, claiming no knowledge of the abuse, when in fact it had received a police report of three victims abused by Fr. Charles Sylvestre almost a decade before Irene was abused. In 2006, Fr. Sylvestre pleaded guilty and was convicted of the historical sexual abuse of dozens of girls over a period of 36 years. 

Rather than settling with Irene and offering her healing in this decades-long battle, the Diocese appealed the decisions of two lower courts that ruled in favour of Irene, and took this case to the highest court in the land. This misuse of legal power and resources by the diocese contradicts Vatican and diocesan guidelines recommending expeditious, just and compassionate settlements for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. The statement from the Diocese of London, following the ruling today says: “We believe in treating victims with the empathy and respect needed to help them receive justice and begin the healing process.” It’s long past time for the Diocese of London to make this claim credible and enter into mediation for a swift and just settlement with Irene Deschenes.  

Catholic Network for Women’s Equality continues to stand in solidarity with Irene Deschenes and all survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

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Statement: Catholic Network for Women’s Equality – Canada Welcomes Pope Francis’ Appointment of First Woman to Synod of Bishops: Another Step Forward but Not Enough

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE February 8, 2021 (REVISED* February 11, 2021)

Catholic Network for Women’s Equality – Canada Welcomes Pope Francis’ Appointment of First Woman to Synod of Bishops:  Another Step Forward but Not Enough

Catholic Network for Women’s Equality – Canada (CNWE) says that while Pope Francis’ recent appointment of Sister Nathalie Becquart to the position of Under-Secretary to the Synod of Bishops is a step forward for women in the church, equality for women in the Church still has a long way to go. 

On February 6, the Vatican announced the appointment of Sister Nathalie Becquart of France as Under-Secretary to the Synod of Bishops. For the first time, a woman will have voting rights at the vital decision-making synods of bishops that have occurred every few years since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Pope Francis also named Italian magistrate Catia Summaria as the first woman in the role of Promoter of Justice in the Vatican’s Court of Appeals. We congratulate Sister Nathalie Becquart and magistrate Catia Summaria on these appointments. 

Catholics around the world, seeking justice and equality for women in the Church, have been calling for voting rights for women in the deliberations of the Church since before Vatican II. On one level, the members of CNWE celebrate these appointments. The appointments  represent decades of persistent advocacy by Catholic reform groups, women religious and some clergy. The appointments also signify that Pope Francis is listening and taking initial steps  to ‘open the door’ to women’s greater participation in decision-making roles in the Church.

CNWE is also concerned, however, that the Vatican appointment of women to a few high-level positions is also a form of ‘tokenism’. To have only one woman permitted to vote at a church synod, is in no way sufficiently representative of Catholic women, who make up more than half the church. While we welcome Pope Francis’ recent appointments as small steps forward, CNWE will continue to work for full recognition of the baptismal equality of women in an inclusive, just and accountable Catholic Church.  

*REVISION: Although our original statement of February 8 reported (based on credible mainstream press reports) that the Vatican had put the German Catholic women’s organization, Maria 2.0 ‘under observation’, we have since learned that this is not the case.

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CNWE Supports Irene Deschenes, Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivor

This fall, CNWE members across Canada sent letters to Bishop Ronald Fabbro of London, Ontario asking him to mediate a just settlement with Irene Deschenes.

Irene is a clergy sexual abuse survivor at the heart of a decades-long legal battle with the Diocese of London. She was 10 years old and a member of St. Ursula Catholic School and Parish in Chatham, ON when she was sexually abused by Fr. Charles Sylvestre in the early 1970s. 

Irene filed a lawsuit with the Diocese in 1996 and settled out of court in 2000. At that time, the Diocese of London claimed it did not learn of Fr. Sylvestre’s sexual abuse of minors until the late 1980’s. 

In 2006, Fr. Sylvestre pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting 47 girls under the age of 18, including Irene Deschenes. At that time, it came to light that the Diocese had received police statements that Fr. Sylvestre had sexually assaulted three girls in 1962, almost a decade before Ms. Deschenes was sexually assaulted. If the Diocese had acted on this information at the time, the sexual assault of Irene Deschenes and 43 additional girls could have been prevented. 

With this revelation, Ms. Deschenes sought to have her original lawsuit thrown out. A superior court judge ruled in Irene Deschenes’ favour but the Diocese of London appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Appeal Court also sided with Irene Deschenes in May 2020, saying that there had been significant “misrepresentation” by the Church that impacted the original settlement. The court also said evidence that the Diocese tried to cover up the allegations of sexual abuse is “relevant to the consideration of fairness and justice.”

The Diocese of London has now filed for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, rather than mediate a new settlement with Ms. Deschenes. As Irene Deschenes says: “It’s painful enough to try to recover from the effects of sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest; it’s even more painful to recover from the effects of legal bullying that the Church and their lawyers put victims through again and again. If we go to mediation, this painful process will be expedited, and I can finally get on with my life.” (The Canadian Press, August 20, 2020) 

We hope you will join in supporting Irene Deschenes in calling the Diocese of London to justice.

https://justiceforirene.wordpress.com

CNWE Letter of Solidarity to US Reform Groups

To the staff and members of WOC, WATER, Future Church, and Call to Action, from the members of the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality, (CNWE), Canada

In the aftermath of the mob assault incited by President Donald Trump on the Capitol building at the heart of American democracy on January 6, 2021, we write to offer you our solidarity in these times. 

We are aware that many of you, while advocating for justice and equality in the Catholic church, have also devoted your lives to justice in many other areas of American society. These last four years of the Trump presidency have had disastrous consequences for civil discourse, democracy, just policing and the rights of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+ persons, women, Muslims, migrants and refugees in the United States. In addition, the loss of life due to mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, has been devastating for so many, as has the absence  of leadership on the environment. We stand with you as you raise your voices against these travesties.

As Canadians, we have also been called during this time to ‘look in the mirror’ and see the insidious historical seeds and present manifestations of systemic racism and police brutality, particularly against indigenous people in Canada, the rise of populist right-wing and Christian extremism as well as the impact of Covid-19 on woefully inadequate long term care homes across our country. In both of our nations, as Covid-19 is pointing out, we are ‘all in the same storm’ but not ‘all in the same boat’In Canada, the poor and homeless, elderly and racialized communities, as well as underpaid personal support workers and migrant farmers have taken the brunt of sickness and death due to Covid-19. The pandemic is offering us all a sobering, stark picture of the work yet to be done.  

It is our fervent hope and prayer that the inauguration of President-elect Joseph Biden Jr. and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be without incident and that the integrity of the vast majority of Americans who strive for peace, justice and the common good will prevail.  

May you be safe and well in these times and may the ‘silver lining’ of our online connecting across borders continue to grow and be strengthened. 

In friendship and solidarity and on behalf of CNWE members across Canada, 

CNWE National Work Group (NWG)

Statement on “Spiritus Domini”

Pope Francis’ Change to Church Law is a Step Forward but Not Enough

January 18, 2021

On January 10, 2021, Pope Francis issued the Apostolic Letter, “Spiritus Domini,” which changes Catholic Church law regarding the roles of acolytes (altar servers and eucharistic ministers) and lectors (readers) at mass to include girls and women. Though girls and women have been acolytes and lectors for decades in most Catholic churches around the world, permission had to be granted by the local priest or bishop, and in some jurisdictions, was denied. Canon Law 230, Section 1 now states that “lay persons” will be permitted to fulfill these roles and be formally received into these ministries.

Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE) – Canada, has been working for justice and equality for women in the Catholic Church for 40 years and we welcome this change in church law as a step forward on the church’s journey toward the radical equality exemplified in the Gospel. We also welcome Pope Francis’ reiteration that Church law must evolve and develop to faithfully respond to the needs of the times. 

We are encouraged that Pope Francis emphasizes in “Spiritus Domini” that the sacrament of baptism is foundational to ministry. In his added rationale however, he repeats the claim of Pope John Paul II that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” This begs the question: If women’s baptismal call to non-ordained ministry has been made valid in the law of the Catholic Church, why is the baptismal call of qualified women to ordained ministry invalid? To fully embody belief in the equal dignity of all people before God, the church must welcome women and all baptized Catholics to live out their call to ministry, leadership and decision-making roles for which they are competent.

We are also encouraged that Pope Francis has been listening to the concerns of the world’s bishops in recent synods and issued this letter motu proprio (meaning by his own initiative). He is demonstrating that church law can be responsive to the “signs of the times.” Yet, it is frustrating that women, who make up more than half the membership of the Catholic Church, and lay people in general, have little to no voice in synods, and have no voting rights at synods or papal conclaves. Filtering most decision-making and discernment in the Church through male clergy not only prevents justice and equality in the church, it also robs women and all lay Catholics from being able to be more deeply ‘formed in faith’ by serving the church in these capacities. 

CNWE, together with Catholic reform movements around the world actively hopes for the day when the hierarchy is no longer blinded by historic and systemic sexism and can work alongside us in moving from partial to full equality for Catholic women. We will continue to advocate for a renewed, inclusive, accountable and relevant Catholic church – a church for our times. 

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