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.

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. 


With Gratitude for the Life of Sr. Louise Akers, Sister of Charity of Cincinnati

By Mary Ellen Chown

Members of the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality ( were sorry to hear of the death of Sr. Louise Akers, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati on February 7, 2018.

Sr. Louise devoted 50 years of her life to social justice work and especially to advocating for gender and racial equality.

CNWE was delighted when Sr. Louise graciously accepted our invitation to be a keynote speaker at our National conference in 2013 in Sudbury, ON. In her address, Sr. Louise urged us to see the global ‘paradigm shift’ toward a ‘prophetic imagination’ for justice and equality. We were also inspired by her own prophetic witness in 2009 when she was ordered by then Archbishop of Cincinnati, Daniel Pilarczyk to publicly renounce her support for women’s ordination in the Catholic church or else she would be prohibited from continuing her teaching, retreat facilitation and social justice ministry in the Archdiocese. Sr. Louise refused to comply with this edict, stating: “Women’s ordination is a justice issue. Its basis is the value, dignity and equality of women. I believe this to my very core. To publicly state otherwise would be a lie and a violation of my conscience. I love, support and cherish the part of church that upholds the Gospel mission and vision of Jesus.”

On behalf of the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality, the National Work Group of CNWE offers sincere condolences to the members of both Sr. Louise Akers family and her religious community. May all who knew and loved Sr. Louise be inspired by her lifelong commitment to ‘living the Gospel’. May we continue her work for justice and equality in the Catholic church and in the world.

CNWE Calls on Canadian Bishops to Review Roman Missal English Language Translation in Light of Pope Francis Revision of Canon Law

On September 9, 2017 Pope Francis issued an Apostolic letter in the form of motu proprio (‘of his own initiative’) to revise Canon Law regarding the translation of the mass (liturgy) from Latin to the various languages of the world. This change gives national conferences of Catholic bishops the authority to revise translations used in their jurisdictions to ensure the “fully conscious and active participation” of the faithful.

English Catholics in Canada have been using a new translation of the mass that was imposed on them in 2011. This translation is seriously flawed, due to its awkward and obscure language, its narrow vision of humanity and God, and its omission of inclusive language. These changes have negatively impacted how Catholics experience the mass.

The small committee of Catholic clergy who developed this translation used a literal ‘word for word’ principle of translation from Latin rather than ‘dynamic’ translation where the goal is to use language that is easily understood. As a result, the current version is unfortunately full of long-winded sentences with multiple clauses that are often unintelligible. Obscure words have also been added that present unnecessary barriers in understanding for all, especially children and people who are new to the English language. Secondly, the current translation overemphasizes human sinfulness and unworthiness before God in its language, rather than God’s unconditional mercy and love. It also frequently uses language that reduces the many images of God found in the Bible and Christian tradition to descriptions of God as a punitive male monarch. Furthermore, although gender inclusive language is considered standard in Canada, it is virtually absent from the language that Catholics hear at mass. We respectfully remind the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops that they were leaders in the 1980’s in developing parish materials on the issue of gender inclusive language. Inclusive language should be a ‘given’ in a Church that professes belief in the equal inherent dignity of women and men.

Since 2012, members of the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE) have brought these issues to the attention of their local priests and bishops through letters, petitions and a delegation that met with Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast. Now that Pope Francis has given national conferences of Catholic bishops jurisdictional authority to revise translations of the mass, we respectfully call on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to begin a thorough review of the current English language Roman Missal. Given that it has been in use in Catholic parishes for almost six years, assessing its effectiveness at this point is warranted. We would hope that such a review would allow for broad-based input from parishioners, priests and liturgical and scripture scholars. We would also hope that the end result of such a process would be language at mass that is understandable, life giving and inclusive – language that encourages the lively participation of the faithful.

Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (, Canada.

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