A woman whose sister was sexually abused as a child by a Roman Catholic priest has reached a settlement with the Diocese of St. Catharines for abuse she witnessed in a case that expands the common understanding of who is a victim.
The woman said that for years she saw her older sister as the sole victim of the abuse, which took place over three years in the 1970s at the rectory of St. Kevin’s Catholic Church in Welland, Ont., and in his car. The priest would bring her along in the backseat, her dolls beside her, and make her stand outside as a lookout while he raped her sister or forced her to masturbate him.
The woman, whom The Globe and Mail is not identifying to protect the identity of her sister as a child victim of sex abuse, said she wants to share her story with others who may not have recognized abuse in their own lives.
It was only six years ago that she realized she was also a victim.
“I have never really looked at it in light of, ‘Hey, maybe it affected me,’” she said.
That awareness dawned when she sought counselling to confront a pattern of broken relationships. She started to examine the effects of abuse that had reverberated for decades, through five marriages and sometimes-fraught relationships with her two children.
“I’ve been in some pretty horrendous relationships, violence, and never really thinking that I needed help,” she said. “It was always, ‘Try harder and do better.’”
Intense therapy and support groups began to change those thoughts. Last year, she filed a lawsuit against the St. Catharines diocese, which employed the priest, Joseph Bonomi, who was convicted in 1998 in connection with her sister’s abuse. He died in 2012. The diocese settled her claim in April, more than a decade after settling a suit with her sister. The terms of the settlements are confidential.
Diocese vice-chancellor Margaret Jong declined to answer questions about Mr. Bonomi, and said the diocese does not comment on lawsuits.
Little information has been made public about clergy abuse in Canada, so it is unclear how novel the woman’s lawsuit is. But her lawyer, Rob Talach, says the case is unique among the hundreds of claims he has filed against Catholic dioceses in Canada, and he hopes it helps others think differently about what they have experienced.
“You can have lifelong effects from being exposed to traumas like this, even in an ancillary way,” he said.
Psychologist Peter Jaffe, who studies trauma and violence against children at the University of Western Ontario, said the case shows legal professionals are catching up to research showing who is affected by abuse.
He said that while the effects of secondary trauma are well-known to mental-health professionals, the legal cases he has reviewed over a 40-year career tend to centre on the direct victim.
“It’s different to acknowledge the suffering of a sibling who has a secondary trauma by what they were party to and what they witnessed,” he said.
The woman, now in her 50s, said she was one of seven children in a “dysfunctional family – alcoholic father, mother overwhelmed with all these children.”
The family lived near St. Kevin’s church. When she was about nine years old, Mr. Bonomi came to the parish and quickly got to know her family. Even when they moved across town, he would pick her up, along with her 11-year-old sister, for school or youth events.
On those outings, her statement of claim alleges, Mr. Bonomi “insisted” she “stand nearby as a ‘look out’ while he engaged in sexual intercourse” with her sister. At least once, the suit claims, he made her watch.
She remembers feeling scared and intimidated.
“I was afraid that I was doing something wrong and I was going to be in trouble and I was going to get caught, but I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I just knew I was in trouble.”
She said she worried she was next, but also felt a twisted sense of rejection.
“From that time on, I always had a sense there was something wrong with me,” she said.
“As terrible as the things were that I had to keep secret, there was a part of me that saw Bonomi as kind of like a father figure,” she said.
She said she sees the effects of those interactions with Mr. Bonomi, in retrospect, as having consequences on her relationships throughout her life.
“Probably the biggest struggle has been men, abusive men and relationships and marriages,” she said. “If I trace it back to, you know, what kind of molded me and who I am, it definitely started there.”
After her sister became pregnant at 14 and had an abortion in March, 1974, Mr. Bonomi abruptly left and was transferred to another parish that June.
In 1993, nearly 20 years after the abortion, the older sister went to police to disclose the abuse. By that time, Mr. Bonomi had left the priesthood and become a businessman in Thorold, Ont. In 1998, he was convicted of having intercourse with a female between the ages of 14 and 16 – a charge that at the time no longer existed in the Criminal Code. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation.
A civil suit the older sister filed stretched on for years before she and the diocese reached a settlement in 2008.
But it still took several more years for the younger sister to start to come to terms with her own experience and to file a suit of her own.
The woman said that, looking back on her life, she shudders to think about one of her four granddaughters, aged 6 to 13, being exposed to the harms she and her sister experienced. She said she is grateful, nearly 50 years later, to be on the other side of recognizing the damage and beginning to heal.
“I can see, I can challenge my own thinking in situations and look at my fears,” she said. “I feel the clarity and the validation of a lifetime, because I’ve been through so much.”
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