Chatham -- He wore his priest's collar to win trust and respect in Roman Catholic parishes across the region.
The collar gave him an exalted place in the communities. The collar, many believed, also meant he was just a step away from God.
Yesterday, Charles Henry Sylvestre, 83, of Belle River, was wearing the collar again -- but this time in a criminal court, under the watchful eyes of his 47 sexual abuse victims.
Balancing himself against the table beside his lawyer, Andrew Bradie of Windsor, Sylvestre stood for 25 minutes as the court clerk read out the 47 counts of indecent assault.
"Guilty," the 83-year-old said feebly, after each charge was read.
Behind him in the packed courtroom, women dabbed their eyes.
Irene Deschenes of London, who along with 10 others asked the court-ordered publication ban be lifted from their names, smiled, leaned forward and put her hand to her ear to be sure Sylvestre was admitting abusing her.
It was the start of a heartbreaking day in the Ontario Court of Justice, as victim after victim -- all women -- came forward to have the abuses described.
For most, their lives were irrevocably changed.
The case, Chatham-Kent Crown Attorney Paul Bailey said, is North America's largest case of non-residential school sex abuse by a Roman Catholic priest.
The case is so large, there was only time to hear from 21 victims yesterday. Justice Bruce Thomas is expected to hear the rest Sept. 22.
The abuse dates as far back as 1952 and extends to 1989 when the victims were between nine and 14. It involved churches in Windsor, Sarnia, Chatham and Pain Court.
Two victims were students at Mount St. Joseph academy in London when Sylvestre was the chaplain in the 1950s.
Twenty-nine of the victims were members of St. Ursula's parish in Chatham.
All are asking why the abuse was allowed to continue so long.
Bradie said while his client acknowledged the abuses in his guilty pleas, his memories of the events have faded.
Bailey described each abuse at the hands of the priest, and noted many times the victims were made to feel "special" by the priest's initial attention.
Many said they were "good Catholic girls" who attended church regularly and were raised in devout families.
Many were offered chocolate bars and pop when they sat on the priest's lap while he groped them and bounced them on his groin.
Many were assaulted after being "chosen" by Sylvestre to volunteer at the rectory or the church to fold bulletins, tidy worship areas, to count the collection.
Some were assaulted on beach day trips Sylvestre organized. Others were groped and fondled in his car.
Some were assaulted during church confession. They were told to stay quiet or they would be punished by God.
Every one was just entering puberty. Some spoke of just "budding." Every one of them had their breasts fondled.
Sylvestre shoved his hands down the pants of some to fondle their genitals, and some were digitally penetrated.
Two of the women said they were raped by Sylvestre.
Lou Ann Soontiens, of Chatham, a victim who had the publication ban lifted, through Bailey, said she had an abortion at 15 after she was impregnated by the trusted priest after years of abuse.
"I feel he robbed me of my childhood and took it away from me," her statement read.
"I believe God should have been there for me."
Bradie told Thomas his client doesn't admit to any sexual intercourse or penetration but to the other described abuses.
Bailey said only a trial could resolve that and, "with some regret," the Crown wasn't prepared to wait any longer to move forward.
The sexual intercourse allegations will be tried at the civil level.
Thomas accepted Bradie's submission and found Sylvestre guilty based on his other abuses of the women.
Many bravely read their own victim impact statements, often through tears and anger. Others listened to Bailey read their words.
Their stories were personal and emotional. They spoke of lifelong struggles with trust and intimacy, self-esteem problems, rebellious angry pasts, addictions and depression.
Some were suicidal.
Many expressed shame and guilt when their stories weren't believed.
Some said they thought, "I was a child and I did nothing wrong," said Joanne Morrison, 46, of White Rock, B.C. "I will not hide behind shame or guilt anymore."
Only two, who confided in parents and were supported, said they had little if any long-term fallout from the abuse.
The case led to an unprecedented response by the Roman Catholic diocese of London yesterday, with Bishop Ronald Fabbro issuing an apology to the victims and their families for the abuse and "for the failure of the church to protect the victims and their families from Father Sylvestre."
Fabbro is to preach a mass Sunday at St. Ursula's church in Chatham where he will formally apologize.
Many of the victims are seeking civil remedies.
Yesterday, London lawyer Barbara Legate filed a lawsuit on behalf of 22 women, naming not only the diocese but school boards, nuns and Sarnia police.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of London issued a statement yesterday in which Bishop Ronald Fabbro expressed his regret for Rev. Charles Sylvestre's abuse:
I sincerely apologize to the victims and their families for the abuse that they endured at the hands of Fr. Sylvestre, and for suffering the consequences of that abuse over the years. I apologize as well for the failure of the Church to protect the victims and their families from Fr. Sylvestre. The abuse of minors has been a scourge in the Diocese of London that must end, and I pledge myself as the Bishop of London to do my utmost to end it.