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Part 9: Woman who claims she was abused by Basilian priest now heads a victim support network

Last Updated Oct 21, 2020 at 12:34 pm EST

CAUTION: This story contains graphic content related to allegations of sexual assault and might be upsetting to some readers.

If you or someone you know are victims of sexual violence, you can contact Crisis Services Canada, a 24/7 hotline, at 1-833-456-4566 or you can find local support through the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres; The Government of Canada has also compiled a list of sexual misconduct support centres. If you are under 18 and need help, contact the Kid’s Help Phone online or at 1-800-668-6868. 

To this day, Brenda Brunelle can’t breathe when she tilts her head back in the shower to wash her hair. It’s the lifelong result of the sexual assault she claims she endured as a young girl at the hands of a Catholic priest.

Brunelle grew up in a devout Catholic family in Windsor. In the late 1970s, she went to St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic elementary school, and was an altar server at the church.

“My father sold tickets to have that Church built. We were pioneers of St. Vincent De Paul Church and we were proud of that,” she says.

As a 12-year-old, she alleges she caught the eye of associate pastor Father Michael Fallona.

Fr. Fallona is a member of the Basilian Fathers, an order of Catholic priests who to this day have a hand in operating schools in North America.

Brunelle claims it all started with Fr. Fallona paying too much attention to her at school. She says she felt uncomfortable about the way he over-praised her for small tasks and gave her long hugs.

“I know that he loved the smell of my hair and the color of it,” she tells CityNews. “He would stand behind me and fondle me. Smell my hair. Literally eating it, is how I would describe the experience.”

She alleges he would ask her to come to the church to help with chores. She says Fr. Fallona asked her to come change a lightbulb and claims that’s the first time the priest groped her.

“He held the ladder for me, and I climbed up,” she says. “As I was up on the ladder with my arms suspended in the air, I could feel his hands go up my leg – I panicked.”

This is the first time Brunelle is publicly discussing the details of the abuse she says she endured; “I’ve never disclosed [it] with my family and certainly not my husband.”

She tells CityNews her encounters with Fr. Fallona escalated from inappropriate touching to sexual assault.

One day, “he had me cleaning wicks off of candles used for a service at church,” Brunelle claims. “He reached behind me and was hugging me saying thank you for coming.”

“He was eating my hair again; he was fondling me with his hands again and at this point I could feel something in the spine of my back as he’s standing behind me. I know what that was today if someone was to ask me. At the time, it was an unusual feeling.”

“I was guided to sit on the chair away from the candles, which I was there to (clean). While I was sitting down he stood in front of me and before I knew it he had exposed himself. And umm… that was the last encounter I had with Fr. Fallona.”

Though the alleged abuse took place decades ago, Brunelle still struggles with sharing what happened next on that day.

“All of this abuse happened inside the Catholic church,” she says. “It didn’t happen in the basement, it didn’t happen in the rectory, it didn’t happen in school yard, this all took place in the church, in front of the altar, if you will.”

Fr. Fallona is 82 years old. CityNews understands he is living at a retirement residence for clergy in Toronto.

We reached out to the Basilians multiple times, asking for interviews with Fr. Fallona and Vicar General David Katulski. Our requests were denied. However, the Basilian’s lawyer sent CityNews an open letter signed by Fr. Fallona. The letter claims he never abused Brunelle or anyone else.

“Ms. Brunelle’s allegations that I abused her seem to be reported by the media as though her allegations are true, which places me in the position of having to prove it did not happen,” the letter states, “I cannot prove a negative.”

After reading the letter, it took Brunelle weeks to feel composed enough to respond.

“He denied it then, he’s denying it now. But the author of that letter, the lawyers that represented the Church, the lawyers that represented him, were all present at his discovery in the room that I also sat in with my own attorney,” she says. “They know the truth, they know the truth, so shame on them.”

A lifetime of faith

Despite the alleged abuse, Brunelle continued to be active in the Church. She says she hinted to her parents about her discomfort with Fr. Fallona, but never told them what was going on. She asked them if she could stop going to Sunday service, but her parents, who didn’t understand why, said no.

At the time, Fr. Fallona “said to me that he would forgive me provided I didn’t tell anybody,” Brunelle alleges. “If I did say something to somebody, I would go to hell.”

As a woman, Brunelle’s allegations place her in the minority of victims. One study of nearly 11,000 cases of clergy abuse in the U.S. between 1950 and 2002, conducted on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, found that more than 80 per cent of those abused have been male.

“I felt like I was contributing to that end result and felt terribly responsible that I made him fall from grace.”

For decades, Brunelle told no one about what allegedly happened to her. Her children were baptized and raised in the same church. She married her second husband there. A health crisis in 2008 is what she says prompted her to seek closure. She wanted to find Fr. Fallona and apologize to him.

“I believed I was responsible for what had happened. Not this priest. He was God,” she explains. “That it was the color of my eyes that he enjoyed so much, the smell of my hair, the color of my hair that … I felt like I was contributing to that end result and felt terribly responsible that I made him fall from grace.”

Brunelle says her experience shaped the rest of her life, telling CityNews she never had a chance to develop a healthy sense of sexuality or intimacy – something she says contributed to issues in both her marriages.

When Brunelle first reached out, she says the Basilians told her Fr. Fallona denied knowing her and refused to meet with her. That refusal, according to Brunelle, gave her clarity that she was actually the victim all those years earlier.

Later that year, Brunelle sued the Basilians and Fr. Fallona. Her lawyer Paul Ledroit tells CityNews if the Basilians “had acted in a rational, human, Christlike way, the lawsuit would have never been brought. Brenda would have never had to meet me. She was hurting for all her life.”

The Basilians refused to comment on the case. However, files obtained by CityNews indicate they sent a priest to interview Brunelle about her allegations. The Catholic investigator wrote in his report that her claims were “quite credible.” The priest also spoke to Fr. Fallona, who denied all the allegations.

However, it turned out the priest kept a meticulous journal for years. Discovered during the legal battle, it made note of Brenda in 1977: “Fix church up – Brenda Hartman” (Brenda’s pre-marriage name).

Brunelle says she had no way of knowing the diary even existed before launching her suit. Ledroit says the discovery was a turning point in her case.

During Brunelle’s suit in 2011, the Basilians placed Fr. Fallona on a personal safety plan. It included not going near kids without being accompanied by an adult aware of his situation. He was also prohibited from traveling outside the Archdiocese of Toronto without permission. He was also barred from working as a priest but allowed to keep the title.

In 2012, the Basilians settled out of court with Brunelle for an amount she cannot make public because of a non-disclosure agreement. In the open letter, Fr. Fallona disagrees with how the case was concluded.

“It was determined (by others) that a settlement was a more practical way to deal with the situation. As Ms. Brunelle knows, it was settled on the basis there was no admission of liability whatsoever.”

Brunelle now spends her time volunteering as one of the heads of a Canadian survivors’ support network called SNAP. She’s calling on religious institutions across the country to release a list of priests who face credible allegations of sexually assaulting children.

When asked what she would say to Fr. Fallona today if she was given the opportunity, Brunelle tells CityNews: “He’s taken a lifetime away from me. I don’t know that I care to have anything more to say to him.”


UPDATE: On Oct. 18, day six of CityNews’s investigative series, a spokesperson for the Basilian Fathers sent a second statement on behalf of Superior General Fr. Kevin Storey. It reads in part: “Our responsibility to monitor and protect our community is one that we shoulder with the utmost importance. Victims of clerical abuse have been failed in this respect. As a Congregation, we have taken meaningful steps to help prevent such horrific actions from taking place in the future. […] We feel deep sorrow for those who have had their inherent dignity offended and we encourage all victims to let us know how we can help them move forward through a personal apology, counseling and/or financial reparation. We promise to do better, and we are truly sorry.” The full statement is posted below:

Over these last several months, the Basilian Fathers have been reminded of heartbreaking accounts of sexual abuse faced by minors. As a Congregation that has built communities based on goodness, discipline and knowledge, we unreservedly apologize for the trauma and destruction that this has caused.

Our responsibility to monitor and protect our community is one that we shoulder with the utmost importance. Victims of clerical abuse have been failed in this respect. As a Congregation, we have taken meaningful steps to help prevent such horrific actions from taking place in the future.

For instance, since 1992 all candidates for the Basilian Fathers must pass psychological screening by independent assessors and have annual reviews and growth plans. Since 2006, the Basilian Fathers have been audited by an independent third-party organization, Praesidium, to ensure that we provide safe environments. As part of our accreditation, every Basilian must engage in ongoing education regarding healthy boundaries as well as recognizing signs when colleagues are not following proper protocols.

We cooperate fully in all legal investigations when allegations of impropriety are brought forward. An individual who faces an allegation cannot function as a priest while an investigation is taking place. In addition to these steps, a review board of lay professionals is called upon after inappropriate behaviour is identified to determine future steps in relation to the individual involved.

We acknowledge that allegations of this nature hurt the position of trust that we seek to maintain with our community and hope that our students, parishioners, colleagues, family, and friends give us the opportunity to reconcile and regain their trust.

We feel deep sorrow for those who have had their inherent dignity offended and we encourage all victims to let us know how we can help them move forward through a personal apology, counseling and/or financial reparation. We promise to do better, and we are truly sorry.

Fr. Kevin Storey, CSB
Superior General of the Basilian Fathers