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  Home :: 2007 September :: Survivor: Clergy abuse exposure ensures children's safety

Survivor: Clergy abuse exposure ensures children's safety

The Des Moines man, who has won a settlement from the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, praises the elimination of secrecy.

A Des Moines man, who will share a $660 million settlement from the LosAngeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese, said Catholic children are safertoday because abuse survivors have pushed the church to atone forprotecting pedophile priests.

Like many child victims, William LaHay, now 50 and a free-lance writer living in Des Moines, told no one his secret.

Asa 12-year-old altar boy in Azuza, Calif., LaHay was being sexuallyabused by his priest. He said he believed that he was the only personthis was happening to and that nobody would believe that a priest woulddo such a thing.

Decades later, he learned that he wasn't the Rev. Albert Duggan's only victim. The priest died in 1979.

LaHayis one of more than 500 people who filed sex abuse claims against 221priests and church officials in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Churchofficials settled with all claimants last month.

In 2004, LaHayfinally received part of Duggan's personnel file, when it was releasedby the archdiocese as part of the discovery process of a lawsuit.

LaHaysaid he had sinking feeling when he read a cryptic note that not onlyhinted he was not Duggan's only victim, but also that Duggan'ssuperiors knew he was an abuser.

To read documents from hisabuser's personnel file and to know that the archdiocese agreed to paymillions to the victims feels like vindication to LaHay.

The July 15 agreement is the largest settlement since the nationwide church scandal exploded in 2002.

"To me, it is the equivalent to a guilty plea in a criminal case on the part of the archdiocese," LaHay said.

"Nobodypays that much money when there wasn't wrongdoing. You can't dismissthis as a token payoff to get rid of a nuisance lawsuit and proclaimrighteousness through all of this."

Under the settlement, LaHaywill be receiving more documents from Duggan's personnel file - lettersand reports that the archdiocese fought to keep secret and that LaHaybelieves are even more incriminating.

A mediation judge will determine the cash each abuse victim will receive, ranging from $100,000 to several million dollars.

Theamount will be determined by the age of the victim at the time of theabuse, the severity and how long it continued, and the church'sknowledge and response. The process is expected to be concluded by theend of the year.

"The significant numbers coming out of this are508 and 221, not the $660 million," said David Clohessy, nationaldirector of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Hesaid that "508 is the number of victims who, through their courage andpersistence, were able to achieve some level of justice, healing andclosure."

And he added that " 221 is important because that's the number of sexual predators who were publicly exposed in the process."

Theclaims covered in the settlement flooded in when the CaliforniaLegislature in 2003 changed its statute of limitations on civillawsuits, opening a one-year window for victims of child sexual abuseto file claims, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.

Thelaw covered all childhood sexual abuse victims, whether the abuser wasa cleric, family member or other trusted adult. The California Catholicarchdioceses unsuccessfully argued that the law was unconstitutional ondue process and First Amendment grounds.

Craig Levien, aDavenport attorney who assisted abuse victims' Los Angeles-basedlawyers with depositions, said the eventual settlement of the victims'claims was "a wonderful day of justice and vindication."

In2001, in a conversation with a friend who told him he had been abusedby another priest, LaHay learned that the Los Angeles archdiocese hadrecords of the abuse.

"I wanted to find out if other people were abused by the same priest who molested me," he said.

SurvivorsNetwork officials said that the common desire to determine what andwhen the archbishop knew about the abuse raised and bolstered thesurvivors' resolve.

"The victims in the Los Angeles archdiocesemight well have settled more cheaply and quickly if church officialshad agreed to have the information released," said Clohessy, theSurvivors Network director.

Los Angeles County law enforcementin 2001 had an officer assigned to Catholic clergy sex abuse cases,even before the scandal broke in Boston.

Officers encouraged LaHay to file a report with the sheriff's department and Azusa police.

"It was just a formality. One officer said the criminal and civil statutes of limitation had run out," LaHay said.

"Butwhen the Boston story broke, a lot of people came forward inCalifornia. And it became clear what happened to me wasn't an isolatedincident - there was a larger pattern."

Said Clohessy: "Church officials and attorneys exploited every legal technicality."

It was that legal strategy that most disappointed LaHay.

"My real split with the church came from how it dealt with victims and the abusers," LaHay said.

"It was painful, finding out how many people this happened to and how it affected their adult lives.

"When they describe some of their life patterns, jobs, marriages and relationships, those stories are very familiar to me."

Evenmore important, LaHay said, if his abuser were still alive, he would beexposed as a child molester and no longer have access to children.

"Thereality is, a lot of kids are safer now because the Catholic sex abusescandal got as much public attention as it did," he said.

Religion Editor Shirley Ragsdale can be reached at (515) 284-8208 or

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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia