Mary Dispenza Esfahan was 7 when her parish priest raped her in the auditorium of the Catholic
school she attended in East Los Angeles
, she recalls. At the time, her mother, who worked in the parish, was chatting with kitchen workers in the next room.
Eventually,Dispenza became a nun and a teacher at her old school, St. Alphonsus,often meeting with students in the auditorium where she remembers beingmolested. It was 43 years before Dispenza allowed herself to releaserepressed memories and confront what had happened in that room. Thepriest was George Neville Rucker, who has been accused of molesting 38girls.
'To face the abuse would have caused me to face the churchthat I loved, the work that I loved, the faith that I loved,' Dispenzasaid in a recent interview.
Eventually, she confronted Rucker,and Friday the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to settle Dispenza'sclaims against the church - and 44 others - for $60 million. An earlierreport by the archdiocese 'confirmed prior allegations' of molestationby Rucker. Dispenza expects to receive about $1.33 million.
Now67, she was in first grade when the molestation began. In a classphoto, she is one of 40 pupils, each wearing a fresh white dress, eachcaptured with palms pressed together, fingers pointing heavenward.
After the first attack, she recalled, she went into a small bathroom off the auditorium. There, she washed her hands.
'Ithought in my own little way if I washed my hands, I'd be clean again,'she said. It was the start of what she came to call the 'split,' theblocking of awful memories. 'I think that's where the split happened. Ithink I left little Mary in the bathroom. I went back to where my momand the women were and never told anybody.'
At school, Rucker wasalways there, sullying events that should have brought solace or joy.One of those twisted moments was her confirmation, when the young areformally inducted into church membership.
'It was the moment ofconfirmation when I looked up on the altar, when I saw Father Ruckerwas up there and I had to go to him,' she said. 'I wanted to get out ofchurch, I wanted to run away, but I could not, I could not. He wastaking away that sacramental moment.'
Indeed, she did not leaveher church. She joined the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary,pouring herself into her work as an educator in Catholic schools,including St. Alphonsus. The work, she sees now, was also an escape.
'Idon't think I knew what I was doing at that time,' she said. 'It isinteresting the detachment or the disassociation. I could stand infront of all those children in an assembly in the very hall where I wasabused and never, never let that in. I think that's the only way Icould survive.'
Although she gave up holy orders in 1973, sheremained a Catholic educator, first as teacher, then as principal atSt. Alphonsus and then at schools in Washington state.
Apromotion in 1989 to an executive post in church administration inSeattle opened the floodgates of memory. The church required all newemployees to attend a seminar on sexual abuse.
'That's when Ireally woke up, that the light went on that I had been abused and Iwanted and needed to take care of it somehow, to face the abuser,'Dispenza said. Two years later, she arranged a face-to-face meetingwith Rucker, who, she said, admitted molesting her and offered her$25,000.
'I asked him if he ever abused other little girls, andhe said no,' she said. 'I carried that belief for a long time. He saidit was because of his hormones.'
The 38 molestations Rucker wasaccused of - Dispenza was the first victim - occurred from 1947 to1980. Rucker, now 86, was criminally charged in 2002 with 29 counts ofmolesting seven girls in Los Angeles during the 1970s.
But in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law extending the statute of limitations on sexual crimes against children.
Thelaw's aim had been to allow the prosecution of cases that occurred whenthe victims were young and possibly too terrified to report the abuse.With the high court's action, the criminal case against Ruckerdissolved, along with 10 others.
Rucker, who was barred from public ministry in 2002, paid Dispenza $25,000 to cover the counseling she needed for years.
'Lookingback, I was naive,' she said. 'I almost felt sorry - poor man. He saidI just happened to be the little girl in the wrong place at the wrongtime.
'Rucker said he went to a counselor once. [The counselor]said, 'You don't need to worry about this. You're going to forget aboutit. She's going to forget about it.' '
Ten years later, when shelearned that others alleged that Rucker had molested them, she joinedlitigation against the archdiocese.
'Of course, I feel a sense ofgratitude that it's done,' she said of the settlement, adding that shesympathizes with 500 alleged victims who have yet to receivecompensation. 'It angers me somewhat.'
She says she's forgivenRucker - 'He's sick, he's a pedophile' - and 'I can forgive thechurch.' But she can't forgive Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.
She saidshe wrote to Mahony two years ago and has yet to receive a response.'I'd like to tell him what this meant for me. I'd like to tell him howhe's hurting the church,' she said.
Dispenza has retired and is living in Seattle. She said there are long periods of her life of which she has no recollection.
Shecredits her faith for helping her survive. She liberally quotes ViktorEmil Frankl, a Viennese doctor who survived German concentration camps,and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Their writings inspired her, allowing her to find 'the pearls' within difficult and painful experiences.
'Ifound my own personal pearl. Because of the shame, I knew it was sowrong, I couldn't tell anyone. So I talked to God,' she said simply.'The little pearl for me was the development of a strong connection toGod as a person I could speak to, tell anything to, who already knew.That was a saving grace. I would believe.'
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