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  Home :: 2006 December :: Priests' victims are emboldened

Priests' victims are emboldened

The scandal dogging the Catholic Church has led to a shift in attitudes, allowing more who were abused to speak out.
By Jill Leovy and Jessica Garrison, Times Staff Writers
December 4, 2006

Joelle Casteix knew something had changed when she started to see theCatholic Church's sex abuse scandal spoofed on "The Simpsons."

Inone episode, the animated residents of Springfield lapsed into awkwardsilence in the presence of a Catholic priest. Little more was needed toget across a humorous dig at the church.
Four years after the clergy sexual abuse scandal exploded in the Bostonarchdiocese, the men and women who have come forward to tell theirstories have shaken not just the Roman Catholic Church. They have alsopropelled a shift in public attitudes about childhood sexual abuse.

Thatwas made clear again Friday, when the Los Angeles Archdiocese announceda $60-million settlement that some believe is a precursor to thenation's most costly abuse payout, with hundreds more L.A. cases to beresolved. Victims and their advocates held public news conferences andspoke about their abuse with a frankness that would have beenunthinkable 10 years ago.

Among them was Casteix, 36, southwestregional director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, orSNAP, who won an earlier settlement over alleged abuse by a Catholiclay teacher in Santa Ana. She sees an approaching "tipping point" inpublic attitudes about child sexual abuse.

The change is evidentin rising numbers of victims speaking out, growing stacks of lawsuitsand personal revelations by celebrities.

SNAP members such asCasteix hope the change will bring more than just large monetarysettlements for victims. They want full disclosure of allegedcomplicity by church officials in covering up abuse and indictments ofhigh-level church officials.

But whether this happens or not,experts agree "there's been a sea change," in the words of AndreaLeavitt, an attorney for some of the victims. "It used to be victimswere considered dirty, sullied, damaged goods. We don't look at themthat way anymore."

Donald Steier, who has represented accusedpriests for more than two decades, compared the shift to the wayMothers Against Drunk Driving raised nationwide awareness about thatscourge. "When you put it on the front page often enough, and in frontof people's faces, they become more aware and enlightened," Steiersaid. "And to the extent that has happened, that is a very positivething … probably the only positive thing."

Twenty-five yearsago, society was in what Astrid Heger called "denial," spiked withantagonism toward those who sought to expose abuse. Sex abuse expertssuch as Heger, a professor of clinical pediatrics at USC, could expectto encounter open skepticism when they sought to diagnose children, shesaid.

"People didn't believe it, or they said maybe it waspart of normal childhood and maybe not a crime," she said. The firstsuccessful prosecution of child-molestation cases in California beganin the early 1980s, she said — though usually medical evidence wasneeded to prove a case.

And some topics remained untouchable."Very early on in my career, I was involved in a case where somechildren said they had been molested by a priest in church," Hegersaid. "They were immediately removed from the case by prosecutorsbecause they were not considered to be credible."

TheMcMartin Pre-school case in the mid-1980s was a kind of reversewatershed, she said. That case, in which hundreds of children madeincreasingly bizarre claims of abuse against the family owners andemployees of a Manhattan Beach preschool, eventually fell apart inacquittals, hung juries and questions about prosecutorial excess.

Butinstead of setting back advocacy efforts, McMartin pushed thingsforward. That's because medical and legal professionals afterwardembraced a more disciplined, cautious approach toward investigatingsexual abuse. That did much to strengthen the credibility of legitimatecases, experts say.

For the medical field that meant "hold theline about a conservative diagnosis and let society catch up," Hegersaid. Overstatement was to be avoided; sticking to the facts becameparamount.

The result was that, "in L.A. County, we have neversince that time had an issue with those kinds of mishandling of cases,"Heger said. By the late 1980s, said Leavitt, civil lawsuits began toappear on the heels of criminal ones.

But nothing broke thefloodgates like the Catholic Church scandal, many observers say.Victims were vocal. Their lawsuits captivated the media and the public.Their movement spread nationally and internationally. Power in numbers,Heger said, had suddenly propelled the issue to the public stage.

In2002, California legislators, responding to the church scandal,approved a change to statute-of-limitations provisions that made iteasier for abuse victims to sue churches and other institutions.Popular acknowledgment was swelling too. In 2003, the movie "MysticRiver," which deals with an adult sex abuse survivor, won accolades. Inhis Oscar acceptance speech, best supporting actor Tim Robbins urgedvictims to come forward. This year, actress Teri Hatcher offered awrenching account of her childhood abuse.

Carlos Perez-Carillo,40, a Los Angeles social work supervisor and SNAP activist with a casepending against the church, first told his parents around 1986 that asa teenager he had been abused by a Playa del Rey consecrated brother.At the time, he said, he was convinced no one but they would believehim.

Fifteen years later, when he began speaking publiclyabout it, Perez-Carillo was less worried about being disbelieved. Buthe was still bracing himself for ridicule.


It never came. "It was just the opposite," he said. "I had peoplecoming up to me all the time saying, 'I've got to tell you somethingthat I've never told anyone.' "

Thevictims of abuse by clergy, he concluded, have tapped into a wide veinof secret shame and grief that had long plagued people in many walks oflife in America and which had been awaiting its moment to be exposed."It's a tragedy to know how many people have been suffering," he said."But it's good when people have the strength to come forward. Theydon't have to look at that darkness forever."
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The fact that the victims' allegations involved such a hallowedinstitution as the Catholic Church also served to drive home the pointthat sexual abuse could happen anywhere.

"Itmakes the job easier for prosecutors of all kinds of sex crimes againstchildren," said Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman. "If you havewhat appears to be a significant number of priests engaging in thiskind of behavior, then it could be anybody."

To some, thependulum may have swung too far. Increasingly punitive and elaboraterestrictions on sex offenders are being questioned by courts andcritics.

In courts, it may have become "sometimes too easy" topersuade jurors that abuse has occurred, Goldman said. There is dangerthat the kind of mass hysteria that surrounded McMartin could alsoengulf the Catholic clergy, he said.

Lee Bashforth, who alongwith two brothers was abused by convicted priest Michael Edwin Wempe,said he believes the scandal has served another end: It has made peopleless trustful of institutions — especially the Catholic Church. "If onething has changed, it's that people don't believe what the church tellsthem," he said.

For Heger, the USC clinician, and Leavitt, thelawyer, the most hopeful sign is that the public increasingly acceptsthat sexually abused children suffer damage well into adulthood, whichin turn helps victims reveal their pasts and begin healing.

Adultsurvivors of abuse by clergy who speak out, file lawsuits and advocatefor other victims may gain back the power so painfully stripped fromthem by their assailants, Leavitt said. "When they are no longersilent, big changes occur," she said.

For other victims, thechanged climate has made it easier to seek help, Heger said. "Theyrecover. They do. They do extremely well if they get the attention theyneed," Heger said. "It is never too late."

But for many, it is along road. "I don't think I'll ever have complete resolution,"Perez-Carillo said. "But I certainly feel much stronger now than I didfive years ago."

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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia