Joelle Casteix knew something had changed when she saw sexual abuse bypriests spoofed on "The Simpsons."
In one episode, the animated residents of Springfield lapsed into awkwardsilence in the presence of a Catholic priest. Nothing more was needed to getacross a dig at the church scandal.
Five years after the clergy sexual-abuse scandal exploded in the Bostonarchdiocese, the men and women who have come forward to tell their stories haveshaken not only the Roman Catholic Church. They also have propelled areadjustment in public attitudes about childhood sexual abuse.
That was made clear again last Friday, when the Los Angeles Archdioceseannounced a $60 million settlement that some believe is a precursor to thenation's most costly abuse payout. Victims and their advocates staged publicnews conferences and spoke about their abuse with a frankness that would havebeen unthinkable 20 years ago.
Among them was Casteix, 36, Southwest regional director of SurvivorsNetwork of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, who won an earlier settlement overher abuse by a Catholic lay teacher in Santa Ana (Orange County). She said thechange was a sign of an approaching "tipping point" regarding the issue ofchild sexual abuse.
The change is evident in rising numbers of victims speaking out, growingstacks of lawsuits and momentous change in public attitudes -- manifest ineverything from revelations by celebrities to the antics of "Simpsons"characters.
SNAP members such as Casteix hope the change will bring more than justlarge monetary settlements. They want full disclosure of alleged complicity bychurch officials in covering up abuse and indictments of high-level churchofficials.
Regardless of whether this happens, "there's been a sea change," saidAndrea Leavitt, an attorney for some victims. "It used to be victims wereconsidered dirty, sullied damaged goods. We don't look at them that wayanymore."
Donald Steier, who has represented accused priests for more than twodecades, compared the shift to the way Mothers Against Drunk Driving raisedawareness about traffic fatalities. "When you put it on the front page oftenenough, and in front of people's face, they become more aware and enlightened,"Steier said. "And to the extent that has happened, that is a very positivething. ... Probably the only positive thing."
Twenty-five years ago, society was in what Astrid Heger called "denial,"spiked with antagonism toward those who sought to expose abuse. Sex-abuseexperts such as Heger, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University ofSouthern California, could expect to encounter open skepticism when they soughtto diagnose children, she said.
"People didn't believe it, or they said maybe it was part of normalchildhood, and maybe not a crime," she said. The first successful prosecutionof child-molestation cases began in the early 1980s, she said -- thoughusually medical evidence was needed to prove a case.
And some topics remained untouchable. "Very early on in my career, I wasinvolved in a case where some children said they had been molested by a priestin church," Heger said. "They were immediately removed from the case byprosecutors, because they were not considered to be credible."
The McMartin preschool case in the mid-1980s was a kind of reversewatershed, she said. That case, in which hundreds of children made increasinglybizarre claims of abuse against the family owners and employers of a preschoolin Manhattan Beach (Los Angeles County), eventually fell apart in acquittals,hung juries and questions about prosecutorial excess.
But instead of setting back advocacy efforts, the McMartin case pushedthings forward.
That's because medical and legal professionals afterward embraced a moredisciplined, cautious approach toward investigating sexual abuse. That did muchto strengthen the credibility of the cases, experts say.
But nothing opened the floodgates like the Catholic priest-abuse scandal,many observers say. Victims were vocal. Their lawsuits captivated the media andpublic. Their movement spread nationally and internationally. "Power andnumbers," in Heger's words, suddenly had propelled the issue to the publicstage.
In 2002, California legislators, in response to the church scandal,approved a change to statute-of-limitations provisions that made it easier forabuse victims to sue churches and other institutions.
Carlos Perez-Carillo, 40, a Los Angeles social-work supervisor and SNAPactivist with a case pending against the church, first told his parents around1986 of his teenage abuse by a consecrated brother in Playa del Rey (LosAngeles County). At the time, he said, he was convinced no one but they wouldbelieve him.
Fifteen years later, when he began speaking publicly about it,Perez-Carrillo was less worried about being disbelieved. But he was stillbracing for ridicule.
It never came. "It was just the opposite," he said. "I had people comingup to me all the time saying, 'I've got to tell you something that I've nevertold anyone.' "
Victims of clergy abuse, he concluded, have tapped into a vein of secretshame and grief that had long plagued people in many walks of life in America,and which had been awaiting its moment to be exposed. "It's a tragedy to knowhow many people have been suffering," he said. "But it's good when people havethe strength to come forward. They don't have to look at that darknessforever."
That the victims' allegations involved such a hallowed institution as theRoman Catholic Church also served to drive home the point that sexual abusecould happen anywhere.
"It makes the job easier for prosecutors of all kinds of sex crimesagainst children," Loyola Law School Professor Stan Goldman said. "If you havewhat appears to be a significant number of priests engaging in this kind ofbehavior, then it could be anybody."
To some, the pendulum might have swung too far. Increasingly punitive andelaborate restrictions on sex offenders are being questioned by courts andcritics.
In courts, it might have become "sometimes too easy" to convince jurorsabuse has occurred, Goldman said. There is danger that the kind of masshysteria that surrounded the McMartin case also could engulf the Catholicclergy, he said.
For Heger, the USC clinician, and Leavitt, the lawyer, the most hopefulnew sign is that the public increasingly accepts that sexually abused childrensuffer damage well into adulthood. That acknowledgment helps victims revealtheir pasts and begin healing, they say.
Adult survivors of clergy abuse who speak out, file lawsuits and advocatefor other victims might regain the power so painfully stripped from them bytheir assailants, Leavitt said. "When they are no longer silent, big changesoccur," she said. For other victims, the changed climate has made it easier to seek help,Heger said. "They recover. ... They do extremely well if they get the attentionthey need," she said. "It is never too late."
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