Priests’ victims are emboldened

Times Staff Writers

Joelle Casteix knew something had changed when she started to see the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal spoofed on “The Simpsons.”

In one episode, the animated residents of Springfield lapsed into awkward silence in the presence of a Catholic priest. Little more was needed to get across a humorous dig at the church.

Four years after the clergy sexual abuse scandal exploded in the Boston archdiocese, the men and women who have come forward to tell their stories have shaken not just the Roman Catholic Church. They have also propelled a shift in public attitudes about childhood sexual abuse.

That was made clear again Friday, when the Los Angeles Archdiocese announced a $60-million settlement that some believe is a precursor to the nation’s most costly abuse payout, with hundreds more L.A. cases to be resolved. Victims and their advocates held public news conferences and spoke about their abuse with a frankness that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.


Among them was Casteix, 36, southwest regional director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, who won an earlier settlement over alleged abuse by a Catholic lay teacher in Santa Ana. She sees an approaching “tipping point” in public attitudes about child sexual abuse.

The change is evident in rising numbers of victims speaking out, growing stacks of lawsuits and personal revelations by celebrities.

SNAP members such as Casteix hope the change will bring more than just large monetary settlements for victims. They want full disclosure of alleged complicity by church officials in covering up abuse and indictments of high-level church officials.

But whether this happens or not, experts agree “there’s been a sea change,” in the words of Andrea Leavitt, an attorney for some of the victims. “It used to be victims were considered dirty, sullied, damaged goods. We don’t look at them that way anymore.”

Donald Steier, who has represented accused priests for more than two decades, compared the shift to the way Mothers Against Drunk Driving raised nationwide awareness about that scourge. “When you put it on the front page often enough, and in front of people’s faces, they become more aware and enlightened,” Steier said. “And to the extent that has happened, that is a very positive thing ... 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 abuse experts such as Heger, a professor of clinical pediatrics at USC, could expect to encounter open skepticism when they sought to diagnose children, she said.

“People didn’t believe it, or they said maybe it was part of normal childhood and maybe not a crime,” she said. The first successful prosecution of child-molestation cases in California began in the early 1980s, she said -- though usually medical evidence was needed to prove a case.

And some topics remained untouchable. “Very early on in my career, I was involved in a case where some children said they had been molested by a priest in church,” Heger said. “They were immediately removed from the case by prosecutors because they were not considered to be credible.


The McMartin Pre-school case in the mid-1980s was a kind of reverse watershed, she said. That case, in which hundreds of children made increasingly bizarre claims of abuse against the family owners and employees of a Manhattan Beach preschool, eventually fell apart in acquittals, hung juries and questions about prosecutorial excess.

But instead of setting back advocacy efforts, McMartin pushed things forward. That’s because medical and legal professionals afterward embraced a more disciplined, cautious approach toward investigating sexual abuse. That did much to strengthen the credibility of legitimate cases, experts say.

For the medical field that meant “hold the line about a conservative diagnosis and let society catch up,” Heger said. Overstatement was to be avoided; sticking to the facts became paramount.

The result was that, “in L.A. County, we have never since that time had an issue with those kinds of mishandling of cases,” Heger said. By the late 1980s, said Leavitt, civil lawsuits began to appear on the heels of criminal ones.


But nothing broke the floodgates 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.

In 2002, California legislators, responding to the church scandal, approved a change to statute-of-limitations provisions that made it easier for abuse victims to sue churches and other institutions. Popular acknowledgment was swelling too. In 2003, the movie “Mystic River,” which deals with an adult sex abuse survivor, won accolades. In his Oscar acceptance speech, best supporting actor Tim Robbins urged victims to come forward. This year, actress Teri Hatcher offered a wrenching account of her childhood abuse.

Carlos Perez-Carillo, 40, a Los Angeles social work supervisor and SNAP activist with a case pending against the church, first told his parents around 1986 that as a 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 believe him.

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


It never came. “It was just the opposite,” he said. “I had people coming up to me all the time saying, ‘I’ve got to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone.’ ”

The victims of abuse by clergy, he concluded, have tapped into a wide vein of secret shame 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 know how many people have been suffering,” he said. “But it’s good when people have the strength to come forward. They don’t have to look at that darkness forever.”

The fact that the victims’ allegations involved such a hallowed institution as the Catholic Church also served to drive home the point that sexual abuse could happen anywhere.

“It makes the job easier for prosecutors of all kinds of sex crimes against children,” said Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman. “If you have what appears to be a significant number of priests engaging in this kind of behavior, then it could be anybody.”


To some, the pendulum may have swung too far. Increasingly punitive and elaborate restrictions on sex offenders are being questioned by courts and critics.

In courts, it may have become “sometimes too easy” to persuade jurors that abuse has occurred, Goldman said. There is danger that the kind of mass hysteria that surrounded McMartin could also engulf the Catholic clergy, he said.

Lee Bashforth, who along with two brothers was abused by convicted priest Michael Edwin Wempe, said he believes the scandal has served another end: It has made people less trustful of institutions -- especially the Catholic Church. “If one thing has changed, it’s that people don’t believe what the church tells them,” he said.

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


Adult survivors of abuse by clergy who speak out, file lawsuits and advocate for other victims may gain back the power so painfully stripped from them by their assailants, Leavitt said. “When they are no longer silent, big changes occur,” she said.

For other victims, the changed climate has made it easier to seek help, Heger said. “They recover. They do. They do extremely well if they get the attention they need,” Heger said. “It is never too late.”

But for many, it is a long road. “I don’t think I’ll ever have complete resolution,” Perez-Carillo said. “But I certainly feel much stronger now than I did five years ago.”