When life got gnarly, she found way to heal
It’s another beautiful day in paradise and I’m out on the ocean, riding waves with a former national surfing champion and onetime prostitute who’s about to join a seminary.
Go ahead, try to name one other state where I could have written that sentence.
“Terrific!” yells Mary Setterholm, my instructor, who forgives my every wipeout and cheers when I finally ride a wave all the way to shore.
Setterholm, who now runs a Santa Monica surfing school, won the U.S. Women’s title in 1972, at age 17. And you’re not going to believe where her trophy is:
On Cardinal Roger M. Mahony’s desk.
Where do I even begin?
Perhaps with the e-mail from Ann Hayman, a minister at Brentwood Presbyterian, who remembered that I once wrote about a skid row prostitute who lived in a Porta-Potty but later turned her life around. Hayman, who worked with prostitutes for 28 years, had someone she wanted me to meet.
So I drove to Brentwood to meet Hayman and Setterholm. Over coffee -- and the next day at the beach -- Setterholm spun a tale both tragic and triumphant:
As a young child, Setterholm told me, she was physically and sexually abused repeatedly by a baby-sitter, and then beginning in seventh grade, she was molested for years by a now-deceased priest from her Catholic church in Westwood. When her family moved to the Huntington Beach area, Setterholm found herself drawn to the sea. There was honesty and security in the rhythm of the waves, but the ride to the shore was fraught with danger.
She routinely hitchhiked, and the men who picked her up -- some of them regulars -- took detours on the way to the beach. Setterholm was too damaged and confused to stop their advances, so she built a reality in which by charging them she established an illusion of control and even normalcy.
It was simple economics.
“I was so used to perverted behavior by men, I didn’t know that what I was doing fit into the context of prostitution,” she said.
On the water, she was a fearless acrobat, but on the shore, she kept making all the wrong moves. She got married way too young, to the wrong guy, of course, and had five children before she had learned to take care of herself. When the marriage bombed, she returned to prostitution.
This pattern of self-destruction came as no surprise to a Catholic nun who helped Setterholm find her way past buried secrets, paralyzing hatred and self-loathing.
“I know many victims who try to work it out by getting into serial relationships,” said Sister Sheila McNiff, and it appeared to her that Setterholm had done precisely that, digging herself in deeper all the while.
McNiff was the victim assistance coordinator for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, serving under Mahony as the church began dealing with its scandalous history. She first heard from Setterholm in 2002, when the surf queen called to tell of the abuse she’d suffered 30 years prior.
“I asked her, ‘Where can I meet you?’ ” McNiff recalled. “She said, ‘At the beach.’ ”
It wasn’t long before nun and surfer had formed a mutual admiration society. Setterholm wasn’t looking for a financial settlement with the institution that had betrayed her. She wanted to finally look into the eyes of church leaders, tell them what she’d been through, and pray that she’d be healed.
“She had a very strong sense of trying to be a reconciler,” said McNiff, who worked with Setterholm to arrange “apology” Masses for victims.
McNiff also helped arrange a meeting with Mahony at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and Setterholm had a lot to tell the good cardinal.
That he needed to do less moralizing and more listening.
That many victims can’t feel safe again in a church.
That it was difficult for her to face him, but impossible to survive without doing so.
“She told him her story and the cardinal apologized,” said McNiff, who was in tears and could see that the cardinal was deeply moved as well.
Setterholm volunteered to pass a message from the cardinal to other victims.
“Tell them it is not their fault,” she recalls him saying.
Setterholm held hands with the cardinal and prayed with him.
And, as a gesture of reconciliation, she gave him one of her most prized possessions.
The trophy from her surfing championship.
“He said he would keep it on his desk,” McNiff recalled.
(The cardinal was out of town last week and did not answer my interview request).
Setterholm has become something of a missionary since that encounter, reaching out to working women and street dwellers and bringing some of them into her own home in Hermosa Beach. With McNiff and Hayman serving as mentors, she formed Serenity Sisters, a support group to help recovering prostitutes. And she runs Surf Bus, a program that brings hundreds of inner-city children to the beach each summer to learn how to surf.
McNiff persuaded Setterholm to go back to school, and she graduated from Loyola Marymount last spring with a degree in theology. Next month, she’ll begin the master of divinity program at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with Columbia University. She was accepted by the school despite an application that included this entry under the “Work Experience” category:
“Prostitution, Independent street/sex worker; 1970-76 and 1992-11/3/2002.”
In certain denominations, a graduate degree would mean that Setterholm had gone from prostitute to priest. She said she doesn’t care about the title. She just wants to return to L.A. and run a ministry devoted to rescuing lost souls.
She’ll never give up the surfing life, though, or working to turn more people onto the sport. Speaking of which, McNiff recalled one more thing Setterholm said to Mahony that day at the cathedral.
“She offered him surfing lessons at some point.”
And what did the cardinal say?
“He did not commit himself,” said McNiff.
Come to the beach, Your Eminence, and we’ll hang 10 together. There’s nothing as pure and cleansing as the ocean.
Mary Setterholm is a great teacher, and every wave is like another baptism.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.