Lobdell: Singing to break the silence

For years, Elaina Kroll had stopped singing.

The Newport Beach resident had been robbed of her childhood passion by her church choir director, who molested her. The sexual abuse she had suffered as a bewildered 16-year-old had been, in her mind, cruelly fused together with music.

In the subsequent years, she would drop out of a prestigious music conservatory in Boston, suffer from depression and no longer have the desire to sing.

But Saturday night, at the fundraising gala in Anaheim for The Innocent Mission — a nonprofit she founded last year — Kroll will play the piano and sing Sarah McLachlan's hauntingly beautiful "Angel."

Tears will flow, including mine.

At the Los Angeles Times, I covered the Catholic Church's sexual abuse and cover-up scandal for six years, talking with hundreds of survivors in the process. Unless you see it up close, it's impossible to begin to understand the long-term devastation that the child rapes had on the victims. Soul murder is an adequate description.

And perhaps more hurtful were the ubiquitous cover-ups by the church's bishops, who put their careers and institution far ahead of the safety of children. Despite unleashing known child rapists on unsuspecting children, the Vatican has yet to punish a single bishop, and parishioners continue to give money, respect and deference to these accomplices in the sexual abuse of minors.

No wonder most victims feel so betrayed by everyone in the church.

For all these reasons and more, most survivors of the Catholic sexual abuse scandal walk through life with scattered souls, often descending into drug and alcohol addiction, promiscuity, troubled relationships, and depression and other mental illness.

Even the sizable civil settlements of recent years didn't provide much healing for many victims. I know of many examples where the six- and seven-figure payouts vanished in less time than it took to litigate the cases — the money thrown away on drugs, giveaways to family and friends, wild spending and bad investments.

Kroll took another path. In 2009, she quit a successful career in the wine industry and used her settlement money to fund The Innocence Mission, whose goal is to "create a world where every child's right to sexual innocence is protected and upheld." The nonprofit also helps survivors find justice through the criminal and civil courts.

"I wanted to give back," Kroll said. "The money is meant for healing, and starting The Innocence Mission was the greatest way I thought I could heal by helping others heal."

It's hard to say what has made Kroll different than many survivors of sexual abuse, but she says it helped that she got to see her perpetrator, Albert Lee Schildknecht, plead guilty last year at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach to lewd acts with a minor, sentenced to five years' probation, and made to register as a sex offender.

"It was so healing to hear him admit to what he had done," Kroll said. "And it opened my eyes to the need for victims to come forward and get the help they need and find empowerment in the legal system."

The criminal justice system hasn't worked for most victims of the Catholic sex scandal. According to a 2004 study funded by the church, 4,392 priests from 1950 to 2002, were credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. But only 6% of those clerics were convicted of a crime and just 2% actually served time behind bars.

"Elaina's one of the first survivors who I have met whose taken something that was tremendously painful and made it into something tremendously beautiful," said Joelle Casteix, the Western regional director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and Innocence Mission board member.

In its first year, The Innocence Mission has hosted screenings of the award-winning documentary "Playground," about sexual exploitation in the U.S. It's arranged training on sexual abuse prevention and awareness for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Orange County (CASA), which mentors severely abused, abandoned and neglected children. And it's held seminars for parents that feature experts from the Orange County district attorney's office on how to keep children safe.

The Innocence Mission's infancy hasn't been without challenges. The down economy has hurt fundraising efforts, and the prevention of child sexual abuse — unlike, say, breast cancer — isn't a comfortable cause for many to champion.

"It's a silent epidemic for a reason," Kroll said.

Still, she has ambitious plans for The Innocence Mission's second year, including training 150 parent's groups, schools, religious organizations and other nonprofits.

Saturday's "World of Wonderment Gala: An Evening Celebrating Childhood's Infinite Possibilities" at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel will go a long way to fulfilling Kroll's ambitious vision.

The evening will include a silent auction, a Beatles tribute band and special honorees journalist Dan Rather and Oscar-nominee Amy Berg, both of whom will be recognized for their reporting on sexual abuse of children.

Rather will give the keynote speech (for full disclosure and to illustrate how far The Innocence Mission has already come, as last year's honoree, I will be introducing the former CBS anchorman).

In other words, a ticket to Saturday's gala will be "hotter than the Devil's anvil," to use a Dan Rather-ism.

You can have all this — and help preserve the innocence of children — for a tax-deductible $175 (http://www.theinnocencemission.org).

And don't forget the best part of the evening: hearing Elaina Kroll sing again. That performance will be priceless.

Bring your Kleenex.

WILLIAM LOBDELL is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor, and a Costa Mesa resident. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World