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Los Angeles | Patt Morrison

There Is No Statute of Limitations on Protester's Determination

April 11, 2002|Patt Morrison

The Vietnam War? There was Jim Robertson, out on the picket line. Abortion rights? Back to the picket line again. Name your cause, and there he was.

It is 7:45 on a dull spring morning in Gardena, and Jim Robertson, in a double-breasted suit, his hair gone to thistledown-white, is walking a picket line again.

It is a one-man picket line, and his sign reads: "I Was Sexually Abused at This School." His cause is his own, and anyone else's who is what Robertson says he is--a man molested in his youth by a Catholic clergyman.

He walks a long loop on the pavement outside Junipero Serra High School, where he graduated 38 years ago. As he paces, he can glimpse the double doors beyond which lie the chemistry lab.

In 1963, Robertson had won the lead in the school play but was flunking chemistry.

The chemistry teacher, a brother of the Marianist order, offered one-on-one help. Each time Robertson got something wrong, which was often, he says, the brother "would twist my arm behind my back and eventually shove it down the front of his pants."

For eight days this went on, Robertson recounts, until the brother force-marched him into the room next door, and exposed himself and masturbated.

Robertson kept thinking of a holy woman the nuns had told him about who had been sexually abused. He tried to imagine himself being somewhere else, and remembers hearing the thwaps and shouts from the baseball game going on outside.

The school looks little changed to him. Next door, where the brothers lived, is now a convent, and the nuns, out early, walk wide of the white-haired man on the sidewalk.

Only Robertson has changed, from the altar boy, the scholarship boy, the teenager cast in "Playboy of the Western World"--and didn't that turn out to be a joke--into an unbeliever and a job seeker so wary of authority that he has ricocheted through the world of commerce in grunt-level jobs, and now sells antiques and almost-antiques at flea markets.

The self-help books he read, the veterans' hospital support groups he attended let him confront his problems but not resolve them.

"What's destroyed when people do this to you is trust, and how do you have relationships without trust?"

That's why he is alone--and why he could come out to this sidewalk in Gardena: "I don't have a job to lose. I don't have a career to lose. I don't have a spouse to lose. I don't have children to shame."

Somewhere in the country, the day's news lays out another account of something sordid and maybe even illegal that some priest allegedly did to some child.

It is news, but to me it isn't new. In the 1980s, I wrote about a teenage girl in a parish in Wilmington, seduced by seven priests--yes, they made Snow White jokes--and impregnated by one.

The church was excused as a defendant in her lawsuit, and the priests, all Filipino, were nowhere to be found when the process servers went calling.

Seven years later, the eldest priest called me to get things off his chest.

He showed me letters from the archdiocese advising him to stay in the Philippines, and copies of checks equal to his priest's salary sent to him with a note asking that he "not reveal that you are being paid by the Los Angeles Archdiocese unless requested under oath."

Reading Jim Robertson's 1995 lawsuit this week, I saw that same case cited by the church: that it is not liable for sexual misconduct by its priests.

And Robertson's case was dismissed, for statute of limitation reasons, among others.

Back in the '80s, parishioners in Wilmington were furious with the messengers. On the day the front-page story ran, the paper was scolded from the pulpit by the cardinal himself, Timothy Manning.

Fast-forward to now, to the sidewalk in Gardena. The parents taking their children to class at Serra High glower at Robertson and his sign. Only one so much as asks him, "Is he still teaching here?"

Before he filed his suit, Robertson says, he met with church lawyers, a Marianist and a therapist. He was offered $12,000 for therapy, he says, but "the look on [the Marianist's] face was, 'I know you'll go for the money because that's what this is all about.'"

He felt abused all over again, angry all over again. That's why he filed the lawsuit; that's why the other side of his picket sign reads, "Not all victims are compensated."

All he got from this was a passing grade in chemistry. He says he and some friends had sent the teacher notes: "'Given what happened, I think I need to get at least a B.' So I was turned into this blackmailer at 16."

Robertson says the brother stopped him on his way out the door one day and said, "'You know, they have a name for things like this.' And I said, 'You know, they've got a name for what you did too.'"

*

Patt Morrison's columns appear Mondays and Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison@ latimes.com.

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