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Priests' victims are emboldened

The scandal dogging the Catholic Church has led to a shift in attitudes, allowing more who were abused to speak out.

December 04, 2006|Jill Leovy and Jessica Garrison | 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.

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