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Women in O.C. abuse cases speak out

Three of four who settled with the Catholic diocese tell of anguish over their treatment.

October 09, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 10 years ago, Sarah Gray stood before her fellow seniors at Mater Dei gushing about a high school experience made richer by the nurturing environment and religion.

On Monday, her voice cracking and her faith shaken, the former valedictorian stood before reporters and took sharp aim at her alma mater, its administrators and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which runs the school.

Gray, 26, was one of four women who last week reached a $6.8-million settlement in molestation lawsuits against the diocese. She and two others for the first time publicly talked about their ordeals, describing an atmosphere in which they felt abandoned and victimized by those they had turned to for help.

"They completely turned on me," Gray said of her Mater Dei teachers and the administration at the Santa Ana school. "The Catholic Church is supposed to protect children."

Fellow Mater Dei graduate Christina Ruiz, also 26, had similar recollections.

"They made me believe no one would believe me. They made me believe it was my fault," Ruiz said, fighting tears. "I was victimized all over again. . . . They still haven't apologized to me."

Peter Callahan, the lead attorney for the diocese in the cases, said the young women were handled as gently and compassionately as possible under the circumstances. Without mentioning dollar amounts, he said the diocese had made settlement offers. But when that didn't work, there was no choice but to move forward.

"Sometimes the questions we ask are dictated by the claims that are made," he said of the depositions. "Sometimes those matters are painful to talk about. Sometimes the questions are painful to ask."

Some critics and an advocacy group said they see a familiar theme in the words of the victims -- a church with a cultural arrogance, a combative strategy against accusers and a resistance to change despite mammoth monetary settlements with sexual abuse victims.

Orange County Bishop Tod Brown drew praise in early 2004 when he nailed a "Covenant With the Faithful" to the doors of his Holy Family Cathedral in Orange to reassure parishioners that the diocese had embarked on a new day of openness and compassion.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, was among those who now finds a hollowness to that proclamation.

"It's just more of the same. It's clear proof what we've been maintaining all along is true, that there's been very little change within the hierarchy of the church," Clohessy said. "Brown can talk all day and all night about his professed compassion for victims. But talk is cheap. Action counts. And in the realm of action, he's behaving essentially like a thug. Like a bully."

Callahan maintained that "the strategy and approach of the diocese is consistent with what the diocese has done in all these cases: to try to resolve the matters as quickly and compassionately as possible."

The settlement was the first to be reached by the diocese since it agreed in 2004 to pay $100 million to 90 plaintiffs.

The deal came about a week before Ruiz's lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial in a case that had already exposed Brown to a contempt-of-court order, and rekindled the anger leveled at the church. Ruiz accused former Mater Dei assistant basketball coach Jeff Andrade of molesting her for more than a year, starting when she was 15. In a deposition taken as part of the lawsuit, Andrade admitted to having had sex with the then-teenager.

The Newport Beach attorneys who represented the four women won the right to depose Brown and several other diocese officials, including Msgr. John Urell. Urell was considered a key witness because he investigated complaints of molestation for the diocese.

Brown revealed during his deposition that he had been accused 10 years ago of molesting a boy in his years as a priest in Bakersfield, a claim that he and church officials said was found to be unsubstantiated.

Brown is scheduled to appear in court today to face a contempt hearing for allowing Urell to be sent out of the country to a Canadian treatment center before he could finish his deposition in the Mater Dei case.

Lawyers for the diocese and Urell, who broke down during his July deposition and was unable to finish, say he is suffering from an anxiety disorder related to his responsibilities as an investigator of sex abuse.

On Monday, Ruiz and Gray joined Elaina Kroll outside of the offices of Manly, McGuire & Stewart to speak about the stress and anxiety they have suffered. A fourth woman who sued the diocese wished to remain anonymous.

Gray, now seeking a graduate degree in English literature, named former choir director Larry Stukenholtz as the defendant in her case.

Kroll, 28, said she was preyed upon by Albert Schildknecht, a former choir director at St. Timothy's parish in Laguna Niguel and St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point. Schildknecht was charged in July with having unlawful sex with a minor. If convicted, he could face more than four years in prison.

Ruiz and Gray both said they were subjected to eight days of grueling depositions by diocesan lawyers who they said tried to make them feel guilty about what happened and delved into details of their sex lives.

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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