|Out of the Darkness
California victims of alleged clergy sex abuse seek healing, vindication
By Wendy Thomas Russell - Long Beach Press Telegram
Monday, January 12, 2004
SAN PEDRO -- Mary Ferrell wants to tell her story.
So do Timothy McDonnell and Mary Grant and dozens of other area
residents who allege that priests molested them when they were children.
They say they have lived with their dark secrets for long enough.
Through a series of state lawsuits filed last month
days before the statute of limitations ran out on such cases
alleged clergy-abuse victims are finally logging their stories into
Victims throughout California say it will be painful, cathartic
and, most of all, important.
"It's exposure of the Catholic Church," asserts McDonnell,
a 44-year-old Long Beach man who says he was molested by Father
David Cousineau in the early 1970s. "It's accountability. It's
vilification. It's also vindication. But more than that, it's about
the process. The process of coming forward and speaking out is the
healing for me. It's been a lifetime struggle."
Ferrell, of Lakewood, also says full public disclosure is the objective.
She agreed to be a part of the lawsuit last June, when a controversial
U.S. Supreme Court ruling forced prosecutors to drop hundreds of
old child molestation cases across the country.
"That's when I decided that the only way we were going to
get any kind of payback, as it were, was to take civil action,"
says Ferrell, now 55. In her lawsuit, she alleges that Monsignor
George M. Scott molested her between the ages of 7 and 10, while
she was a student at Mary Star of the Sea Elementary School in San
Ferrell and McDonnell are just two of some 500 plaintiffs who have
sued the Los Angeles Archdiocese, as well as individual school parishes
and churches around the county. The suits charge that officials
within each organization ignored acts of clergy abuse and, in some
cases, actively covered them up.
Most of the abuse cases occurred well before 1985, when the three-year
statute of limitations barred hundreds of children from seeking
criminal prosecution against their abusers, attorneys say. Now,
dozens of the accused priests have died, attorneys say, making the
civil action against their employers all the more significant.
"I'm a Catholic," says attorney Raymond Boucher, whose
office represents some 315 alleged victims. "But, unfortunately,
the church was actively involved in many circumstances where priests
were let loose on unsuspecting children. They knew about the problem.
They were duplicitous in that activity and conduct."
That's a position that is no longer entirely opposed by the Los
Angeles Archdiocese. Tod Tamberg, an Archdiocese spokesman, says
the church acknowledges the cover-ups and conspiracy involved in
the clergy-abuse scandal, and is now looking only to settle the
meritorious suits en masse.
"We believe that those victims who have suffered horrible
crimes at the hands of those priests as a result of abuse in the
past deserve to be compensated for their suffering when the church
was at fault, when we knew, and when somebody should have done something,"
But the plaintiffs' burden, he says, will be to prove each case
so long after the abuses occurred. So many molesters and witnesses
are now dead, he says, or their memories have faded.
"You won't be able to prove the vast majority of these (cases),"
Tamberg says. "Does it mean they aren't true? No, it doesn't."
The amount of the expected settlement is still a matter of speculation.
The Boston Archdiocese settled its now-famous clergy-abuse cases
for a total of $85 million, and some say the Catholic church's total
loss in California could reach several times that amount.
But the Archdiocese's public willingness to accept even partial
responsibility is viewed with skepticism by many victims and activists.
Mary Grant, of Long Beach, says she and her family hit roadblock
after roadblock when they reported that she was molested by her
priest as a teenager in Orange County. She says church officials
refused to take any action against Father John Lenihan, despite
the repeated allegations. What's more, the statute of limitations
prevented her from criminally prosecuting Lenihan, even after he
admitted in a taped police interview that he molested Grant in 1978.
In 2002, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and the Los Angeles
Archdiocese settled a case for $1.2 million with a San Francisco
woman who alleged that Lenihan had impregnated her at age 16 and
then urged her to have an abortion. Around that time, Lenihan agreed
to leave the priesthood.
"My story certainly isn't unique," Grant, now 40, says.
"It takes 25 years to remove a predator from being able to
use the Roman Catholic collar to access victims."
Grant, the southwest regional director of the Chicago-based Survivors
Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, says she would like
to think that churches are being proactive in the interest of protecting
children. Instead, she asserts, they continue to be reactive in
the interest of protecting themselves.
"They're concerned about their image and their assets,"
she says, adding that the scandal never will be fully brought to
light until churches across the state make their record books public.
As it stands, most of the lawsuits filed throughout California
are careful not to name specific churches allegedly involved in
the conspiracy. That's because, until the plaintiffs uncover evidence
to support each individual claim, doing otherwise would expose lawyers
and victims to countersuits from the churches.
In time, attorney Boucher says, the names will be added.
"When we're able to show that there were red flags that the
normal, reasonable person would see and respond to, then the church
is on notice," he says. "And we think we can prove that
in every single case we've taken on."
The accused priests
an estimated 200 in Southern California
are already named in the suits.
Among the priests with local ties are Michael Baker, who served
at St. Lucy in Long Beach and St. Linus in Norwalk; Monsignor George
Scott, who served at Mary Star of the Sea in San Pedro; Father Theodore
Llanos, who served at St. Lucy and St. Barnabas in Long Beach and
at St. Bernard in Bellflower; Father Titian Miani, who served at
St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower; and Father Michael Wempe,
who lived in Seal Beach's Leisure World before his arrest last year
on molestation charges.
Llanos, who was perhaps the most well-known in Long Beach, committed
suicide in 1996. Scott died in the 1980s, and Wempe is in jail awaiting
trial in Los Angeles. Criminal charges against Baker and Miani were
dropped last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a retroactive
state law allowing victims of molestation to prosecute their abusers
past the statute of limitations.
Long Beach resident Sue Griffiths, whose son, Scott, was the first
of Llanos' victims to come forward in 1994, has become an activist
in the area of clergy abuse. And she says it's important for victims'
stories to be told in detail, so that Catholics and non-Catholics
alike can understand the extent of the victims' trauma.
"I'm hoping that it will all come out in public," she
says. "More than anything, that's what the survivors need."
Local victims say the priests who molested them tended to follow
certain patterns, which helped them get away with their crimes for
The priests generally preyed on families with some weakness
an absent father, alcoholic parents, financial burdens. They also
often chose children from families with deep faith
whose trust in their priests was unquestionable. Often, the abusers
told their victims that they were doing "God's work."
Lee Bashforth, head of SNAP's Orange County branch, says he and
his brother, Mark, were molested by Father Wempe for years. He says
the priest became a member of their family, taking them on countless
outings, teaching them to shoot guns, fish and camp.
Bashforth says his real dad was constantly away from home on business
"Wempe was the person we reached out to as a father figure,"
Ferrell says she was abused by Monsignor Scott for three years
and felt paralyzed to do anything about it because of his position
of authority at her school.
"He gave me every report card from first grade through 12th
grade," she says. "He gave me my first communion, and
I gave him my first confession."
Another alleged victim, a 62-year-old who elaborated on his lawsuit
on condition of anonymity, says Scott molested him, too, beginning
when he was 7. He says he attended a public school in San Pedro
at the time, and was molested every Thursday at 1 p.m. for a three-month
period. It was a time he was supposed to be attending catechism
to help him prepare for his first communion, but, instead, he says,
a priest would deliver him to a house where Monsignor Scott "would
have his way with me for two hours."
He says there were other boys his age in other rooms in the house,
but they weren't allowed to talk to each other. And he says he's
now convinced that "it was a conspiracy among the priests."
After the molestations, the man says, he would be taken back to
the church, where his mother would pick him up and take him home.
Months of religious classes, he recalls, and he only learned how
to endure unspeakable acts while telling no one.
"When communion time came around," he says, "I didn't
know any of the words that I was supposed to know."
The man, who says revealing his name would be devastating for his
family, doesn't know whether he'll see a dime of money from the
lawsuit, and he says no amount of money could compensate for his
lost childhood anyway.
Nonetheless, he says, the suit is a way to finally break the silence.
"It will protect future children," he says