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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 … just days before the statute of limitations ran out on such cases … alleged clergy-abuse victims are finally logging their stories into history.

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 Pedro.

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," he says.

Many obstacles

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.

Countersuits

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 alone … are already named in the suits.

Local connections

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 so long.

Some targeted

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 … families 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 trips.

"Wempe was the person we reached out to as a father figure," Bashforth says.

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."

Others involved

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


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org

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