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Finding Strength in Pain

Outside California court, men and their families share stories of childhood abuse, forging a bond with other victims after years of silence.

By Nita Lelyveld - LA Times Staff Writer
December 4, 2004

For years, they jammed their childhood traumas so deep inside that even their families had no access.

Two years ago, 20 years into his marriage, Max Fisher finally told his wife, Cory. At last, she knew the source of her husband's thrashing nightmares — the ones that left him with bloody gouges on his face and her with permanent pouches under wary, worried eyes.

David Guerrero, at 34, crushed his parents with the confession that a priest had started sodomizing him when he was 8, in their church and in their home. In horror, Robert and Minerva Guerrero replayed their son's feral years of lashing out at them and lurching toward loveless sex, crystal methamphetamine and booze.

Guilt, shame, fear, rage — the burdens they all bore daily — bruised and broke them. So when these direct and indirect victims of sexual abuse by priests gathered in a cold Los Angeles courthouse hallway this week, they found a strained solace together.

Mothers held one another and spoke of starting their own support group. Cory Fisher, who sat close to her husband at all times, hugged the other abused men who had showed up alone. Minerva Guerrero arrived each day with a cooler full of food and insisted that others eat her sandwiches and fruit. David Guerrero massaged the shoulders of Sherida Ruiz, 56, whose son Chris Huicochea had, like him, been abused by Father Siegfried Widera. Huicochea's abuse occurred when the priest arrived at the 10-year-old boy's home to comfort him after his father died.

"There's a lot of hurt in this hallway. Maybe soon some of these people can stop running and start healing," said Mark Curran, 40, who said that at the age of 13 he was fondled by Msgr. Michael Harris, the principal of his Catholic high school, who had been preparing him for the priesthood.

For almost 30 hours over three days, without fresh air or daylight, , about a dozen of the 87 people who filed claims against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange huddled on the hard benches of the downtown courthouse's fifth floor. One victim flew in from Guatemala, another from New York.

Dozens of lawyers — for the victims, for the diocese and for insurance companies — met in closed courtrooms to hammer out the $100-million settlement. Paper was carefully taped over the small square windows in the courtrooms' doors. So as fleets of lawyers in suits marched past them again and again, the victims parsed facial expressions and gaits to gauge progress. With time, they also searched one another for more significant clues — about what the abuse had done to them.

Some of the victims, meeting for the first time, realized they had gone to the same school. The common ground, in many cases, was even more intimate. Most of the priests in question were repeat offenders. In the hallway, one victim would often refer to another by his abuser's name: "He's a Widera guy" or "He's one of the Ramos ones."

Stephen, a victim who asked that only his first name be used, said he was nervous Monday when the judge in the settlement talks asked the plaintiffs to come to the courthouse. Stephen said he was abused when he was 13 by Father John Ruhl. He kept his silence even as Ruhl came to his parents' home for dinner every Friday night for the next decade. He told his wife about the abuse only two years ago, 10 years into their marriage. Before Monday, the 39-year-old had told only his immediate family and the lawyers.

"I could never really find the courage to even go to meetings," Stephen said. "So I felt uncomfortable going [to the courthouse] because this was the first time I'd ever sat around in a group."

On Monday, he brought a book and hid behind it, alone.

But he kept glancing at the other victims. By the end of the day, he had joined them. He said it helped to hear that he wasn't an anomaly: Other victims had come from such stalwartly Catholic families; they too had taken years to risk destroying their relatives' faith by speaking out. He wasn't even the only one whose abuser had presided over his wedding. How could he say no if he couldn't say why?

"I thought if they helped me or if I helped them, that was going to be great," Stephen said of his fellow victims. "And it really felt great to talk to people, because I've been there."

All of the victims who had filed claims had endured dozens of interviews and consultations. They had aired their most terrible secrets to lawyers at conference tables, and in therapists' offices. But it was different to talk with others who, like themselves, felt permanently damaged.

A number of them said they'd shut down emotionally after the abuse, getting into trouble or hiding out alone through high school, retreating to their rooms, unable to trust anyone enough to make friends. Several said they'd broken up marriages because they couldn't tell their spouses what had happened to them.

Curran, who had once thought himself destined for the priesthood, eloquently cited lessons from the Bible to comfort others. Although he remains a faithful Christian, he said the abuse severed him long ago from the Catholic Church. He used drugs, and was arrested in three states before he settled down and started a company that makes cement sealer.

Listening to his experience, Guerrero heard an echo of his own. He lives with his parents and has never held a steady job. His life quickly derailed, he said, after Widera befriended him, awaiting him in the church playground after school, giving him candy and talking to him. He'd sit on the priest's lap, where he could feel the priest's erections.

Widera, he said, pulled him out of catechism class "to pray," and then sodomized him and made him perform oral sex. At night, Guerrero, terrified of hell, prayed obsessively — 500 Our Fathers, 1,000 Hail Marys. He wandered blocks from home, sleepwalking. He dropped out of school for good in ninth grade, became a drug addict and a sex addict, and lost all hope, he said.

"It's like my sex life, my love life, my faith, my trust in God were all put in a garbage disposal, which was turned on over and over again. I can't trust anyone. I can't even trust my own parents, which is a horrible thing," he said. "No one had any business doing that to me."

Sometimes, the atmosphere in the hallway had the festive feel of a family picnic. More often, Guerrero and the other victims sat silently, stone-faced, looking as if it were only by force of will that they were able to keep their emotions in check. They said it was especially hard for them this week, when they were forced to focus full-time on the abuse.

For that reason, they said, the settlement was a relief. They had jammed the trauma down so deep for so long.

Late Thursday, when the settlement was announced, up and down the courthouse hallway, the victims clung to one another and wept.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests