Clergy abuse victims haunted by sex harassment news

PORTLAND, Ore. – When the stories of sexual misconduct by powerful men began to fill the news of this fall, Manny Vega immediately flashed back to his youth.

He saw great similarities between the recent accusations against the producers and politicians, and his own abuse of a child by his parish priest.

“The parallels in the dynamics of power,” said Vega, a former police officer and decorated Marine who lives in Oxnard, California. “Whether you’re the leader of a church or the leader of a film studio, you’re going to have someone watch people and someone who people go to for guidance. It puts the victim in a terrible disadvantage.”

Although there are important differences, the sexual harassment detailed today headlines, shares of the same worn-out themes that made it so difficult for the Vega and hundreds of other clergy abuse victims to come forward, more than a decade ago: fear of retaliation and disbelief, impossible power dynamics, and confidential settlements that buried complaints.

Powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein is under investigation for sexual abuse in four cities, and has been accused of everything from unwanted come-ons to be touched by dozens of women, including A list of the actresses. He has apologized for his behavior with women, but refused to have nonconsensual sex. He has not been charged with a crime.

In the fall-out, dozens of other high-profile men — actors, producers, politicians, journalists, chefs, and TV hosts have been publicly accused of misconduct, and dozens of his dismissal, dismissed or suspended, or are experiencing political or professional losses as a result of the allegations.

And as Weinstein, the clergy abuse scandal featured a larger-than-life character who resigned in disgrace: Boston Cardinal Bernard Law. Right, which is not to stop child molesters in the priesthood led to the worst crisis in American Catholicism, died earlier this week at the age of 86.

The revelations are again open wounds of clergy abuse victims who tried to raise the national consciousness about the dangers of complicity in exposing their trauma to the nation.

The Catholic church has paid out more than $3 billion to settle clergy abuse cases since 1950, including a record $660 million settlement in Los Angeles a decade ago. Archdioceses in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere were forced to reveal confidential documents that showed cover-ups to protect molesting priests.

Now, in the courtroom victories — and the secret documents revealed — seem terrible omen.

“I wouldn’t be surprised after everything I’ve experienced, but it is shocking,” said Ryan DiMaria, a clergy abuse victim who won a $5.2 million settlement in 2001 and went on to advocate for others abused by priests. “I think it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of finding out who knew, and who was covered. That’s the next big revelation.”

Six of Weinstein’s female accusers has filed a federal lawsuit in New York earlier this month claimed he used a legion of assistants, casting agents, security firms, gossip writers and others to gain access to a steady stream of unwilling sexual partners and the sound of their complaints.

There are differences in the scandals. Most of the clergy, victims were adults when they came forward, but were children when the abuse happened. And the weight of the faith made it that much more intimidating for the prosecutors to come forward; some were disowned by their family, and liars called by fellow parishioners.

“I can’t tell you how often a customer reported telling their parents about the abuse, and even their parents would strike back and say: ‘You lie,'” said attorney Tim Hale, who represented alleged victims of both clergy abuse and violence within the Boy Scouts.

Today, there seems to be less resistance to accepting these stories, possibly because the clergy abuse scandal increased public awareness that abuse can hide anywhere, and an attacker can be anyone, said Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk who has written several books on clergy abuse and is an expert in the field.

Clergy abuse victims who for decades have felt that they were alone, now see actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Salma Hayek come up with similar stories, and that is worrying, but also healing, he said.

Many have approached him in recent days to talk about how the daily news reports about sexual misconduct have to do with their childhood experiences, he added.

“It is a disturbing element, and it is rough, and it is deep — but it is also a comfort that they are not the only ones and that they are not in the wrong,” Sipe said. “The truth is really liberating.”

Those who have lived with the clergy abuse scandal, however, know that this moment of public awareness, could disappear as quickly as it came. Women are just started with the filing of lawsuits, a process that could drag on for years, and the audience might grow skeptical or weary as more sexual misconduct claims in the pipeline.

“It won’t be news after a while. It will be, ‘Oh, another person complaining, and now a different person to complain.’ But what is important now is that there are names people know, and that fascinates and interests of the people,” said Anthony Demarco, a Pasadena, California, a lawyer who specializes in clergy abuse cases.

“To truly change, it was not enough for the perpetrators,” he said. “You have to root out who acquiesced and tolerated.”


Gillian Flaccus covered the clergy abuse crisis for The Associated Press for more than a decade in Southern California. Follow her on Twitter

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