By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|AP/Wide World Photos|
If she had never met the Rev. George Neville Rucker — had her mother never welcomed the priest into the family’s home — Jackie Dennis might still be singing in the choir at St. Agatha’s parish. Instead, on the rare Sunday she attends Mass, she sits alone in the balcony, estranged from her former classmates and friends, revisiting moments she wishes she could forget.
As she prays and sings along with the choir one Sunday last November, the 42-year-old Dennis recalls being in the fifth grade, intrigued by the Communion. She sees herself carrying the Eucharist for Rucker, the priest she once adored. After all these years, Dennis still remembers being the luckiest girl in her class, lucky to have the body and blood of Christ entrusted to her by someone so close to God. “I was the first girl in this choir,” Dennis whispers, as the choir sings “This Little Light.”
When the visions come, however, they are unsparing in detail, she says after Mass, as she waits in front of St. Agatha’s for her husband to pick her up. Dennis sees herself naked behind the altar at St. Agatha’s. She remembers Rucker’s fingers inside her while looking up at the church ceiling and hearing a voice telling her to be a good girl. She envisions not just Rucker but vicars and bishops as serpents or beasts with horns. “They stole my education, my youth,” Dennis says of the men who allowed Rucker to remain a priest.
Dennis’ focus on the Catholic hierarchy is justified. Last week, when Cardinal Roger Mahony turned to the Los Angeles Times — and the Times only — to release the names of 244 priests accused of molestation since 1931, along with a self-serving mea culpa, Dennis went looking for him in anger. “That report didn’t mean shit to me,” she says. “There’s no accountability in it, just a bunch of PR bullshit.” Dennis has spoken to Mahony before. He knows who she is, and he knows what Rucker did to her. Which might explain the kid-glove treatment Dennis gets from Mahony spokesman Tod Tamberg, who frequently e-mails Dennis to engage her in friendly dialogue, despite her charges that Mahony has harbored pedophiles.
Mahony is a professional at this kind of manipulation. It’s called damage control. And whether he is courting victims in hopes that they will take his money and quietly go away, calling judges for legal advice about the jam he’s in, or inducing the Times into becoming his mouthpiece, he has been effective in containing a full-blown scandal.
But Mahony’s abuse of power has had an even more insidious effect. The Judicial Council of California and a number of local judges, deferring to his wish for secrecy, have ordered hundreds of claims of sex abuse into private negotiations, sealed off critical rulings about whether church documents should be confidential and slapped gag orders on victims and their attorneys. Influential trial lawyers who once swore to expose Mahony as a criminal defend the secretive process, and have stated their willingness to spare him. Los Angeles, where many powerful lawyers and judges belong to a political arm of the Catholic Church called the St. Thomas More Society, has become a beehive of intrigue at the expense of the collective psyche of already damaged victims of child rape. Money, power and the internal politics of the trial lawyers have compromised the search for accountability.
Despite Mahony’s machinations and bland apologies, and the resignations of numerous bishops across the country, including two close colleagues in Arizona, only he and his lawyers know what discipline, if any, church officials meted out to Rucker, who was allowed to remain a priest after allegedly molesting dozens of girls from the late 1940s to the 1980s. (Even after Rucker was forced to retire as a priest in 1987, he remained a chaplain until 2002, when the U.S. Coast Guard nabbed him fleeing on a cruise ship to Russia to escape criminal charges. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June led to the dismissal of 29 counts of child molestation against him.)
Until the public sees more than posturing and calculated acts of public contrition from Mahony, Dennis and her fellow survivors can only imagine the secrets he is spending millions of dollars in legal fees to protect. For more than a year they have been stymied. This is due in part to the genius of Mahony’s strategy. According to his lawyers, Mahony has a three-point plan for doing away with close to 500 claims of priest sexual abuse:
First, he plans to pay off any victim who filed a sex-abuse lawsuit before December 31 — preferably with insurance money — whether or not the person’s claim is defensible in court. Second, he intends to “make a public disclosure” regarding the extent that clergy abuse has plagued the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which explains last week’s release of a report in advance of a national study by an independent criminal-justice institute. And third, he intends to privately review videotaped testimony from hundreds of victims so he can somehow feel their pain.