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
Lichtman is an ambitious and brilliant settlement judge caught up in the counterproductive politics of the Los Angeles Superior Court. “There are factions downtown among the judges that place people at different ends of the spectrum,” says one attorney with an insider’s knowledge of the judiciary. “One faction prefers Lichtman didn’t have the case or would fail, while others support him.”
Then there is the St. Thomas More Society, the insider says, which both hovers over Lichtman and lets its presence be felt among other judges who may be called upon to rule on clergy sex-abuse matters. The insider went on to say that the long arm of the church has reached all the way to the highest courts in the state, as Mahony contacted justices on the 2nd District Court of Appeal, the state Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for legal advice when the scandal broke. (Had such advice been offered, it would require justices to disqualify themselves from hearing cases related to the church. None accepted the offer, to the insider’s knowledge. When asked, Appellate Justice Paul Boland, one of the justices Mahony is supposed to have called, denies any contact with the cardinal.)
The court hierarchy of Los Angeles Superior Court, the nation’s largest trial court, is silent on these matters. And Chief Justice Ronald George of the state Supreme Court, a powerful man known for leadership and accessibility, will not touch the subject with a 10-foot cross. Besides his political power, George has authority to sign off on coordinated lawsuits and the assignment of judges to such cases. When reached for comment, the chief justice answers no to the following questions: Was the court’s budget a factor in ordering hundreds of cases coordinated? Did you consider the potential for a process that could favor the church by necessitating secrecy in settlement negotiations? Are you a member of the St. Thomas More Society? “Good luck ferreting that out,” George says, when asked if the Catholic Church has undue influence on the judiciary.
Besides the taint of judicial and religious politics in the clergy scandal, the basic downside for survivors of sex abuse seeking public accountability has been that a process aimed at global settlement cannot be effective unless it takes place in private. And Jackie Dennis is one of the survivors driven by public accountability. “The last thing I wanted was to become part of a ghetto of victims, forced behind closed doors,” Dennis says. “And that is just what has happened.”
Dennis had suffered in private for decades after the abuse by Rucker in the mid-1970s, which lasted several years and took place in her own home as well as inside St. Agatha’s and the church rectory. Her childhood was marred by antisocial and self-destructive behavior, she says, including a preoccupation with death. In 11th grade, she overdosed on PCP. “I stopped learning,” she says. Years of bad relationships and emotional meltdowns followed. She is fortunate now to be married to a management-level employee of the Metropolitan Water District, Jeffry Dennis, who is supportive of her cause as a survivor. The couple have a comfortable townhouse in Inglewood and two daughters in nursing school, Monique, 22, and Laura, 19. For personal reasons related to her struggle to overcome sexual abuse, Dennis was reluctant to go public with her trauma.
One day, however, in March 2002, Dennis opened the newspaper and saw Rucker’s face. “I almost went into shock,” she says. “I had seen him only in my dreams for years.”
After Dennis’ father confronted Rucker in 1975, the priest disappeared from St. Agatha’s, she says, although the National Catholic Directory shows him there until 1980. Dennis believes he was in hiding or in treatment. “There are too many blank spaces in his record,” Dennis, whose two sisters also claim Rucker molested them, says. “It’s wrong.”
Dennis contacted a reporter for the Times and identified herself as one of Rucker’s victims in the spring of 2002. After her name appeared in print, she began receiving calls from lawyers. She had been watching what was happening in Boston. Demonstrations, arrests and convictions of pedophile priests; open-court battles resulting in documents revealing how church officials concealed the abuse; a cardinal about to step down. “Boston will pale in comparison to Los Angeles,” the California lawyers pledged.
“Part of me knew that what happened in Boston could never happen here,” Dennis says. “I just knew the Vatican would do everything in its power to prevent that from ever happening again. But I realized I could not go on with my life the way it was, blocking everything out instead of dealing with it.” And she could still hope. In Boston, possibly the most Catholic city in the country, judges had forced the church to come clean, while the world watched in amazement.
A Massachusetts mediation expert believes Boston church officials made a fundamental mistake by not offering a global settlement in early 2002, before the court forced it to disclose explosive documents indicating a cover-up. “If they had offered $100 million early on, they could have avoided some of the revelations that blew this thing wide open,” the expert says.