Female victims often overlooked in horror stories of clergy abuse

By Marjie Lundstrom -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer, 3/21/02

They are Californians with shared histories of violence, abuse and unspeakable

At age 6, one was sodomized in the church sanctuary by the family priest, then raped
again at 8 by a second priest in another state.

Another was lured into a sexual relationship at age 16 by one priest, who invited six
other priests along for the "fun" over the next four years.

Still another Californian remembers wandering into the rectory at about age 8, only to
be raped.

Who are they?

Given recent headlines, with the Catholic Church nationwide struggling with its worst
sex scandal, you might easily assume these victims are boys and adolescent males --
altar boys, perhaps, assaulted by pedophiles lurking beneath the collar.

They are victims, yes, but they are not boys at all. They are grown women, forced to
live with a betrayal many misperceive to be borne almost exclusively by males.

Look again.

"Of the priests we've evaluated, more abuse girls than abuse boys," says Gary
Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist and expert on clergy sexual abuse.

Despite media emphasis over the years on male victims -- boys and men with horrific
stories of their own -- Schoener and other experts believe that troubled priests and
other clergy are more likely to abuse females, especially adult women.

Sometimes their stories trickle out; more often, they do not.

Meanwhile, the number of male victims in a single parish can add up quickly, as one
pedophile-priest may have unlimited access for a long period to boys on outings or
other male-oriented church activities.

From this, big headlines are made.

"Everything's always about the altar boys. It's like nothing ever happened to the girls,"
says Terrie Light of Castro Valley, West Coast regional director of SNAP, Survivors
Network of Those Abused by Priests (survivorsnetwork.org).

Light was about 8 and attending church in the Oakland diocese when she went to the
rectory looking for her mother. She was raped by the priest instead.

Now 50, she struggled emotionally for years -- feeling "crazy and weird and
defective." There simply were no other stories about women.

"When I finally found other (abused) women, I started getting better," she said. "I
found out my story wasn't all that uncommon."

There are many explanations for the widespread misperception about victims of clergy
abuse, though one of the most disturbing is this: the old "she asked for it."

She must have seduced him. She made him sin.

The girl, however young, is cast as temptress.

Such was the logic played over and over to a Los Angeles woman, who became
pregnant years ago after her priest and six other priests routinely had intercourse with
her beginning when she was 16.

"As Catholics, we see priests even above angels," said Rita Milla, who is now married
with a second child. "To believe whatever they said had to be the right thing."

After giving birth in the Philippines, where the priest had hidden her away, Milla
returned with her child and eventually sued the church.

In 1991, the priest publicly apologized for seducing the teenager, but she did not win
her lawsuit -- in part, because it was filed too late. She had refused to settle, she
said, because she would not agree to silence.

Yet even today, the courts are not always sympathetic to female victims.

Boys not only get more media coverage in clergy abuse cases, said Schoener, they
also tend to get bigger verdicts. Homophobia, he believes, has been a "very, very
powerful force."

"In modern society, homosexual rape is considered a more heinous act," said the
psychologist, who is frequently an expert witness.

Ranking victims' worthiness is the worst thing we can do -- look no further than the
bickering over the Sept. 11 fund. But overlooking a whole group of victims is right up

"There are a lot of women (victims) out there who believe they are alone and isolated
and 'special' in a bad way," says Light.

They are not, and that is the good news. For both sexes, it is also the bad.