By Michael Bott, Candice Nguyen, Mark Villarreal and Grace Galletti
Hundreds of lawsuits are hitting the Roman Catholic Church across California, made possible by a 2019 law that opened a three-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to file claims, regardless of when the abuse occurred.
Most of the accusations go back decades, some as far back as the 1950s.
Over the past four years, NBC Bay Area has interviewed nearly a dozen alleged victims of childhood clergy abuse, hoping to better understand their experience. For nearly all of them, the journey to speak out took decades.
For Steven Chavez, who alleges in a recent lawsuit he was given HIV after being raped by a South Bay priest as a teenager, it came down to his devout parents.
“They asked me not to embarrass them, not to embarrass the church,” said Chavez, who waited more than four decades to publicly tell his story.
When asked why he’s coming forward now, Chavez said, “Because my parents are dead and I can do it.”
Others, like Rick Pfisterer, said they were called liars when they tried to confide their secret in someone as children.
“The priest had gotten my home phone number and talked to my dad prior to me getting home and telling him what was going on,” Pfisterer said. “And I got beat for lying to him. And so I never said another word to anyone, ever.”
According to UCLA Professor Paul Abramson, an expert on psychological trauma, there are often common hurdles that victims of childhood clergy abuse must overcome before deciding to come forward.
“It has to do with three basic factors, the first of which is that these kids are, by and large, from devout families,” said Abramson, who believes children from such families are more likely to view priests as authority figures or God’s messenger on Earth. “It also makes it very difficult for them to come forward.”
Abramson said abusing priests also groom their victims to establish a close bond and reduce the chances of disclosure.
Age, he said, is also a factor.
“[Children] don’t know what to make of it,” Abramson said. “They’re frightened as hell. Sometimes they’re bleeding, they’re in pain. It’s overwhelming. They shut down and they try to find every way to not remember it.”
The psychological trauma can last a lifetime, according to Abramson, often with devastating outcomes.
“They’re often severely depressed, suicidal,” Abramson said. “They feel they have nowhere to turn. And a lot of self-medicating.”
It’s something Rick Pfisterer knows well, who said he’s struggled with addiction and urges to harm himself until meeting his wife, who he calls his savior.
“I’ve tried to [overdose] my whole life, until I met my wife,” said Pfisterer, also now suing the Church. “I can’t outrun the memories, so I might as well stand up to them.”
The three-year “lookback” window for alleged victims to file lawsuits closes at the end of this year. Hundreds of lawsuits have already been filed in Northern California alone, and attorneys expect a flurry of activity over the final days.
Attorneys representing the Church have argued the current lookback window is unconstitutional, and that it could mean Catholic dioceses across California could be on the hook for “potentially billions of dollars in retroactive punitive damages.”
Victim advocates say such windows are critical because the statute of limitations on civil claims often runs out before victims are ready to come forward. Many argue the statute of limitations should be thrown out altogether in such cases.
San Jose resident John Salberg knows what it’s like for victims now coming forward for the first time. He and some former classmates sued the Church 20 years ago during a similar lookback window in 2003, after he says they were molested by a priest at school in the 1970s.
“We’re going to tell what happened and we’ll fight through the shame,” Salberg recalls thinking at the time.
To this day, he vividly remembers telling his church about it for the first time in the wake of the Boston clergy abuse scandal.
“They kept saying, ‘Boston, New York, LA,’ you know? ‘It’s everywhere but here,’” Salberg said. “I just grabbed the mic in front of all these people and said, ‘I’m really sorry to tell you guys this, but this happened to me, and it happened to a number of your sons.”
Salberg’s lawsuit against the Archdiocese of San Francisco resulted in a $1.5 million jury award. Around the same time, Salberg wrote a letter to then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, which he still has, about his experience.
“It has cost me some friendships and some popularity,” Salberg wrote. “As difficult as it’s been, I’d do it all over again.”
He said society often pictures victims as the adults they are today, rather than the vulnerable children they were when they were abused.
“They look at us now and they have a perception of an adult, you know, who’s confident and has the ability to speak their mind and everything else,” Salberg said. “Well, that’s not who got molested. Who got molested was the innocent little boy.”
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