Mary Dispenza was 7 when her parish priest assaulted her in the auditorium of the Catholic school she attended in East Los Angeles. During the rape, her mother, who worked in the parish, chatted with kitchen workers in the next room.
In time, Dispenza became a nun and teacher at her old school, St. Alphonsus, often meeting with students in the auditorium where she was molested. It took 43 years before Dispenza allowed herself to release repressed memories and confront what had happened when she was abused by George Neville Rucker, who has been accused of molesting 38 girls.
"To face the abuse would have caused me to face the church that I loved, the work that I loved, the faith that I loved," Dispenza said in a recent interview.
Eventually, she confronted Rucker; and Friday the Los Angeles Archdiocese agreed to settle Dispenza's claims against the church — along with 44 other sex-abuse cases — for $60 million. She will receive about $1.33 million.
The payments cover just a fraction of the 570 claims filed against the nation's largest archdiocese.
Dispenza is now 67, retired and living in Bellevue.
Although she eventually left her religious community in 1973, she remained a Catholic educator, first as teacher, then as principal at St. Alphonsus and then at schools in Washington state.
In 1974 she became principal of St. Mary School in Aberdeen, where she remained for 10 years. In 1984 she worked briefly at Villa Academy in Seattle before moving to Bellevue and becoming principal at St. Louise School.
Ironically, it was a promotion in 1989 to an executive post in church administration in the Archdiocese of Seattle that opened the floodgates of memory. The church required all new employees to attend a seminar on sexual abuse.
"That's when I really woke up, that the light went on that I had been abused and I wanted and needed to take care of it somehow, to face the abuser," Dispenza said. Two years later, she arranged a face-to-face meeting with Rucker who, she said, admitted to molesting her and offered her $25,000.
"I asked him if he ever abused other little girls, and he said no," she said. "I carried that belief for a long time. He said it was because of his hormones."
Dispenza was in second grade when she was molested. In a class photo, she is one of 40 pupils, each wearing a fresh white dress, each captured with palms pressed together, fingers pointing heavenward.
After the attack, she recalled, she went into a small back room off the auditorium. There, she washed her hands.
"I thought in my own little way if I washed my hands I'd be clean again," she said. It was the start of what she came to call the "split," the blocking of awful memories. "I think that's where the split happened. I think I left little Mary in the bathroom. I went back to where my mom and the women were and never told anybody."
At school, Rucker was always there. Events that should have brought solace or joy became traumatic for Dispenza. One of those twisted moments was her confirmation, when the young are formally inducted into church membership.
"It was the moment of confirmation when I looked up on the altar, when I saw Father Rucker was up there ... and I had to go to him," she said. "I wanted to get out of church, I wanted to run away, but I could not, I could not. He was taking away that sacramental moment."
Indeed, she did not leave her church. She became a nun with the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, pouring herself into her work as an educator in Catholic schools, including St. Alphonsus. The work, she sees now, also was an escape.
"I don't think I knew what I was doing at that time," she said. "It is interesting — the detachment or the disassociation. I could stand in front of all those children in an assembly in the very hall where I was abused, and never, never let that in. I think that's the only way I could survive."
Rucker was accused of 38 molestations occurring between 1947 and 1980 — Dispenza was the first victim. Rucker, now 86, was criminally charged in 2002 with 29 counts of molesting seven girls in Los Angeles during the 1970s.
But in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law extending the statute of limitations on sexual crimes against children. The law's aim was to aid in the prosecution of cases that occurred when victims were much younger and possibly too terrified to report the abuse. With the high court's action, the criminal case against Rucker dissolved, along with 10 others.
Rucker, who was barred from public ministry in 2002, personally paid Dispenza the $25,000 to cover the counseling she needed for years.
"Looking back, I was naive," Dispenza said. "I almost felt sorry, poor man. He said I just happened to be the little girl in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Ten years later, when she learned that others alleged that Rucker had molested them, she joined litigation against the diocese. "Of course, I feel a sense of gratitude that it's done," she said of the settlement, adding she sympathizes with 500 victims who have yet to receive compensation. "It angers me somewhat."
Dispenza no longer calls herself a Catholic, no longer attends church and doubts she will be able to reconcile the abuse with her faith.
She says she's forgiven Rucker — "he's sick, he's a pedophile" — and "I can forgive the church." But she cannot forgive Cardinal Roger Mahony, she added.
She said she wrote Mahony two years ago, and has yet to receive a response. "I'd like to tell him what this meant for me. I'd like to tell him how he's hurting the church," she said.