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Survivors speak about immigrant communities' plight with church abuse

A nonprofit in Milwaukee is on a mission to 'work for transformation, and foster healing for all those who've been wounded'
Sara Larson, executive director of Awake.

Sara Larson, executive director of Awake. (Photo: The Pillar)

Published: April 13, 2024 05:18 AM GMT
Updated: April 13, 2024 05:30 AM GMT

When Eduardo Lopez de Casas was abused by a priest during his school years, he could not bring himself to tell his mother what was happening, fearing it would ruin her faith in the Catholic Church. Having grown up hearing about her mother's upbringing -- and how she came to find solace in her faith after becoming an orphan at an early age in Mexico City -- Lopez de Casas "did not want, ever, to come in between my mother's faith because it was so strong."

Lopez de Casas' mother passed away in 2021, never hearing of her son's plight with the abuse he had suffered at the hands of a man who was supposed to offer him guidance.

Now the vice president of the board of directors for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Lopez de Casas shared his story in the January webinar "Courageous Conversations: How Immigrant Voices Are Silenced in Church Abuse," part of a speaker series hosted by Awake, a survivor support and advocacy organization that works to support survivors and educate Catholics on the issue of sexual abuse within the church.

The independent nonprofit was established in 2019 in Milwaukee by a small group of Catholics and recently broadened its focus. Its mission? To "awaken our community to the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, work for transformation, and foster healing for all those who've been wounded," Catherine Owers, Awake's community engagement specialist, told OSV News in March.

Owers said the Courageous Conversations episode speaks directly to the first part of the mission statement -- awaken our community to the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church -- as many people, when they think about abuse in the church and survivors of abuse, "they have this classic image of an older man, usually an older white man, who has abused the child, (such as) a priest and maybe the child was serving as an altar boy."

While that is true in many cases, there are other kinds of survivors, Owers affirmed.

"People of color, women, survivors who have experienced abuse as adults, maybe not by priests but by other religious leaders, by religious sisters, by lay ministers," Owers said, adding, "So, having these conversations, where we're really highlighting the diversity of stories, I think it's just so tremendously important."

Aside from Lopez de Casas, the webinar also gave voice to Aimee Torres, a Filipino filmmaker from Los Angeles who was harmed by a priest when she was a child, and Susan Bigelow Reynolds, assistant professor of Catholic Studies in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.

Reynolds, whose essay "'I Will Surely Have You Deported': Undocumenting Clergy Sexual Abuse in Immigrant Communities" was published in the journal Religion and American Culture in 2023, said that, for her research, she examined the case of Peter Edward Garcia. A priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles from the 1960s through the 1980s, Garcia targeted the children of undocumented immigrants for sexual abuse, threatening them with deportation if they ever told on him.

"(Garcia) served for a time as the head of Hispanic outreach in the archdiocese, which gave him a really unique, trusted status, particularly for recently arrived families," Reynolds shared during the webinar. He would then "use families' undocumented status to threaten these children effectively, children and teenagers ... who feel an obvious and understandable sense of loyalty and fidelity to their families, into silence, to scare them not to report their violence," she added.

Garcia was accused of abusing at least 12 minors in a period of 20 years. He was laicized in 2006 and died in 2009, according to records from bishop-accountability.org.

Reynolds pointed to power abuse and clericalism as chief contributors to the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as, because of these, perpetrators enjoyed immunity from criminal prosecution due to their position in the church.

However, clericalism does not operate in a vacuum, Reynolds said.

"Clericalism gains traction, gains force and power by trading on other structures of domination based on race and ethnicity and class and legal status and gender and age," she said.

Torres can see the power dynamics at play in her experience of abuse. Growing up in a predominantly Catholic family of Filipino immigrants, she witnessed how priests held revered status within her community and how they were viewed as "little kings." Inevitably conditioned by her culture, she did not report the abuse she suffered at the hands of a priest, a close friend of an aunt, between the ages of 8 and 12, until she was 17.

"The priest that abused me; he used his power as a priest over me because I felt, at the time, that I was doing something wrong," Torres said. "At that point, you feel so small over somebody like this," she added.

Because immigrants experience unique challenges associated with economic hardships, language and discrimination, among others, they become more vulnerable to potential acts of abuse.

Even before the death of her father at a young age, Torres' mother, dealing with financial pressures, worked "full-time and lacked resources for child care," leaving Torres and her sister in the care of her aunt.

"The priest that abused me, he would come over every Sunday after Mass at his parish and stay over at her (aunt's) house, and that's where the abuse happened," she shared.

For Lopez de Casas, it was the language barrier that became the ultimate obstacle when he tried to report his first instances of abuse at school (this was before being abused by a priest). Wanting to know what was happening to their son, Lopez de Casas' parents met with the school principal, counselors, and teachers. Not speaking English, they resorted to a translator.

However, "from the very beginning, even though I was very young, I did learn immediately at these meetings that, whenever I would say something, they would translate my statements to my mom, but they were very whitewashed ... they would do it in a way that made me look bad and made the predators look sane," he said.

This shaped how he would report -- or not -- future instances of abuse.

Responding to Reynolds' call at the end of the webinar to look "harder for the stories" of immigrants who have suffered abuse within the church "and bring them to light," Owers said Awake continues to work toward bridging "the gap between survivors and concerned Catholics who want to learn more."

In an earlier interview with OSV News, Sara Larson, Awake's executive director, said she has seen "so many survivors work so hard to disentangle their abuser and the things he or she said or did or the way that spirituality was used -- disentangle that from their own spiritual life, their own understanding of God and, for some, their own relationship with the church."

Awake has a "desire to be really survivor-centered," and to "make sure that when people are engaging with abuse survivors, that they're ready for that and have the training and an approach that's not going to cause additional harm," she said.

"(Survivors) are out there, and they are part of our community," Owers said.

"We also want to continue to connect with church leaders and provide resources for them to help the church become safer, more accountable, and more compassionate," she added.

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