Jennifer Chapin’s long-untold story of alleged childhood abuse by a Catholic priest will be heard in the halls of justice next month with the blessing of a newly enacted California law.
When the 30-year-old Manteca mother first voiced her accusations to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland in 2000, suing the diocese was not an option.
Now, recently passed legislation allows victims of childhood sexual abuse to file molestation lawsuits regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. The cutoff age for filing such lawsuits had been 26.
The age exemption goes into effect New Year’s Day and will last only a year. Though the new law is not yet in effect, it has already begun to stir debate in local parish communities. Some fear the law could trigger the church’s financial ruin. Others say it will forge real and lasting church reform the hard way.
Chapin, known before marriage as Jennifer Weise, says the law is giving her a voice after years of silence.
On the steps of St. Bede Church three weeks ago, she denounced the late Monsignor George J. Francis as a child molester. She and her attorneys then filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court, seeking cash damages from the diocese.
Chapin says Francis subjected her to “abuse of every sexual nature” from age 5 to 8. During that time, he became a close friend to her parents, she said, often visiting for dinner and joining them on several trips, including a summer vacation to Hawaii in 1980. Not until Francis died did Chapin begin having flashbacks, recalling “blocked-out” memories of his abuse in snippets, she said.
“I still look at pictures and think ‘Who the heck is this person?’ and it’s me, but I don’t recognize myself,” she said. “I blocked out most of my childhood up until I moved to Patterson right before high school.”
Meanwhile, some St. Bede parishioners are skeptical of Chapin’s accusations. “The major concern of parishioners is that the person she’s accusing is dead and they can’t defend themselves,” said St. Bede pastor Father Seamus Farrell. “There’s no full justice when one person is dead and you can’t hear both sides.”
However, Sister Barbara Flannery of the Diocese of Oakland said last month that four or five people have accused Francis of sexual abuse.
“We have no reason to disbelieve them,” Flannery said.
Chapin is the second to publicly come forward about abuse by Francis. Terrie Light, 51, now the Northwest director of the nationwide Survivor Network for Those Abused by Priests, said she, too, was abused by Francis 20 years earlier, starting in 1959 when she was 7.
Diocese officials did not return calls seeking comment last week.
Francis began his clerical career at St. Patrick’s Church in San Jose in 1938. He transferred to St. Cyril’s in Oakland in 1944, then to Epiphany in San Francisco in 1950. He headed St. Bede in Hayward from its beginning in 1957 until his death in 1998.
Other former St. Bede students find the allegations of Francis’ sexual abuse shocking and hard to believe. Haydee Mayorquin, 27, who attended the school for nine years, remembers seeing Francis on the playground every day. She described him as a loving and involved leader.
“He would kiss our heads out on the playground, but it was all to build a sense of community,” she said. “He started that parish with really good intentions. He cut the rope. There are pictures of him digging up the ground. His life was St. Bede’s.”
Other longtime parishioners say they think the recent outpouring of accusations against priests is nothing but a grab for cash.
“I basically think people are coming out to make money,” said Lillian Guitierres, who has worshipped at St. Joachim’s Church for 43 years. “Why did these people wait so long to say something?”
Psychologists offer one explanation to that question.
Emily Samuelson, a psychologist who has worked with childhood sexual abuse victims for 20 years, said it is common for memories of childhood sexual abuse to be stored away or “dissociated” until something triggers them in adulthood.
“Everyone who has been traumatized has one foot in the past, one foot in the present,” Samuelson said. “For some people, it’s not until the perpetrator dies that they allow this information to come into their consciousness, because then it’s safe.”
Major changes, such as the birth of a child, marriage or divorce, can unlock memories of abuse, Samuelson said.
The chance of someone faking flashbacks is possible, added Samuelson, but would require research and a sociopathic skill at lying.
“There are probably people unscrupulous enough who would try to find a way to get their hands on money by making up memories and learning what it’s like to have a dissociated memory,” she said.
The plaintiffs say the lawsuits are not about money but about sending a strong, clear message to the Catholic hierarchy.
Pushing church to change
Chapin hopes that her legal action will help victims of clergy abuse feel safe to come forward.
“I didn’t feel I had much of a voice, and this is a way for me to take my voice back,” Chapin said. “We are making the church accountable for what they didn’t want to listen to for so long.”
Chapin’s attorney, Rick Simmons, says he hopes the lawsuit will push the church to change policies that shelter pedophile priests.
“We want to know how many other children Francis molested, when did he start, who knew, and what did they do to protect him,” Simmons said. “The fight for the secret files is one little skirmish in a bigger fight to change this institution.”
Critics of the new law say it smacks of anti-Catholic bias. Farrell of St. Bede Church said many of his parishioners question the motive of the legislators who designed the temporary law.
The cost of the abuse lawsuits promises to financially damn a ministry devoted to salvation, according to Farrell and other church supporters.
“What good is this coming to?” Guitierres said. “The lawyers are getting paid; eventually the church won’t be able to have insurance, with all these lawsuits.”
But others say the new law’s financial impact on the church might force the church to reform. Ana Franco, a new member of St. Bede Church, thinks that’s a good thing.
Franco stood on the church steps last Sunday with her 3-year-old daughter Lupita, who was adorned in a Mary outfit laced with green, white and red ribbons.
Franco said she is considering buying a catechism book and teaching her daughter about the sacraments at home rather than sending her to the church-taught classes.
While Franco holds firm to her religious faith, other parishioners say theirs is dwindling because it appears the church has not honestly addressed an epidemic of clergy abuse.
“I don’t like lawsuits,” said Juan Romero, a St. Clement’s parishioner for the past 12 years. “But it’s unfortunately very sad for our faith that the church let this go as far as it went.”
Frustrated parishioners like himself might become the force that cracks the church’s “culture of secrecy,” Romero theorized.
“The answer to something as big as this lies within the same parish,” he said. “The answer is not somewhere else.”