Esther Hatfield-Miller holds pictures of herself as a 15 year-old Reseda High School student and of Michael Nocita, the Catholic priest she alleges abused her in the 1970s.
A lawsuit filed in Los Angeles on Wednesday by an alleged victim of Catholic priest abuse is just the first, activists say, after a California Court of Appeal ruling last week opened the door to additional lawsuits in these cases.
A Sacramento woman, referred to as Jane Doe SS in the suit, filed the civil suit against the L.A. Catholic Archdiocese and St. Paul High School in Santa Fe Springs. The woman alleges that she was a 15-year-old student at the school in 1980 when Michael Nocita, a Catholic priest and teacher there at the time, sexually abused her on school grounds during school hours.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (an activist organization also known as SNAP) announced the lawsuit outside St. Paul High School. SNAP Western Regional Director Joelle Casteix called last week's court ruling a "landmark" decision for California alleged victims of California Catholic priest abuse.
"Now, they can come forward and they can use the courts to get truth that the church tried to hide from them in 2003 by paying for their counseling and not telling them they had civil rights," Casteix said.
Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said church officials wouldn't comment on the lawsuit because they hadn't seen it.
"However, no lawsuit or threat by SNAP and its attorneys will prevent the Archdiocese from continuing to reach out to victims and their families to provide whatever assistance they need to help them heal, and that includes counseling," said Tamberg in an email. "It is our moral obligation to assist victims in their healing process, and that is why the Archdiocese provides counseling to victims without expectation and without regard to litigation."
A 2002 California state law allowed alleged victims of priest sexual abuse whose allegations had passed the statute of limitations to file suit in civil court only in 2003.
Lawyers for plaintiff Jane Doe SS allege that she received counseling paid for by the Catholic Church that prevented her from filing suit in 2003. Anthony de Marco, the lawyer who successfully argued before last week's California Court of Appeal, filed the lawsuit on her behalf.
In 2007 the L.A. Archdiocese settled 508 cases of alleged abuse by priests for $660 million. Jane Doe SS's suit seeks monetary damages.
A second alleged victim of former Catholic priest Michael Nocita, Esther Hatfield-Miller, attended the SNAP news conference outside St. Paul High School. She said Nocita abused her when she was a 15-year-old student at Reseda High School and he was based at St. Bridget of Sweden church in Van Nuys. She received more than $2 million in two settlements with the L.A. Archdiocese.
"I have used my money wisely to heal," she said, adding that she's directed that settlement toward psychological therapy and other counseling.
She brought two poster-sized pictures — one of a young Nocita, smiling and dressed in black clerical garb, the second of herself dressed in her Reseda High School cheerleader outfit. Both, she said, were taken at the time the alleged abuse against her took place.