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LA survivors of clergy sexual abuse want more than just words from Pope Francis

In a 2012 photo, 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.
In a 2012 photo, 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.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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In a letter issued to Catholics worldwide on Monday, Pope Francis responded to new reports of clergy sexual abuse with calls for prayer, fasting and solidarity with victims.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church wrote that “no effort must be spared” to prevent the abuse and its coverup by church officials. But he didn’t announce any new efforts by the church to prevent either.

“Penning a letter is one thing,” said Esther Hatfield-Miller, a volunteer leader with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, in Los Angeles. “But taking a bold, audacious action with concrete steps, that’s really what victims are looking for.”

She said the pope could push to remove statutes of limitations so more victims can sue, or punish clergy when they fail to report abuse claims to police.

“The church is not to be trusted to self-regulate,” Hatfield-Miller said. “We need outsiders to oversee this.”

Hatfield-Miller is herself a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. She said Michael Nocita, a Catholic priest, abused her when she was 15. After receiving more than $2 million in two settlements with the Los Angeles Archdiocese, she left the Catholic Church. Nocita was put on leave of absence in 1991, and got fully released from his priestly duties in 2004.

Hatfield-Miller continues to lead support groups for victims, and said it is up to every Catholic to call for change.

“Where are the people in the pews? Why aren’t they outraged with what’s happening in their own churches?” Hatfield-Miller asked.

They may be acting by leaving the pews. Fewer than 40 percent of U.S. Catholics now attend Church weekly, according to Gallup, down from 75 percent in the 1950s. 

The exodus of parishioners from the Catholic Church reflects a generational shift, with young adults increasingly eschewing religious affiliation. A 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found most lapsed Catholics cited a lack of belief in church teaching as their primary reason for leaving. Thirty-nine percent cited negative treatment of gay and lesbian people. Thirty-two percent cited the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Abuse lawsuits have cost the church billions, including a $660 million settlement by the L.A. Archdiocese in 2007.

Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.