Activist finds degree of peace by confronting church

July 16, 2011 

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- The brunette in dark sunglasses smiles at the motorist outside the church. She hands him a green leaflet, one that says, among other things, "Turn in abusers!"

Frequently, Joelle Casteix gets castigated for this -- and not because she's hawking car washes or even pushing a political view.

No, she says -- a lot of people take offense at her publicly railing against Catholic clergy sexual abuse. When she was 15 and a student at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., she was molested by a lay choir director. Now 40, Casteix says her calling is to stop future abuse.

Even if some people don't want to hear her.

"Mothers sporting hair extensions and gravity-defying breasts yell 'Shame on you' before pealing out of the parking lot in late-model Mercedes and Porsches," Casteix writes about her protests, in a proposal she hopes to turn into a book.

Sassy and often caustic, the internationally known advocate of victims of clergy sexual abuse also is a married mother of a 5-year-old boy. After years of struggle, the Newport Beach, Calif., resident says she's arrived at a place she once believed unattainable.

Peace. Kind of.

TELLING HER STORY

Casteix, 40, is sitting in a restaurant, cracking wise.

A veteran public relations specialist and journalist, and western regional director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, she has become a persistent and vocal opponent of church officials who would like the world to forget about the long-running scandal.

The title of her proposed memoir echoes as much: "The Worthy Adversary -- My Global Journey to Expose Abuse in the Catholic Church."

While others have written clinical exposes or commentaries on the subject, Casteix's proposed narrative is personal. It would be a first-person tale of her journey as a survivor of sexual abuse, and her crusade to help other victims.

Rape, abortion, emotional breakdowns and a suicide attempt are part of her story.

Still, Casteix has tried to dial down some of the angst, hoping to reach a mainstream audience.

"Nobody wants to read a book that makes them want to go home and stick their head in an oven," Casteix says.

She tosses out another zinger.

"I originally wanted the title to be, 'The Pope Makes Me Puke.' But I knew that wouldn't fly."

THE BEGINNING

Casteix met her molester in the summer of 1986, just before her junior year of high school.

Thomas Hodgman was the new choir director, and he immediately paid special attention to her. Soon, she writes, they were having intercourse. The abuse continued through the end of her senior year in 1988.

During her senior year, Casteix started confiding in friends about what was happening. At her high school graduation, she was pregnant. That summer she had an abortion.

She outed Hodgman during her sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara, in an article she wrote for the student newspaper. At the time, only a few reports had surfaced that linked sexual abuse to the Catholic Church.

Her parents at first were disbelieving and blamed her for the "affair." Others called her a liar, a slut -- or worse.

Hodgman, meanwhile, soon quietly left Mater Dei.

In 2003, Casteix filed a lawsuit that resulted in a $1.6 million settlement. The suit also led to the release of documents that showed Mater Dei administrators knew abuse was occurring but did nothing to stop it.

GETTING PAST THE PAIN

For years, Casteix struggled with being a victim of sexual abuse. She thought she was to blame.

She writes: "I didn't think that I deserved happiness or success. ... I thought that I was a bad person."

Casteix found her voice as an advocate for other victims soon after she filed her lawsuit. She became more emboldened in 2005 when the lawsuit was settled.

Since then, Casteix has traveled the globe to expose abuse and help victims, and has talked about the subject regularly on TV and in newspapers.

She laughs at a common misperception about her. In many news photos, she is a grim-faced protester standing outside a church or a courtroom.

Rarely do people recognize the happy suburban mother who hangs out at the park with her family or takes her son to swim lessons.

Still, Casteix remains outraged over what happened to her and other victims of clergy sexual abuse, and isn't about to stop her crusade.

"While I'm the product of the Catholic Church," Casteix writes, "I will spend the rest of my life demanding justice from it."

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