Esther's Lost Innocence
By Slobodan Dimitrov
Random Lengths News [Los Angeles CA]
January 12, 2006
Editors note: Over 560 claims of sexual abuse by over 245 clergy members are now pending against the Los Angeles Archdiocese alone, with over 1000 cases statewide. Last year, the Diocese of Orange settled 90 cases for $100 million. Estimates for the Los Angeles Archdiocese range up to $1 billion. These thousand cases - plus many more still unreported - are numerically overwhelming. The human cost is best understood by considering the tale of one woman, whose abuser lived right here amongst us in San Pedro, seemingly no different than any other man of God.
On a balmy Sunday during a morning service at Mary Star of the Sea, in San Pedro, a group from SNAP (Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests) began to gather on the corner of 8th and Walker streets.
According to their website, SNAP is a volunteer self-help organization for survivors of clergy sexual abuse and their supporters. SNAP is member-run, stressing healing for both the victim and the institution of the Church.
Esther Miller, a 47 year-old wife and mother of two daughters, stood facing the image of Mary, high up on the front of Mary Star of the Sea. Tears were streaming down her face, and her breathing was labored. Her fellow survivors rushed to her aid. Later, Esther said she was overwhelmed by memories of Deacon Michael Nocita - memories of sexual abuse that flooded back from when she was a teenager. This was her first time back to the church grounds in 29 years.
Esther would have collapsed completely had it not been for the consoling care of the other survivors standing with her. But something had changed. Another Esther, younger and long suppressed, was struggling to come to the surface, hoping to be given voice and release from her self-imposed prison created decades ago.
"Deacon Mike (Nocita) used to say 'come see me (at Mary Star of the Sea), I really want to apologize to you.' He did this many, many times. And I kept believing - over and over and over, this time it's going to be put to rest. I would come during the day then drive back to the Valley. I'd cry all the way back because I felt duped again. I thought I was coming to get the apology. I thought it was owed to me at 17 years old."
The Serpent in the Garden
Esther's family met Deacon Michael Nocita in 1976 in Van Nuys, at St. Bridget's of Sweden. Despite being a divorcee - being a divorced woman in those years carried a divisive social stigma within the Catholic community - Esther's mother was a devout Catholic, determined to set herself right with the Church. She had remarried to a non-Catholic who would later convert.
It was during her stepfather's conversion process, when she was 16, that Esther experienced a spiritual discovery. Her step-father was taking instructions from the local parish to complete the conversion to Catholicism. Deacon Mike, and sometimes Monsignor Young, helped provide these instructions. Monsignor Young, then, was still a priest.
"It was intriguing hearing my dad talk about conversion and the classes he was taking," Esther explained. "Having the discovery of my dad going through conversion, I would hear discussions that would pique my interest."
As a result of this experience, she began to voraciously read about the faith and Catholic traditions and constantly engaged her parish's clergy in dialogue to better her spiritual understanding.
It was during this time that Deacon Michael Nocita, or Deacon Mike as the younger laity called him, befriended her family. Deacon Mike would come to spend a great deal of time in Ester's parent's home, sometimes spending the night.
"It was thrilling to hear God talk and religion talk. I wanted more of that. From a very pure standpoint, I wanted a lot more. It was convenient to talk about things like that," Esther explained.
Esther plied Deacon Mike's brain with religious and spiritual questions. It seemed there was never a question Deacon Mike couldn't answer.
"I thought, 'this is exactly what I wanted to be in tune with, what I wanted to be connected with.' It was more information than I've gotten in all my life. So, my parents gladly and confidently would send me off with him. Deacon Mike had complete access to me. My parents were confidants with him."
Esther still remembers how clergy came to her grandmother's house when she was a little girl. "There was this activity going, like Thanksgiving dinner…setting out the china…it seemed like the King was coming, the Messiah was entering in the home."
"My mother being a divorcee, it would not be appropriate to have a priest, a nun, come over for lunch, or dinner. It just didn't happen."
Into the Darkness
"The first touches were at the church. Then the touches led to more intense and inappropriate touches in my parents' home," Esther explained.
"In my search for God and holiness, and righteousness, doing the right thing, being a committed Catholic was lumped into this [abuse]. What this deacon was teaching me about God was at the same time when he was doing this [abuse] to my mind, my body, my soul. Hard to separate that [from my experience], and I struggled many, many years with God. Does God want what this man has done to me? I guess so. I have to be in submission, if I want to be a committed Catholic. It's a mental game of chess. It's taxing trying to separate, as an adult, God, spirituality, molestation, sexual abuse, touching, stroking, whatever. So twisted to have a vision of God all wrapped with that other stuff."
During the time in which the abuse was taking place, he had Esther go to a particular priest at St. Bridget of Sweden for confession - Father Michael Pecharich. His name would surface years later in a series of scandals in Orange County in which accusations of molestation were leveled at him. Father Pecharich had himself been released from his ordination vows in March of 2002.
According to the St Bridget's parish records, he was there from about 1974 to 1976.
Esther couldn't immediately reveal her secret. For Esther, her mother had finally attained the respectability she desired. She connected her childhood memories of clergy coming to her grandmother's home and the status it brought to the family. She didn't want to ruin that for her mother.
"For me, it was, ah-ha, a moment where my parents, and especially for my mother - she had arrived. In my mind, I connected that childhood experience of, 'of my gosh, this is going to happen for my mother, and I am going to contribute to it somehow.' I was never going to risk that. So, if I blew the whistle - about the abuse - I didn't ever want to risk it for her, to slide off what she had attained."
When Deacon Mike was reassigned to San Pedro at Mary Star of the Sea, Esther initially thought the nightmare would end. But instead, what had started at St Bridget of Sweden continued at his new assignment. Deacon Mike would have Esther drive from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro, giving her explicit instructions on where to park.
"He would have me park at different clandestine locations around Mary Star of the Sea. He would assign to me where to park," Esther recalled.
Esther usually had to park on 9th Street. From there he would pick her up and drive a short distance to Mary Star of the Sea and its adjoining school.
"He usually wore street clothes, occasionally wearing his clerical garb. The abuse took place during the day on the steps of the church, inside the church, at the school, and in his car. The risk (to Deacon Mike) was thrilling. It was almost like a high for him."
These encounters with the priest would last around 20 to 30 minutes, after which he would lose interest, leaving her alone to walk back to her car by herself.
"I think he liked the thrill of doing it in the daytime. It just heightened it more for him. He didn't care if there were other people around. He seemed invincible, like he would never get caught. After all, would anyone ever believe me if I told them."
On the other hand, according to Esther, "He was well connected with the LAPD. A lot of my abuse happened in a LAPD officer's home, in the Valley."
Very early on, Deacon Mike began to behave very much like an abusive lover or a controlling husband, dictating her choice of clothes and demanding that she wear her hair a certain way. When they went to a restaurant, she couldn't pick from her own menu.
"Mike had such control over me. It was complete control over me. If he told me to drive off the cliff, I would've," Esther explained.
Out of the Darkness and Into the Wilderness
Esther had reached her breaking point and began contemplating ending her life, but decided to reveal her secret to her parents instead. She told Deacon Mike of her plans.
"I told Deacon Mike, I can't take this anymore and I'm going to talk to my parents. He said 'no,' the charismatic evil man that he is. He said he would deal with it much better."
Subsequently, Esther's parents went to the pastor, who then went to Cardinal Manning about the abuse. Cardinal Manning had Deacon Mike's ordination postponed for a year pending an inquiry.
However, even with the postponement, Deacon Mike continued to pursue Esther.
To this day, Esther doesn't talk with her mother about the events surrounding that time. Her parents are still close to Monsignor Young, now retired, under whom Father Mike was a Deacon.
Esther's life tumbled afterwards through three marriages, numerous jobs, and health complications. Esther is no longer a practicing Catholic after having converted to her current husband's religion. She is now a practicing Jew. For much of her adult life, Esther used food to self-medicate her wounds. She's now a diabetic due to her weight.
The tension in her body is so great that it has caused problems in her joints, leading to several operations on her shoulder. While she has not since attempted suicide, there isn't a time where she did have it cross her thoughts.
"Sometimes, when I'm showering, trying to get that feeling of shame, guilt, and dirtiness off me, I could tear the skin off me. I'm a well educated person, but I'm still at the point where this stuff is overwhelming."
Even her own children didn't know what she had been through, until very recently. The subsequent revelations, as difficult as they were, have given her two daughters a new insight into their mother's hurt. Their mother's past erratic behavior and depression was now finally contextualized. It no longer had an envelop of ominous darkness which escaped definition.
Now a process of healing has been initiated. Because the revelations are so recent, only time will tell where Esther's journey will take her.
The Serpent's Fate and Life After the Wilderness
Michael Nocita has since left the priesthood, married, and now runs a business in the San Fernando Valley. Monsignor Young, long retired, is still in touch with Esther's family. Father Pecharich's whereabouts, mentioned earlier in the story, is unknown even to SNAP.
Although the statute of limitation to press charges against the former priest has expired, Esther Miller is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles for failing to protect her as a teenager.
Nevertheless, much has changed since she made contact with other survivors through SNAP. Esther learned of SNAP through a talk radio show. A SNAP spokesperson, Mary Grant, herself a survivor of clergy abuse, was being interviewed about her own experiences on the program.
All of a sudden, Esther was not alone. She then decided to attend a group meeting where one shares their experiences. It took three times before she was able to recount her own experiences.
SNAP has been a lifeline for Esther. It's been only in the last two years that she's made an appreciable degree of progress with her health, emotionally and physically. Having the knowledge that she is not alone has provided a support which not even years of therapy were able to provide.
Why does Esther go when SNAP calls for help in leafleting and speaking engagements? She goes because it's a way for her to get her power back. Like her biblical namesake, she goes each time knowing that an innocent might be saved.
Visit www.snapnetwork.org for more information on SNAP.
Postscript: While church leaders are saying publicly that they hope to resolve claims without a protracted legal battle, they are simultaneously seeking to overturn as unconstitutional the California law allowing the suits. The latest attempt was denied on December 22 by U.S. District Court Judge William Q. Hayes in San Diego. Settlement negotiations are ongoing. SNAP's website is snapnetwork.org. A list of clergy accused in the Los Angeles Diocese is available at their special website, la-clergycases.com. Those who served in the Harbor Area are listed on Random Lengths' website: www.randomlengthsnews.com, in the archives, October 28, 2005, "Abuse log."
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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