An Interview with Joelle Casteix

By Jaime Romo
Healing and Spirituality
January 7, 2010

Joelle Casteix is a survivor turned advocate and mentor. She was one of the first people to bring public attention to the Southern California clergy abuse problem, and has served on local and national boards to promote understanding and healing among those impacted by religious authority sexual abuse. JR = Jaime Romo; JC = Joelle Casteix.

JR: We first met around seven years ago in the early days of the Los Angeles/ Orange awareness raising and survivor support meetings. What was your life of advocacy like in those days?

JC: I will always remember the first time we met it was at the Anaheim Convention Center, and some lady who had just slammed us for leafleting tried to steal your umbrella. Her actions were such a profound statement as to the general attitude of many high-ranking Catholics. They will curse you for exposing the truth, yet continue to cover many ugly truths of their own.

At that time, I had little knowledge and understanding of the national picture. My only frame of reference was the Diocese of Orange, and I still believed that diocese officials had good intentions. I didn't know the scope and scale of what was going on, and certainly didn't understand how profoundly tragic the entirety of the Southern California scandal/cover-up was. That being said, I had no idea that I would soon become a spokesperson on a national level.

I have to say that advocacy was a little easier in 2003. The Diocese of Orange was not very sophisticated or transparent in their communications to the public and the media, and left me myriad opportunities to shine a light on all of their shenanigans. They have become a little better at PR.

JR: What major changes have you seen with respect to the church's handling of clergy abuse?

JC: In Orange, we are now seeing perpetrators being arrested, which we have never seen before. That is a good thing However, we still see a huge cover-up in how Diocese Officials publicize the news. They seem to think that it's okay to limit an announcement to a church bulletin and do their best to keep the news out of the papers, where other victims may learn about the arrest/removal and come forward. The problem is that many of the newer perps are lay people, and the church has a responsibility to inform the public of the danger, not just church goers. These days, church officials are also very quick to point fingers at other organizations where sexual abuse occurs (i.e. public schools). What they refuse to acknowledge is that the problem is not the abuse abuse happens everywhere. The problem is the cover-up, facilitation and protection of abusers; the legal battles; the PR campaigns; and the lies.

JR: You have invested years of time and effort into the case of the person who abused you. What has been the result of that case?

JC: I was molested by a man named Thomas Hodgman, who is now the chairman of the department of music at Adrian College in Adrian, MI. When I exposed Hodgman and the documents which included his signed confession stating that he molested me and two other girls the attitude of the school was that I was a "woman scorned." It's frustrating and sickening. One one hand, I have been quoted as an expert on the crisis in every major US media outlet and in thousands of media outlets around the world. I sit on two boards of directors for national advocacy organizations. My case has been proven in documents and confessions. I have been asked to speak all over the country Yet, in the little town of Adrian, I am considered a crackpot a woman upset because her teacher "broke up with her." It's one of the biggest disappointments of my life.

JR: How have you grown/ healed through the advocacy work you have done?

JC: The healing process is an interesting one. I have learned to "compartmentalize" a great deal, and not take on the pain of the survivors I talk to every day. In addition, because I am so public, everyone knows I am a survivor. My story is not hidden or shameful it is a source of my strength. Being an advocate has allowed me to care for the little child inside who was so hurt by acknowledging my abuse, confronting it, and making sure that what happened to me never happens to another child. No one whispers about me I own my story. I don't know if there is any other way I could have done that, except through public advocacy.

I would say that there was a long time in my life where my abuse was my shame (also the reason why child molesters are seldom reported). Now it is my strength. Oddly enough, my high school classmates have been my biggest supporters (thanks to Facebook). That changed my life.

JR: What has been difficult on one hand, and worthwhile on the other, as an advocate for survivors?

JC: There is always a downside to being public. I was at a party with friends of my father, when a woman my age came up to me and asked if I "yearned for the Eucharist." (yeah, she really said that). Local Orange County Republican types are the first to criticize any public event I do. Certain friends from my teen years like to call the local papers to tell them what a big fat liar I am and that I wanted to "be the teacher's girlfriend." I worry about my son, who will one day have a friend at school ask him questions about his mom.

But on the other hand, I would not have the full, amazing life I have now, were it not for my public advocacy. So, I just thicken my skin a little, and learn what the important things in life really are. It's none of my business what other people think of me. My business is my family and my work.

JR: What do you think may be significant about the recent revelations of testimony that Cardinal Mahony knowingly allowed pedophile priests continue in ministry where they abused more children?

JC: I was asked by a reporter a couple of weeks ago why I still do media events in front of the Cathedral and LA parishes about Mahony when I get little or no coverage. My response was this: Every time I am out there, someone sees or takes a flyer and tells a victim. Every once in a while, that victim finds the courage to come forward. Every once in a while, that victim's civil case exposes explosive deposition testimony like the one you cite above.

Will Loomis's testimony bring down Mahony? No. But it's one more chink in the armor. Eventually, the armor will fall off all together. We all knew that Mahony allowed perps in ministry, but the deposition is something that cannot be ignored, even by apologists. Hopefully now, the entrenched LA political power base will begin to abandon the once untouchable cardinal.

One termite cannot bring down a tree in a day, but give him years, and he and his buddies will eventually succeed. I see my work that way.

JR: I believe there's an expression attributed to St. Peter, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief." What would you like the average parishioner to believe and do with respect to religious authority sexual abuse?

JC: Every person owns their own spirituality. No one no priest, bishop or survivor can take that away from them.

The Catholic Hierarchy is a construction of man not God. As Tom Doyle always says: Jesus only got mad when he was at church. If you look in the Bible or the teachings of Jesus, you'll see that the entire construct of the institutional Catholic Church has nothing to do with the relationship between a person and God. Standing up and pointing a finger at the leadership of the church is not disrespectful to God. It is respectful to children. I constantly tell people that they (the lay people) need to take over their church. I think that Catholics should stop donating, tell the bishops to stay out of politics, and empower lay people (especially women) to stand up and be leaders in faith.

JR: What dream do you have related to abuse by any religious authority?

JC: That it is only something that we read about in history books

JR: I know you have been tenacious, strong, and courageous in the advocacy process. I've admired and been inspired by that in you. What helps you to be a more balanced, healthy, and happy person?

JC: What a flattering question. Well, honestly, my husband and my son keep me grounded. My husband especially has taught me that there are times where I have to say no. And I say no a lot. I compartmentalize my work I treat advocacy like a job. I still pursue my dreams (sorry, being an advocate was never my dream). I am a classically trained soprano, so I sing as much as possible. I write. I work out. I shut off the computer and the phone. I embrace my gallows humor.

JR: How have you evolved as a person and as an advocate to end sexual abuse?

JC: Every day is a part of the process. I don't think that I can put a finger on how I have changed, but I can tell you that I like and respect myself a lot more now. I am surrounded by people who are healthier for me. I have met and befriended the most amazing people around the globe. I have become a bit of a conspiracy theorist. And I have no tolerance for injustice. Life is not always fair, but cheaters, thieves, liars and jerks who twist justice and hurt kids have no place in my circle and now, they fear me. I like that.

JR: Thank you so much for your time, work and example.


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