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Abuse Survivors Now Have More Time to Fight Back

Patrick Von Horn’s first memory of childhood abuse was of his mother screaming bloody murder after she witnessed a priest raping him. The horrifying attack is one of many instances of clergy abuse that Patrick repressed from his mind for decades until his mother’s death five years ago.

“At first, I was just thunderstruck by the memories and they cascaded out, one door opens the next and you don’t know when and you don’t know exactly why it is happening,” said Von Horn who is a resident of San Diego.

While some survivors may stay silent for years, that doesn’t mean the sexual abuse was okay or didn’t matter. It takes an unspeakable amount of courage to speak out and expose wrongdoing.

Stressful events such as childhood sexual abuse can hide in the shadows of the brain for many years as a means of self-preservation. It took the trauma of losing the steadfast support of his mom before 50-year-old Von Horn could access the terrifying memories of the abuse he suffered as a young boy growing up in southern California.

He describes his Irish-born mother as a devout Roman Catholic who had high hopes her son would become a priest or even a bishop. Von Horn spent a lot of time at his local parish as an altar boy. “I was being carefully guided and mentored in that you might say,” added Von Horn.

He now recognizes that multiple priests at different parishes in the Los Angeles area and San Diego sexually molested him which caused emotional and psychological trauma. Von Horn said the abuse left him psychologically damaged, chronically unemployed and dependent on his mother throughout adulthood.

“So, when my mother passed away, it really took a severe toll on me. I didn’t realize it was going to do that, had a mental breakdown,” said Von Horn whose story is heartbreaking but not uncommon for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. So often, it can take many years and even decades for someone to recover memories of molestation. That’s why a new California law is making such a big impact on sex abuse survivors who want to seek justice.

Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed AB 218 which takes effect January 1st, 2020 and gives childhood sexual abuse victims more time to seek justice through the civil courts. Under current law, victims of childhood sexual abuse could only file a lawsuit for damages before their 26th birthday or within three years of identifying a psychological injury or illness that was caused by the abuse. The new law extends the statute of limitations to five years after discovery or a victim’s 40th birthday. The law also opens a three-year window that allows victims of any age to sue on previously expired claims. The legislature tried several times in the past to pass similar legislation but previous Governor Jerry Brown vetoed those bills.

Before the law passed, Patrick had no legal recourse when he sought help from the Los Angeles archdiocese. “I think it is fair to say they threatened me. They knew I was down and out. I had no representation,” recalls Von Horn who said he felt strong-armed by so-called victim’s advocates hired by the church to pressure him into taking a small settlement. “They cornered me and a particular lady threatened me. She told me, look you are going to take a settlement and you are going to take the amount we give you,” Von Horn said.

Victims with cases that fall under the new guidelines are now empowered to seek justice on their own terms instead of signing agreements under duress. AB 218 will now help hold perpetrators accountable and will force organizations to take responsibility for ignoring red flags and allowing these predators to abuse children.

It has not been an easy fight, but public support has now shifted and there appears to be a consensus that we, as a society, must give sex abuse victims more time to process their trauma. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) who sponsored AB 218 said in a statement, “the idea that someone who is assaulted as a child can actually run out of time to report that abuse is outrageous.”

There’s a lot of suppression that occurs psychologically in these types of events and it’s very common for people not to recognize their abuse until they are much older and their intellect is more established. In adulthood, they can grasp the dysfunction in their lives and realize it’s likely the result of the abuse they suffered when they were very young.

One of the primary reasons people to come forward, years after the abuse, is because they have children. When their child reaches the same age as when they were molested, the victim feels compelled to speak out about what happened as a way to protect and to prevent the same trauma from happening to their child.

Von Horn now feels a sense of purpose with the passage of the new law and plans to file a lawsuit against the dioceses that allowed predator priests to hurt him. Von Horn knows that imprisoning priests and obtaining church payouts won’t give him back his lost childhood but sharing his story with the world can make a difference.

“I think whatever transpires, perhaps I could be an advocate in the future for saying I think this power needs to be taken away from them and given back to the people who make up the church,” he said. Von Horn is hopeful his efforts to speak out and to fight back will create positive change within the Catholic Church. “These people have shown themselves to be unworthy.”

You have the power to change how these painful events impact your life. By finding the courage to face the pain and accept that it wasn’t your fault, you can begin the process of healing.

John D. Winer is the founding partner of Winer Burritt & Tillis, LLP. His practice specializes in clergy abuse, sexual abuse, workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

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