Joelle Casteix Fights for Catholic Church Sex-Abuse Victims While Pursuing Her Own Abuser

Our Lady of Perpetual Protest
Joelle Casteix has spent the past five years fighting for Catholic Church sex-abuse victims. But there's one molester she hasn't nabbed yet: Her own

They phone Joelle Casteix every day, morning and night, Sundays through Sundays, at least 30 times a week. And no matter what she's doing—relaxing, spending time with her husband and infant son, working—Casteix takes the call.

The people on the line always tell the same story, with the only variation being the level of depravity. A priest sodomized me in the rectory when I was an altar boy. My high-school teacher raped a friend. I think my brother suffered sexual abuse when we were studying for Communion as teens. Sometimes, they ramble. Other times, their stories spill out in spurts and stutters, topped by inconsolable wails, tears welled up for decades, memories suppressed since childhood. Casteix listens, offers phone numbers for therapy or support groups, and repeats the words she longed to hear for years: "It wasn't your fault."

As the Southwest Regional Director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), it's Casteix's responsibility to act as an ever-available ear to the thousands of people sexually assaulted by the Catholic Church's various employees: priests, nuns, bishops, lay workers, volunteers. She participates in protests against the church hierarchy, fights them in the courts and press, and even lobbies state and local governments to relax statutes of limitations so victims can seek restitution against their predators.

Short, with freckles on her cheeks and a near-permanent smile, Casteix seems stolen from a Target commercial, not from the front lines of the church sex-abuse scandal. She's a self-employed PR agent but wants to run a vocal academy and loves theater. "Ninety percent of the people in my life don't know me as an advocate for sex-abuse victims," Casteix cracks, shoes off as she reclines on a couch in the Newport Beach offices of her attorney, John Manly, and sips a Diet Coke. "To them, I'm just plain old Joelle."

But it's those other 10 percent who have brought Casteix notoriety—whether they see her as hero or an opportunistic harlot who wanted to get molested so many years ago.

"You're greedy," one woman wrote in 2006. "You're looking for people to add to your list, to make your case bigger, better and a greater spectacle. If the media forgets about you for a while, all you have to do is find another abuse victim and latch onto them for the ride." These are some of the nicer words she's heard.

"She's my angel," says Christina Ruiz. Last year, the Catholic Diocese of Orange settled a lawsuit with Ruiz after it emerged that a former Mater Dei High School assistant boys' basketball coach repeatedly raped her while Ruiz attended the prestigious high school during the mid-1990s (see "Jane C.R. Doe Speaks," Oct. 11, 2007). At the press conference announcing the settlement, a tearful Ruiz collapsed in Casteix's arms.

Whatever opinions people may have of Casteix, she keeps going—she has to. Right now, the man who molested her 22 years ago, the former Mater Dei choir director, is leading a group of young adults through a pre-Olympics tour of China. Casteix worries for their safety, but she is more upset that he's gotten this far in life without facing justice.

*     *     *

Casteix seemed to have lived the perfect Orange County life through high school. Grandfather Bert served as a deputy coroner for the county; his wife, Mabel, was a clerk for the Board of Supervisors. Casteix's dad, John, graduated in 1956 from Mater Dei High School and was the Catholic school's first alum to attend the University of Southern California.

Joelle was born in 1970 and grew up in Santa Ana. Her parents volunteered at St. Joseph Church in Santa Ana and raised money for Mater Dei, while their two daughters went to Catholic schools. Starting in fourth grade, Joelle attended every Mater Dei football game alongside her father. She remembers some of Orange County's most prominent priests—former Diocese of Orange Bishop Jaime Soto, John Urell, Wilbur Davis—when they were just starting their vocations.

"A Catholic community was all I ever knew growing up," Casteix now says. "I had a good friend in elementary school who wasn't Catholic. As a young girl, I was very worried that because she wasn't baptized, my friend would be going to hell."

But it was all a façade. Behind closed doors, the Casteixes were a dysfunctional family tormented by an alcoholic mother. "I loved my mother more than anyone else, but one second she could be the nicest person in the world, the next minute she could be a mean son-of-a-bitch," Casteix says. "She never left the house without makeup, dinner was always on the table—even if she fell on the floor afterward drunk."

By the time Casteix enrolled at Mater Dei in the fall of 1984, she was an emotional wreck. She began cutting her wrists to draw attention and sympathy. When that didn't work, Casteix found a length of rope, went to the family garage and tried to hang herself one weekday morning. A friend noticed later in the day Casteix had rope burns around her neck and told a counselor. The counselor confronted Casteix, who admitted her suicide attempt. The counselor, in turn, reported the incident to the dean of students, Lucretia Dominguez, who promptly alerted Child Protective Services as required by law.

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