Tom Emens couldn’t hold his abuser accountable, so he’s taking his fight to the entire state.
Survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have limited legal recourse. They can’t sue individual priests, because states’ statutes of limitations cut off at 10 to 21 years, depending on the state. They can’t force widespread disclosures on the scale of those in Pennsylvania without a grand jury investigation and a willing attorney general. Many can’t even confront their abusers, as some have sought to do: Of the 212 names listed on a recent Bay Area report of alleged abusers, more than half are now dead.
So Tom Emens took a different route. In 2017, the 50-year-old Camarillo resident passed up a chance to settle with the Chicago diocese, which oversaw the California-based retired monsignor who Emens says groomed and then abused him from ages 10 to 12 while in residence at an Anaheim, California, parish. Emens had waited more than three decades before telling members of his family—or anyone at all, save his wife. When he went public, he intended to be heard.
These efforts have now put him in the spotlight, at the forefront of a widely publicized nuisance lawsuit against bishops from every one of California’s 11 dioceses. (Three years ago, a similar lawsuit forced the St. Cloud diocese in Minnesota to release a trove of personnel files across the state.)
After telling his sister, his church-appointed therapist, and his lawyer, Emens found himself at a press conference in October, alongside clergy abuse attorney Jeff Anderson, telling the entire state his story: Monsignor Thomas Mohan, a retired priest at St. Anthony Claret, lived just around the block from the Emens family. He’d invite Emens to his home, or take him swimming at a neighbor’s pool. He was in photographs of birthday celebrations, at family picnics, known to Emens’ parents and six siblings—and a year after their meetings began, Mohan pushed Emens too far, he says.
Unable to hold his own abuser, who died in 2002, accountable, Emens hopes to compel each diocese in the state to release confidential records that he says will show a history of abuse and a pattern of cover-ups. He’s gone from decades of silence to giving national press conferences, taking calls from survivors across the country, and heading up a search for other victims of his own abuser. (He is in contact with one, another man who attended the church at the same time, who prefers to settle and is in discussions with another lawyer, Emens says.)
Though the California dioceses released lists of known abusers in 2004, survivors and advocates believe that those numbers were widely underreported. Emens had never seen his abuser’s name on a list or an official report, until now.
Pacific Standard spoke with Emens about why he took this chance and what the lawsuit means for him—and for abuse survivors across the state.
[My family and I] all went to St. Anthony Claret, the Catholic church closest to our house. My first contact with [Monsignor Mohan] was just him walking around the block. He was a staple in the neighborhood. He came to our house, and because he was a monsignor—I had never met a monsignor—it was kind of like a rock star. Eventually (I could never figure out how I would have ended up at his place, alone, at all) I remember a long period of time where there was definitely grooming going on: us being together, and nothing really happening.
It’s strange—maybe some people can’t understand this, but I struggled with telling the Chicago diocese. They asked me to describe who he was, what he was like, and I said he was a very sweet, gentle man, kind, charming. I adored him, and I know he adored me. There was a relationship. I was literally the golden boy. I had never gotten treated as nicely as he treated me. Being from a family where you eat what’s on your plate because that’s all you’re going to get, to have whatever you want, that’s kind of a big difference. I know I gravitated toward it. He had me for that period of time.