During the most formative years of her childhood, Trish Cahill said she was abused by two Roman Catholic leaders who were supposed to protect her ― first by her uncle, a priest; then by a teacher, a nun.
Decades later, thanks to dramatic reforms to New Jersey’s statute of limitations for child sex abuse, Cahill has finally gotten a chance to file a lawsuit seeking to hold the church accountable in one of these cases.
Cahill filed a lawsuit in New Jersey’s Superior Court last Tuesday against the Diocese of Camden, claiming it acted negligently by failing to protect her from alleged abuse by one of its priests, the Rev. Daniel F.M. Millard, her uncle.
Cahill, one of two survivors of nun abuse whom HuffPost profiled last year, said Tuesday’s filing felt like a “monumental” event in her life, one that had been a long time coming.
“I’m feeling good. I’m feeling empowered,” the 67-year-old said Friday. “But I’m feeling sad that it had to get to this at all.”
Cahill was raised in a big Catholic family in New Jersey. Her relatives were proud of Millard and considered it an honor to have a priest in the family, she said. But Cahill claims Millard used this veneer of respectability and holiness to abuse her.
Cahill said she was sexually abused by Millard from approximately 1957 to 1965, between the ages of 5 and 13. She said Millard threatened that she would “burn and blister in the fires of hell” if she told anyone about what he was doing to her. And as a young, devout Catholic, Cahill said she believed him.
“He told me I was dirty, and I believed him,” Cahill told HuffPost last year. “He told me I was a sinner and what he was doing to me was my fault.”
Because of the alleged abuse from Millard, Cahill was already feeling vulnerable and lost when she met Sister Eileen Shaw, a teacher at a local Catholic school who was a member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth. Cahill, then around 15 years old, confided in Shaw about her uncle’s abuse, she said. But the nun turned out to be a predator who went on to sexually abuse Cahill throughout high school, she claims.
By the time Cahill finally recognized Shaw’s behavior as abuse and approached the nun’s religious order to seek justice, she was far outside the statute of limitations in New Jersey, which means she had no basis to file a lawsuit. In 1994, Cahill reached an out-of-court settlement for the abuse with Shaw’s religious order. The Sisters of Charity told HuffPost last year that Shaw “accepts responsibility for her actions and the harm that they have caused.” The religious order said that its leadership was unaware of Shaw’s abusive behavior until 1994, when Cahill approached the order with her allegations.
In hindsight, Cahill said she has regrets about agreeing to that settlement. But there were fewer options available to child abuse victims seeking justice back then.
For years, New Jersey’s narrow statute of limitations has prevented Cahill from filing a lawsuit over the abuse she claims was carried out by Millard. But that changed on Tuesday.
New Jersey is among at least 15 states that have recently passed laws extending or suspending the statutes of limitations for child sex abuse claims. Victims of child sex abuse in the state can now file lawsuits until the age of 55 or within seven years of realizing they were abused.
In addition, the state opened up a two-year temporary “lookback window” in December that allows victims barred by the state’s old statute of limitations to seek damages against individual abusers and the institutes where they worked. Cahill is using the lookback window to file her lawsuit against the Diocese of Camden.
Diocesan spokesperson Michael J. Walsh told HuffPost that the diocese had conducted a “thorough review” of Millard’s personnel file and record, as well as statements from Cahill’s relatives. No other sex abuse charge has ever been made against Millard, Walsh said. The diocese concluded that Cahill’s accusation was not credible.
The diocese provided “pastoral care” to Cahill in 2004 in the form of a meeting with its former bishop and payments for professional counseling, Walsh said.
“The Diocese of Camden assists anyone who claims to have been abused to receive pastoral care and obtain counseling services, without regard to whether the claim is determined to be credible,” he said.
The Diocese of Camden declined to provide further comment when HuffPost asked about Cahill’s lawsuit.
Coming forward with the allegations against her uncle has strained her relationship with most members of her family, Cahill said. She’s hoping that the current lawsuit will give her some more financial stability and persuade her family to welcome her back again.
Cahill said she’s proud to have her name included among the wave of survivors who are now coming forward seeking to hold the church accountable.
Though she thinks the church still has a long way to go in caring for survivors, Cahill said she does feel as if Catholics in the pews ― the ones who “put their money in the baskets” ― are starting to question the church’s hierarchy a bit more.
“I think we might be getting through their denial a little bit,” she said. “People are asking questions. When I first started, no one asked anything and they walked away. I feel there is getting to be a little more openness.”