Six hundred-sixty million dollars was the figure that spread from mouth to mouth, reached ear to ear, and caught all eyes. Six hundred-sixty million dollars was the figure that was heard on radio stations, seen on television, printed for all the world to see. Six hundred-sixty million dollars was the settlement for 508 victims of sexual abuse by clergy in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
But six hundred-sixty million dollars is not the figure that will seep into the depths of Jackie Dennis’ mind to erase the sickening memory of the white hand with blonde hairs reaching up her brown legs and under her panties to touch the part of her then nine-year-old body that is most private. Nor will it erase the irritating memory of the same hand rubbing her developing breasts in continuous circular motions until they hurt.
Thirty-seven years later, Jackie can still recall those graphic details of being sexually abused for three years by Father Neville Rucker while she attended St. Agatha in Los Angeles’ West Adams District. She says those images will probably always be with her, just as she will probably always suffer from the anxiety disorders she has experienced since the fourth grade because of the abuse, or that she will probably always be a bit uncomfortable during intimate moments.
“But there is hope after any form of abuse,” she says.
Chills went rushing through my entire body as I sat listening to Jackie, but I was surprisingly comforted by her soft-spoken manner and the peaceful tranquility she has managed to maintain within the walls of her Inglewood home.
Jackie tells her story not as a victim but as a survivor – a mother of two daughters and a wife of 16 years who sits in the bright openness of her living room and is surrounded by symbols of her strong faith—a wooden cross at the threshold of her entryway, a large white Bible placed on a table, a larger-than-life statue of Jesus standing at the hearth of the fireplace, and dozens of cherubs scattered throughout.
“Through writing,” I hear her say, “I realized there was a little girl inside of me that was chained down that didn’t want to come out to live. But she was a fighter. I got to wake her up and deal with her.”
Jackie says that she has been seeing a therapist to help her through her time of discovery and also relies on the love of her husband Jeffry Dennis, daughters Monique Jackson and Laura Alexander, a great support system, and “a lot of prayer,” she adds with a big chuckle.
And, while there is a small network of only 12-15 African American women in southern California who have come forward to talk about their abuse amongst each other, Jackie wishes more would speak out.
“I wish, I really wish that I can find other Black women who have been abused because we really need to be together,” she sighs. “[Victims of abuse] deserve to set themselves free, deal with the abuse, get on with their lives, and not let all this stuff fester and kill them spiritually and emotionally.”
Jackie remembers those times when she held her secret inside and the effects it had on her. “I thought I was the only child in the whole school that was being abused, in the whole world for that matter. …I was having behavioral issues. I wasn’t getting good grades because I had stopped learning. And, I was fixated with death and dying because of things Rucker was doing to me.”
“I have no memory of telling anyone because you block things out,” she explains. “Life for me at St. Agatha was abuse during the day, going home and trying to process what happened to me that day, and thinking the next day if this was going to happen to me again.”
As to why she didn’t confront the priest himself, Jackie responds, “Early on you are taught that a priest is touched by God. And, being six years old, I was in awe of someone who was representing God.”
She adds, “We were trained that we couldn’t think any bad thoughts. And, when I used to think ‘he’s bad,’ I’d say ‘oh my God, I can’t believe I just thought that or said that.’ Then that compounded me. So, when he was abusing me, I just let him do what he had to do.”
Jackie says that the abuse continued over the next three years during recess, or when she would help Rucker him put away the groceries in the rectory on Fridays, or when he would come to visit her at her home. But the final straw was during an episode in church.
Describes Jackie, “The last time that he ever touched me I remember there was St. Theresa, the patron saint of St. Agatha, St. Joseph, all the statues, and everybody (the statues) was looking at me. This man (Rucker) had one leg here and one leg there (indicating he was straddling her) and I’m just looking up a Jesus thinking ‘we were told that when we are born we have angels right there watching us, so why aren’t they stopping him?’ When I realized no one was going to stop him and he was going to keep going, it was like an out of body experience. …Afterwards, I had the sense to snap out of it and tell somebody to put an end to it.”
It was her father whom she chose to tell. She recalls that her parents told her to stay home on the day her father went up to the school to approach Rucker. To this day, Jackie says she does not know what her father said to the priest but does know that whatever he said worked. The abuse stopped.
“I am a survivor,” Jackie says. “It’s been one heck of a journey for me, an unbelievable journey. And, I’ve learned a lot about myself through the process.”
“I don’t feel that it’s over,” she says as she ponders over the $660 million settlement. “But for me, I’m doing ok.”