Editor’s note: This story involves the issue of child sexual abuse and could be triggering. This is the first in a two-part series. Read the second part here.
The glow of the campfire lit the priest’s face as he turned to a 12-year-old boy named Michael and smiled, opening his hand to offer candy as a prize for the trivia contest the young camper had just won.
But a greater reward lay ahead, or so the boy initially thought — so awed was he by the fact that the priest was showing interest in him.
Father Gary Timmons was a parish priest and founder of the Catholic children’s camp in Mendocino County — a man “regarded as next to God,” the boy, now a man, said last week.
So when he invited the Sonoma boy to his tent for a massage as part of his winnings, the adolescent thought it a kind and comforting offer. He’d lost his father to cancer a year earlier and was still reeling.
The entire evening has played over and over in Mike Tarvid’s mind for nearly half a century — from Timmons’ smile in the firelight and the glint of the flames on his glasses to “how scared I was and hoping it would end soon” once they got to the tent, Tarvid said.
It was a secret the now-60-year-old harbored for 47 years, telling no one. He sought silent solace first in an overabundance of food, then ultramarathon racing, then drugs and alcohol.
He shunned physical touch and avoided intimacy. It had been made “dirty” to him.
“It just wrecked me as a human being, basically,” Tarvid told The Press Democrat.
But two years ago, now clean and sober and firmly established in business, he decided he’d stayed silent long enough. He called an attorney and told his story for the first time.
Now he’s suing the diocese, the camp and other, yet-to-be identified church entities, joining several thousand other survivors around California seeking damages from Roman Catholic institutions for childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and others at church parishes, schools, camps and other venues.
For most, it’s the last chance they’ll get to pursue the justice they feel is due them — an opportunity that lasts only two more weeks.
The window for filing such cases closes on New Year’s Eve.
The current wave of lawsuits is part of an ongoing, if imperfect, reckoning over hundreds of thousands of incidents around the globe — several million, by some estimates — believed to have involved child sex abuse by representatives of the Catholic Church over the past seven decades or so.
The most recent round was made possible by 2019 state legislation that opened a three-year window for survivors 40 and older to file personal injury cases for past child sex abuse beyond the normal statue of limitations.
The same law raised the age cap for adults filing childhood cases from 26 to 40, though plans by the Santa Rosa Diocese to file for bankruptcy protection means adults of all ages must file claims against the diocese by Dec. 31 if they ever hope to do so.
Advocates credit lawmakers for having the courage to support the legislation, which California bishops unsuccessfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn.
“This is a historic opportunity for survivors,” said Sacramento attorney Joseph George Jr. “Lawmakers recognize the power of the shame and the self-blame and survivors’ acts of courage to come forward and break the silence.”
The cases are being funneled through three regional superior courts: Los Angeles, San Diego and Alameda County, where Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo is coordinating all Northern California cases.
The first trial, involving an Oakland Diocese case, is to begin April 21, but hundreds of cases are still being processed and added to the case list.
Among them are more than 130 new lawsuits against the Santa Rosa Roman Catholic Diocese, which already was grappling with a burgeoning clergy abuse problem when the national crisis gained exposure in 2002, in large part through revelations about extensive abuse and concealment in the Boston Archdiocese.
The Santa Rosa Diocese has shelled out more than $33 million in civil settlements since the 1990s, some of it covered by insurance, according to Bishop Robert F. Vasa.