The year was 2002, and the news regarding the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston sex abuse scandal had just broken. Cass, as she is called, remembers asking her 30-year- old son “Jimmy, what’s wrong?” His shattering reply: “That happened to me when I was a kid.” He was nine years old when the abuse began and it continued for three years. That is the day Catherine became a warrior mom.
To meet her and talk with her, Cass is soft-spoken, gentle and kind. Creating trouble was never her intention.
However, since that terrible revelation, Cass has been battling heroically for the millions of children around the world who are victims of sexual abuse. For that work, she is this year‘s recipient of CHILD USA‘s Sean P. McIlmail Hero Award.
“Looking back,” she says, “we might have been the poster image of the perfect Catholic family.” James was one of six Spoerl children whom Cass and her late husband Eugene truly enjoyed, deeming them life’s most precious gifts. This year, she welcomed the family’s 84th great grandchild. She laughs that she could write a book about the happy times — sports, proms, teasing, dinner table conversations, and children’s exploits.
Jimmy, she remembers, was a nature-loving, God-loving, people-loving kind of person. He was the fun in the family, and could “look at you and see your soul.”
Then something changed, Cass recalls. He was often in trouble, getting into fights to protect “underdogs.” Like the majority of child sexual abuse victims, he suffered through addictions, relationship issues, and depression. In fact, Jimmy came forward and disclosed his childhood abuse earlier than most; the average age is 52. He died of illness in March, 2016 at the age of 44.
“I once was more trusting and naïve. I am on a different side of that reality now,” she says, “and know how the world can betray you, and that violating one of your children can turn you into a fighting, angry mom; you don’t mess with kids! Anybody’s children!”
Cass took that fighting spirit and channeled it into advocacy, which really began when her son came forward. “I joined every organization out there, and without their support I wouldn’t have made it,” she says. Advocacy then consisted of tirelessly knocking on rectory doors, asking “where were you? Why didn’t you open your mouth? How can this be allowed to continue?” She participated in every possible protest, marching and carrying signs. She wrote to church officials, to congressional representatives and senators, looking for answers and talking to anyone and everyone she could about protecting children and getting justice for these victims. Cass has been fighting for over 18 years.
Throughout the journey, Cass notes she has met many wonderful people. Among those she most cherishes are Debbie and Mike McIlmail, whose institute honoring their son is sponsoring the Hero Award. Meeting the McIlmail’s was a new beginning for her. “As I accept this award, I know that I am standing on the shoulders of many who went before me and fought with me to get justice for these victims,” she says. “As I begin to step back a bit, I am particularly proud of the work so many young people at CHILD USA are doing. They have taken up the cause, they are compassionate and caring of the abuse victims, and so supportive.”
“This is not just a Catholic issue,” she emphasizes. “This is in sports, as in the women’s gymnastics team; it is child smuggling – CHILD USA is investigating in every area, and the young people are carrying the ball.”
Research shows that older generations become advocates and activists as they acquire more time and money for social issues close to their hearts. Although powerful people continue to thwart them, younger generations are more shocked and willing to speak up and take action on the subject of abuse. “Too many have their heads in the sand,” says Cass. Younger generations are willing to donate money, work as advocates, and are not easily influenced by power and money.
CHILD USA is staffed with young professionals in social science and law who are dedicated to using science, reason and education to foster the judiciary system and general public‘s understanding of child sexual abuse. They work tirelessly to affect lasting change, collaborating with those who came before.
“They have changed the statute of limitation laws in 26 states, and are fighting now in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to get the windows open for abuse victims to report and receive justice for what was done to them. It’s a resurrection for our kids,” Cass emphasizes.
“It gives me so much hope for the future of our children! CHILD USA is a growing organization,” she adds, noting money is needed to work at changing the laws, combat powerful and well-funded lobbies that wish to silence and cap payments to victims. Funding is essential for conducting the social science studies, taking legal action and advocating in the courts and legislatures. To her, CHILD USA is working to provide a seal of protection, support and love for abuse victims and their families.
Child sexual abuse is much more common than most realize. Parents who find their children were abused go through a process: shock and grief; awareness and understanding; action, hard work, perseverance and finally, the beginning of change for the good. CHILD USA is an excellent partner for taking action in the change for good.
“Really, I always see CHILD USA getting it done!” Cass concludes. “This has been my battle. Jimmy came forward because he didn’t want his tragedy ever to happen to another child. I lost a great person in my son Jimmy, and I refuse to represent him with anger and meanness.”
“CHILD USA is allowing me to move forward representing my son well, never giving up, never backing down on the struggle to obtain justice for our children and the millions like them.”