David Clohessy is the National Director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). I appreciate his courage and dedication to change laws, reach out to survivors and supporters, and be the face of a movement to end child sexual abuse, particularly religious authority sexual abuse.
JR: You’ve been at this work of speaking up for victims of clergy sexual abuse for many years. What has changed for the better in this societal problem?
DC: Not nearly enough. To a small degree, I suspect kids are more apt to tell, parents are more apt to believe them, families are more apt to call police, police are more apt to investigate, prosecutors are more apt to file charges, juries are more apt to convict predators, and Catholics are more apt to believe independent sources (rather than just blindly accept whatever the bishop claims). But this is anecdotal and far from widespread. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it still takes years – even decades – before victims can realize they’ve been hurt, the harm is severe, the effects are on-going, they can get better, they have legal options, their perpetrator is likely molesting others, and that they have the strength and a duty to act.
JR: What seems to be a new challenge as you continue to work to prevent and end religious authority sexual abuse?
DC: In the media and politics, one problem is called “issue fatigue,” which, simply put, means people getting tired of hearing about all this horror. But an even bigger challenge we face, I think, is what I call the “surely” problem. The conventional thinking goes: “Surely, after all these terrible media stories and expensive lawsuits, the church hierarchy has now reformed.” There’s plenty of basis for this assumption, because in virtually every other aspect of society (business, government, non-profit), a continuing crisis of this magnitude certainly would have brought reform.
But here’s the rub: the church is radically different than every other aspect of our society. It’s the world’s only global monarchy. In the United States, other secular – or even religious – institutions must respond to crisis or die. But not the Catholic Church. Only 5-6 bishops have ever been forced out of office because of the crisis. (And four of them stepped aside within the last few weeks in Ireland.) Otherwise, there’s not a bishop in the world who drives a smaller car, takes fewer vacations, does his own laundry, or has experienced any real consequences for covering up child sex crimes.
So the bottom line is this: those in decision-making capacities in the church hierarchy have no incentive to reform. In fact, they often see colleagues who have ignored or hidden child molestation getting promoted. And they see the extremely rare, courageous whistleblower (like Tom Doyle) getting ostracized. So the lesson priests and bishops learn is sad but clear: Do what we’ve always done, and you’re (at worse) safe or (at best) rewarded.
So not only have church officials not reformed, but they will probably never reform. Our challenge, then, is to help people understand that the alleged “reforms” adopted in 2002 in the US are largely unenforced and unenforceable window dressing, nothing more.
Finally, another challenge is to help non-Catholic spiritual figures avoid complacency and help allegedly non-hierarchical denominations (like the Baptists) realize they can and must do more to protect kids.
JR: What has been the impact on you over the years as a result of your advocacy?
DC: I’m a healthier, happier, and I think a more compassionate person. Whenever someone thanks me, I almost always respond “You’re welcome, but you should know that this helps me as much or more than it helps you.” My involvement in SNAP has been a life-saver for me and led me to a much more fulfilling, peaceful life.
I’ve become more pessimistic than ever about institutions reforming themselves, especially ancient, rigid, secretive, powerful all-male monarchies. At the same time though, I’ve become more optimistic about the willingness and ability of abuse victims to speak up, take action, heal themselves and protect others.
JR: At several events, I have seen you wear a photo of yourself at the time of your abuse around your neck. I know that many survivors do that and some prefer not to do that. What is the value for you or for these conversations in wearing that photo?
DC: Here’s a secret. My real reason for carrying the photo is to show people that although I’m ugly now (you said it, brother), I once was cute! OK, all kidding aside, I think it’s crucial that people remember and clearly see that although some of us may present ourselves as somewhat competent adults now, when we were assaulted, we were innocent, vulnerable, confused, helpless kids. And it’s crucial that people understand that we’re not just fighting for healing and justice for ourselves, but for safer and healthier lives for children.
JR: SNAP began with a focus on Catholic priests or leaders because you, Barbara Blaine and others were abused by priests. Is the reality that religious authority sexual abuse is pervasive in all religious groups? What have been some of your experiences and lessons learned in working with others from other faith traditions?
DC: Just to be clear, Barbara started SNAP, almost single-handedly. I’m grateful I’ve been with the group for 20+ years, but she deserves all the credit for launching this outstanding organization.
Both abuse and cover up are found in every religious group. A huge reason for that is structural. In public entities, there are at least a) some rules around disclosure and b) some “checks and balances.” With a school district, for instance, one can file “Freedom of Information Act” requests that militate against unhealthy secrecy. And one can defeat corrupt school board members in elections. But many denominations lack these simple, healthy, common sense safeguards.
Working with activists in other faiths has been tremendously rewarding and enlightening for me, whether it’s Rev. Marie Fortune or Christa Brown (StopBaptistPredators.org) or Julie Hokinson (SNAPPresbyterian). Christa has been particularly heroic and helps me remember that in many respects, those abused by Baptists face an even tougher road than those of who have been molested by Catholics.
Finally, some non-Catholic religious leaders, when confronted about recklessness, deceit or callousness in child sex cases, eventually defend themselves by claiming “Well, at least we’re not as terrible as the bishops.” That’s ridiculous, of course. The standard for spiritual figures must at least be “What would any decent person do in this situation,” not “Let’s look at what Catholic bishops do and do just a tad more or better.”
JR: What do you think have been some of the most significant developments in preventing and ending religious authority sexual abuse in the U.S. in the past 10 years?
DC: Tough question! Certainly SNAP’s growth and maturation has been significant because thousands have been empowered to start healing, expose pedophiles, change laws, educate others, and safeguard kids. The painstaking work of investigative journalists, starting with the Boston newspapers of course, has been very significant, because it has finally helped millions shed their illusions about church hierarchies. The belated and largely still timid response of police and prosecutors has been significant, because in a very real sense, it has taken some predator priests away from kids and put them in jail. The involvement of more lay people in exposing cover-ups and protecting kids is significant, especially through groups like Voice of the Faithful, Call To Action and others, because it shows lay people that they aren’t powerless.
It should be noted that much took place in the 1980s and 1990s that was significant and deserves honor. Few of us ever acknowledge the pioneering reporting done long before 2002 by journalists like Jason Berry, Gerry Renner, Tom Fox, Marie Rohde and Tom Roberts and others. Their ground-breaking work has enabled millions to better understand, and further expose, the hierarchy’s complicity.
Likewise, few of us even know about, much less appreciate, the many brave survivors who “went public” before 2002, notably Ryan DiMaria, the Gauthe victims, the Porter victims, the Kos victims, and others. They were, and are, significant because they paved the way for so many of us who came later, and helped make citizens and Catholics start looking beyond Boston and start realizing this is a truly global crisis.
JR: Can you comment on progress at the international level?
DC: It’s extraordinarily and painstakingly slow and requires even more courage and persistence than we in the US have shown and are showing. In most countries, religious figures enjoy a much more exalted status than here in the US. So abuse and cover-up are much more likely. And many nations have less aggressive journalism, a less independent judiciary, less well-funded law enforcement and fewer legal options for victims. That makes combating abuse, exposing predators, protecting kids and personal recovery much, much more difficult.
In the US, for decades, we somehow looked at each case that did publicly surface as an aberration. “Gosh, look, there’s a bad priest in Peoria. A couple of weeks ago, there was one in Idaho,” we’d think. Finally, in the early 1990s, we started to realize “Hey, there are a lot of these guys. And their bosses, the bishops, don’t seem to care or do much.” (Then, the Fr. James Porter case made national headlines, bishops pledged reform, and sadly, we slipped back into the naïve, comfortable but reckless assumption that things were pretty much getting better.)
Finally, in 2002, many understood that this is a systemic, on-going crisis or scandal that’s truly widespread.
I bring this up because we’re making the same mistake now on a global level. “Boy, did you hear about the problems they’re having with clergy sex abuse and cover up in Ireland?” one person might say. And the other person responds “Wasn’t there some of that in Austria or Italy a while back too?”
But we just have to “bite the bullet” and accept this sad, simple fact – abuse and cover up are in every diocese in every corner of the world, and more extensive than we’ll ever come close to knowing. Not were, but are. In any organization that excessively values loyalty and promotes clericalism and hoards power and lacks oversight, predators will hurt kids and supervisors will respond callously. We’ve got to stop asking ourselves “Gee, I wonder why the church hierarchy in this country or that country is so corrupt” and accept the fact that it’s corrupt across the board. That realization is the first real step toward progress.
JR: I’m particularly interested in how you describe your spiritual life at this point. Can you say a little about what your spiritual life means to you now?
DC: I have no spiritual life and haven’t for years. I’m an agnostic, some days regrettably so, other days less so. To put it bluntly, I have no idea what, if anything, happens after death or what a ‘creator’ may want of us. But it’s crystal clear to me that right here and now, people are in pain and need consolation and kids are at risk and need protection.
“The Anniversary of My Death,” a poem by W.S Merwin, probably best sums up my spiritual leanings or belief.
JR: Was there a significant time or event or decision that helped you to shift from being a survivor to what I call a thriver, a co-creator of her life, environment and by extension, the world?
DC: You flatter me. But in a nutshell, I attribute whatever growth or shift I’ve experienced to my incredible wife, tons of therapy, joining SNAP and filing litigation. It feels like every forward step I’ve ever taken has been because some loving person was behind me nudging me and another loving person was ahead of me and guiding me.
Filing my lawsuit helped show me that I’m not a powerless kid any more. Talking about the abuse helped me feel less dirty. (I talk about it openly now, because I’ve found that the less I act ashamed, the less I feel ashamed.) My first support group meeting was a huge breakthrough, because I finally couldn’t deny the simple fact that if the folks in this room weren’t to blame for their victimization, I’m not to blame for mine.
And hearing from Janet and Horace Patterson was a turning point for me. At that juncture, I really was ready to give up. But hearing and feeling their pain (and later, seeing their courage) really enabled me to commit to this struggle for the long haul.
JR: What do you imagine could be the best thing that could happen related to preventing and ending Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)? That’s a broad question, so how about for survivors to do and for non-abused people in society to do.
DC: Let’s start with the easy, common sense steps. We can all stop rewarding criminal and near-criminal behavior.
Let’s rescind honors to predators and enablers. In St. Louis, we have a public park named after a priest ousted because he sexually harassed underlings. In Toledo, there’s a street named after a monsignor who blocked a murder probe. In Wyoming, a wing of a children’s home is named after a bishop against whom five child sex abuse lawsuits have been settled. This callousness deters victims, witnesses, whistleblowers – young and old – from speaking up, exposing predators and protecting kids. (“Why bother saying anything. No one will believe me or do anything.”) And it rubs more salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of suffering victims and betrayed church-goers.
Let’s also stop promoting the corrupt. In Rome, the ‘poster child’ for self-serving, arrogant and deceitful bishops – Cardinal Law – enjoys a position of vast power and prestige. An auxiliary bishop harshly criticized in the Philadelphia grand jury report, Joseph Cistone, was recently promoted to run his own diocese. A complicit Louisville auxiliary bishop has just been elevated to run the Owensboro diocese.
If the callous or corrupt are promoted and praised, they will be emulated.
Next, let’s put our money where our mouths are and stop supporting corruption. We have so little power, it seems to me. So why give money to institutions that endanger kids when you can give to ones that protect kids? Why squander what little you have? Why, if you’re upset at what’s happening, do you keep supporting what’s happening with your money?
Next, let’s get brutal with those who suspect or see or know of child sex crimes but stay silent. That’s how to show we’re serious about kids’ safety and how we deter callousness and complicity.
I’m morally opposed to the death penalty. But even if we executed child molesters, we’d still have child molesters. The threat of execution, I believe, doesn’t and won’t ever deter compulsive, driven predators.
On the other hand, though, the threat of a mandatory five years behind bars (or similar penalties) may well make a timid teacher call the child abuse hotline about a colleague. To me, this is just common sense.
(These ‘mandated reporter’ laws are commonplace but rarely enforced and carry very lenient sentences.)
Finally, and perhaps most important, let’s reform or eliminate the archaic, arbitrary, predator-friendly statues of limitations that give criminals and their accomplices incentives to intimidate victims, threaten witnesses, destroy evidence, fabricate alibis, hide wrongdoing and ‘run out the clock,’ then keep hurting others. Keep in mind the root cause of the crisis – the virtually limitless power of bishops and the structural inability of institutions to reform themselves. Given these two facts, it’s crucial that we increase the role of the time-tested, open, impartial justice system – both criminal and civil – to catch wrongdoers more quickly and to deter wrongdoing more effectively.
On our website there’s a very specific list of about 20 others ways people can help: http://www.snapnetwork.org/links_homepage/wanna_make_difference.htm
JR: What or who inspires you as you continue to work to end CSA?
DC: Since “day one,” I literally felt thrilled every time a survivor gave a media interview, pursued criminal charges, filed a civil lawsuit, starting going to therapy, or disclosed to his or her family. Honestly, that thrill has barely diminished over the years. I still often get Goosebumps when a survivor tells me “I bought The Courage to Heal today,” or “I called and made an appointment with the sex crimes detective” or “I told my husband last night.”
Specifically, Christa Brown inspires me. I just can’t imagine a more recalcitrant church hierarchy than the Southern Baptists. I’ve seen Baptist officials be stunningly cruel to her – in person and in print. Yet she soldiers on, with class and compassion, against phenomenal odds and relentless opposition. Somehow, there’s virtually no bitterness in her, which astounds me. (If you aren’t familiar with her blog, you should check it out: StopBaptistPredators.org)
Barbara Blaine inspires me. No matter how tired or busy or dispirited we are, her ‘default’ setting is permanently on “Let’s do it!” And so often, we push beyond what we ever thought we could do, and the results are terrific. There’s a reason SNAP exists. And there’s a reason we’ve been around 21 years. It’s her indomitable spirit and drive and energy, plain and simple.
Barbara Dorris inspires me. She works incredibly hard while being calm, caring, and competent. Without a doubt, she has the best sense of humor in our movement (though Peter Isely right up there too).
Judy Jones, Dan Frondorf, Joelle Casteix, Bob Schwiderski, Joey Piscatelli, Mary Grant, David Brown, Ann Webb, Peter Pollard, Beth McCabe all step up to the plate often (despite jobs and families and other obligations), seeing and seizing opportunities to reach out and help to survivors. . .I could go on and on and on. . .
The younger survivors who’ve come forward in their teens and 20s amaze and inspire me – Megan, Sean, Brandon and others. My younger brother Patrick, who has overcome so much pain in his life, inspires me.
And I’m inspired by, and extraordinarily grateful to, lay Catholics who could easily have turned away from our struggle but instead embrace it: Anne Barrett Doyle, Terry McKiernan, Carolyn Disco, Kris Ward, Paul Kendrick, Frank Douglas, John Shuster and so many others.
I’m also inspired by social movements like the struggle for civil rights in the US. I’m grateful that our efforts, while often met with hostility; don’t provoke beatings, lynchings and jail. I’m in awe of the fearlessness and sacrifice and determination and grace of those who fought and fight for all oppressed people all across the US and the world.
About every three months, I re-read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which might be the most inspiring piece of writing I’ve ever found.
Poetry inspires me. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Hunchback Girl,” Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son,” ee cummings “Conscientious Objector” all speak very powerfully to me and energize me. I read them over and over, and have these and other poems taped to my medicine cabinet and my laptop.
Finally, I have to mention several quotes which I use in speeches often. Martin Luther King said “No lie lives forever.” Gandhi said “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Eugene Debs said “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” And Calvin Coolidge said “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
JR: Thank you for your time, honesty and dedication to promote healing and end child sexual abuse everywhere.