A little background on my upcoming poetry collection, which will either be titled SNAP (in honor of the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests snapnetwork.org) or The Witness. This collection is due out in 2020.
I started writing a series of poems that became “The Witness” chapbook (published by Kattywompus Press) in 2013 after my aunt told me a horrific story about the infamous pedophile priest, AJ Cote https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17728112. In the 1980s, Aunt Susan led a church youth group on a retreat in suburban Virginia. That night, A.J. Cote molested one of her charges. Aunt Susan didn’t know it was happening (she was upstairs with the girls) and the boy didn’t tell anyone for twenty years, even as he suffered through depression, drug addiction and estrangement from friends and families. Over the next two decades, A.J. Cote made his nefarious way through parishes in Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and Lima, Peru molesting many other boys. Finally a boy named Brandon Rains pressed charges in 2005. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/16/AR2005111602414.html?noredirect=on.
After I learned about that travesty, I couldn’t shake it. I had been among the first female altar servers in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, and I remembered how awkward it was to arrive each morning in the sacristy and change into my robes with our parish priest standing by my side. When I think about it logically now it’s hard to believe that parents used to leave their children alone in back rooms with grown men. But we were all so faithful.
In 2013, I read almost all of the 10,000 pages of testimony submitted by the members of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) to the Center for Constitutional Rights and the UN Commission on the Rights of the Child, and in 2017, I was given Greater Cincinnati VOTF’s Father Mark Schmieder Memorial Education Fund to attend the annual SNAP conference which was being held at the Westin Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia.
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to learn that a conference comprised of sexual abuse survivors is rife with emotion. What was surprising was the level of commitment, focus, and tenacity I witnessed. The survivors attending the conference were dedicated to making sure that the abuse stops. Some of the survivors on hand were the women who courageously told their story on the Netflix program, The Keepers, about a pedophile priest at their high school who molested dozens of girls and may have murdered a nun. https://www.netflix.com/title/80122179. One of the women involved in that program told me that being around other survivors is far from cathartic for her. Hearing other people’s stories triggers her and is emotionally draining. Many survivors never shake their PTSD. On the first night of the conference, my slumber was shattered by a blood-curdling scream followed by sobbing and gasping for breath that went on for more than an hour.
For most survivors, it would have been much healthier on a personal level to try to move on with their lives. But they know children are still at risk. They tell their stories despite the fact that they have been repeatedly marginalized, shamed and silenced by the Church. I left the SNAP conference feeling both crushed by the stories and galvanized by their resolve.
Survivors are strong, but unfortunately, not everyone survives. Thousands have committed suicide or perished because of alcohol and drug abuse. Those who do make it have to live with the fact that, at the most fundamental level, the Church has not changed. Many survivors no longer enjoy the community of the church and many have lost their faith. In light of that, I felt compelled to write these poems.