Remarks by David Clohessy at the For Such A Time As This Rally

I’m honored, truly honored, to be among you. Thanks so much for having me here. By way of background, I was molested by a priest as a kid. So were four of my brothers. One of them went on to become a priest. And he went on to molest kids himself. And now you know why, for more than 30 years, I’ve been with SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

It’s ironic that we’re in ALABAMA – the state in which Rosa Parks sat down. She sparked an amazing movement.

And this movement – the Baptist child safety movement – was sparked by someone else who’s with us in Alabama today: our dear friend and trusted mentor and guiding light and moral force - Christa Brown.

It’s also ironic that we’re in BIRMINGHAM, with the Baptists. Both have a sordid history of treating vulnerable groups poorly.

With Birmingham, of course, it was African Americans. Exhibit A: It’s nickname. Some used dynamite to intimidate the vulnerable so often, that the city was once known as “Bombingham.”

With the Baptists, of course, it’s innocent kids, vulnerable adults and wounded victims. Exhibit A: the meanest public comment ever made about SNAP came from a high ranking Baptist official. A decade ago, Paige Patterson said that our group SNAP is “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.”

Think about the mind-set behind that remark: abuse victims are “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.”

But change is coming. Mahatma Gandhi knows about change. He said “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

Congratulations on reaching the third phase: Baptist officials are fighting you. And you will win.

Now, a quick observation and a quick question.

The observation: Not coincidentally, it was mostly women who organized both movements: Ella Baker, Unita Blackwell, Fannie Lou Hamer, and of course the many women who put together this terrific rally.

If these names don’t ring a bell, I hope you’ll look them up. Unita Blackwell, for instance, just passed away. There’s a terrific NYT obit. It’s on my fridge at home. It’s on line too. You’ll find it inspiring, I guarantee it.

And if you don’t know the names of the rally organizers, I hope you’ll meet them. They too are inspiring.

Now, the quick question: What do you think you’ll get when you put a microphone in front of an old white guy who’s been doing the same thing for 30 years? Advice of course. Here it comes: 30 years of advocacy summed up in 15 words of advice, ready?

Fixate on prevention. Ignore church officials. Ignore church promises. Create outside pressure. Make heads roll. 

Let me repeat: Ignore church officials. Ignore church promises. Create outside pressure. Make heads roll. 

--Fixate on prevention.

No matter how deeply betrayed and wounded we adults are, we don’t need the church’s help. We can fix ourselves. But kids can’t protect themselves. They DO need church officials.

Whatever church officials propose, ask this question “Will it make one kid safer tomorrow?” If the answer is no, let it go. Apologies, prayers and healing services and symbolic gestures can come later. Fixate on prevention.

--Ignore church promises.

The policies, procedures, panels and protocols – they’re just promises.  They protect no one. Performance – not pledges – protects kids.

They are unenforced and unenforceable. They are largely about public relations and legal defense. Period. So ignore them.

(What’s the one P word that counts? Prevention.)

--Ignore church officials.

Time is precious. Morale is precious. Most of all, kids are precious.

So why waste time and squander morale and endanger kids by doing things that don’t work? Why meet with recalcitrant, self-serving, power-seeking men who’ll pretend to listen but won’t change?

At best, meeting with church officials is a waste. At worst, it’s demoralizing. And it gives them yet another PR opportunity: Look how wonderful we are, sitting down with these poor, pathetic victims.

Conceivably, church officials MIGHT make change, in the long term. But kids are being brutalized NOW. Other steps make change RIGHT NOW. So let’s stick with them.

(Besides, there are always plenty of people who are happy to take the safe and comfortable route of talking around a table. It’s seductive. But it’s ineffective. There are NEVER enough people to do what you’re doing: standing up, speaking out, and being public.)

So what ARE those things that work? What SHOULD we be doing? Three things.

--Create external pressure. 

Criminal pressure, civil lawsuits, legislative reform, support groups and publicly exposing wrongdoers.

That’s what protects kids. That’s what forces reform. That’s what deters wrongdoing. That’s what warns parents and the public about clergy who commit and conceal abuse.

--Make heads roll. 

That sounds punitive and mean and harsh. But it works. When wrongdoers are punished, wrongdoing diminishes. When top church staff are demoted, disciplined, defrocked, denounced and fired, that’s when reform happens.

But what about forgiveness, redemption, conversion and second chances? They’re wonderful. But not when it comes to stopping little boys and girls from being raped. With clergy sex crimes and cover ups, church officials shrewdly manipulate these wonderful concepts into dangerous mechanisms to excuse and enable crimes and cover ups and keep kids at risk.

So persist. Stay active. Stay vocal. Stay strong. Keep putting kids first and fixating on prevention, and we will win safer churches for everyone.

These remarks were delivered by David Clohessy, former SNAP Executive Director, at a rally in Birmingham, AL on 6/11/2019.

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