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David Clohessy: Holding Out For Change

by Charlie Hungerford
Drury University Magazine, Summer 2003

"I could describe curling up in the fetal position and sobbing hysterically, and having to get up and change bed sheets soaked with tears. ...I [could] talk about my personal experiences, about being sodomized and molested, and the effect it's had on my life. But honestly, my pain is just garden-variety sexual terror. . ."

David Clohessy '78, is no stranger to pain. He lives at a confluence of misplaced trust that began as a child when he was sexually abused by his parish priest. Now estranged from his brother, pitted against the very church he loves, and adjusting to life without employment, David is making peace with a past that haunts him and hundreds of other victims, "working to rid their bodies and the body of the church of this terrible infection."

Clohessy's quiet passion is making him one of the most credible spokesmen for victims of abuse. Thrust into the spotlight with the recent scandals rocking the Catholic church, David's celebrity status comes because he leads a group called SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). He's been featured in well-known publications like Newsweek and The New York Times. He has been on CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and even Oprah! Clohessy's pathway to fame is not one that many of us would have chosen, but he uses it to champion the cause of eliminating abuse at the hands of priests and other Catholic church leaders. "Through SNAP," he says, "we've heard hundreds of stories. Stories that have made Catholics weep, that would leave you feeling nauseous."

I met David in June at the home of an abuse survivor in St. Louis. It was an experience that will stay with me for a long time. I was somewhat familiar with David from reading about him in newspaper articles, magazine stories and Internet sites. I recognized his face. I'd heard his voice while watching broadcasts of his presentations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He looks just like his photographs; his voice sounds the same. But I wasn't prepared for the strength he emanates.

David was raised in the quiet mid-Missouri town of Moberly in a large, active, church-going family. It was in the bounds of this church, however, that David and at least two of his brothers report they experienced ultimately devastating abuse at the hands of The Rev. John Whiteley. Some 20 years later, David became the first Missourian to sue a cleric for childhood sexual abuse. His lawsuit against the Jefferson City Diocese was dismissed because it fell outside the statute of limitations, but Whiteley resigned from the ministry because of the accusations against him.

That was the first time Clohessy saw his power to create change. He is still a change agent today. "The greatest honor you could offer [abused men and women] might also be the hardest one - to radically change your behavior," he challenged the bishops. He went on to describe changes that could help: lobbying for effective enforcement of laws, teaching children to protect themselves and having a "Jesus-like attitude" for those who have survived abuse.

Abuse is not the only tragic thread woven through Clohessy's life. David's brother, Kevin, also suffered abused by Father Whiteley. But Kevin chose a different route - he embraced the church and entered the priesthood. Unfortunately, within the priesthood Kevin's reaction to his own abuse found an outlet and he became numbered among those priests who were identified as having "credible accusations" of sexual abuse. Tied together by blood and shared pain, the brothers barely speak. Upon learning that the accusations against his brother would be published, David made a difficult telephone call alerting Kevin. David has been told that Kevin is receiving treatment. Just as David built healthy relationships with his wife and family, he remains hopeful of healing the bonds to his brother.

In the midst of this year's turmoil and scandal within the Catholic Church, and an increase in Clohessy's efforts to bring reform, he learned that his position as community services director in a financially-strapped school district was eliminated. Seemingly undisturbed by this turn of events, David hopes his work with SNAP will become a paid, part-time position. "If not," he says, "something else will turn up." I'm impressed, again, by his inner strength and intact faith, despite his break with religion.

That faith taps into a well of emotion that powers his life. I watched him weep as he described the abuse and its devastating effects on his friends and acquaintances. I watched him play with his two sons and laugh with deep joy, his chest swelling with pride as he introduced Spencer, eight, and Brian, six. I don't know if the boys know about or understand the work their dad does, but the love between them is obvious.

David Clohessy is an impressive man, an extraordinary man. With grace and poise, he carries a weight that many of us would find unbearable, and yet, he has emerged stronger because of it. That resoluteness is surely a source of confidence and hope to those whom David helps. For now, he works to make a difference in the shattered lives of abuse victims. "Hold out for real change," he says. "Real change is what your children deserve. Real change will keep them safe. Don't turn away. Don't settle for less."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests