Mike Coode Was the Victim of Sexual Abuse by a Catholic Priest
By Joseph Sweat and Liz Murray Garrigan
June 27, 2002
Decades later, his tragic tale surfaces
So much thought, so much hurt has brought me, after all these years, to once again acknowledge your presence on this earth, and to once again find myself in a position to be manipulated by you. This time, though, I am armed with years of anguish, hurt, resentment and, finally, resolution to confront you and to remind you that you sexually and emotionally abused me.
Those were the words of Deputy Sheriff Mike Coode, now 62, to the priest he says abused him. On an October day in 1996, he traveled to St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Ala., so that he could speak them directly to Father Roger Lott. That's where the priest, an old man who once lived in Nashville and whose priestly faculties have since been suspended, was living. In fact, he still lives there today.
Sitting at the dining table in the abbot's refectory, Coode read over his words. With him was a friend from Nashville, Beth Brown. They waited for the door to open. Their faces were as blank as the backs of tombstones.
When the door did open, Coode came face to face with Father Lott. They had not laid eyes on each other in 38 years.
"He was just like I remembered him," Coode recalls, "only now he was an old man. Now he walked with a cane."
Abbot Cletus Meagher, the kind and unassuming priest who heads the Benedictine abbey of some 25 monks, had escorted Father Lott into the room. Both wore the distinctive, black Benedictine cloak with the cowl back. The two priests sat down; Coode introduced his friend, then told Father Lott that he had a letter he wanted to read to him.
Coode had rehearsed this letter for what seemed to him "a thousand times." Still, at times, the words hung in his throat, emotion interrupting. Except for Coode's voice, the room was as silent as a catacomb.
You manipulated me beyond belief. You betrayed the trust my parents placed in you. You totally and completely made a farce and charade of my sacred religion. You took an adolescent and manipulated his mind totally, leaving a confused and bewildered person who somehow managed to find a way—his way—a way paved with confusion, wrecklessness (sic) and, no doubt, manipulation if necessary. You left an adolescent a sexual catastrophe willing to use this only resource he had to win affection, gain material things, win approval.
It's 1953 in Nashville. Along West End Avenue near Vanderbilt University sits the ecclesiastical heart of Catholicism in Tennessee. The Cathedral of the Incarnation contains the Throne of the Bishop, signifying that this is the mother church for all Tennessee Catholics. From the steps of the Cathedral, you can see the upper floors of the Catholic St. Thomas Hospital on Hayes Street. In minutes, a priest can walk from the Cathedral to Elliston Place and enter the all-male Father Ryan High School, named for the priest who was known as the "poet priest of the Confederacy." Cathedral, the girls' high school, is next door to the church. It's all within a little five-square-block area, like Tennessee's own little Vatican City.
At the first hint of light along West End, a handsome Irish kid, about 13 years old, shuffles reluctantly toward the Cathedral. This kid, considered by his elders as a bit of a hell-raiser, is under orders from his parents to show up at the Cathedral to serve as an altar boy. His name is Charles Michael Coode, the youngest of 11 children of John Coode Jr., a coal salesman, and his wife, Ellen. Young Mike has been assigned to serve mass for Father Roger Lott, a Benedictine originally from Minnesota. Father Lott is down in Nashville, living temporarily in the Cathedral rectory while he works on an advanced degree in library science at nearby George Peabody College.
"It started with him befriending my mother," Coode says of Father Lott. "Him saying I was trouble—and I was. That's very typical. They gain the confidence of the parents. Through all of this, I would never have thought my mother and daddy were aware that any of this was happening."
Coode chokes back tears when he thinks of his parents and the fact that they were, essentially, unwitting accomplices in what he regards as the most traumatic and destructive part of his life. A muscular, tough man can go through 12 years as a sheriff's deputy, facing pain, mayhem and human wreckage with an unblinking eye and a square-set jaw. But it's another thing to describe your own parents as participants in your sexual abuse.
"I don't understand why in the world they didn't see something wrong," he says. "I mean, he was taking me to the restaurant in the Hermitage Hotel and buying me clothes and stuff. We were poor. We had 11 children in my family. Why in the world they didn't see something. I don't know. I would have gotten my ass kicked if I had ever said anything about it. I was a troubled kid.
"Where I used to have to go all the time was to his room in the rectory of the Cathedral. He would call over there and mother would say that Father Roger wanted to see me. And I would have to go down there like a sheep to the slaughter," Coode remembers, tears welling up in his eyes.
"And he would want to give me a massage. First, he says take your shirt off. Then take your pants off. I honestly don't remember all the details of what he did. And that's what it was."
Because of his frustration and anger over the way sexually deviant priests have been handled in parishes throughout the country, Coode has decided to share his story of abuse—and his subsequent confrontation with church authorities. Instead of being handled as criminals, some offending priests across the country have instead remained in the church, with chance after chance to manipulate and, in Coode's case, lay waste to the happiness and livelihood of their victims.
Four decades after his own abuse, back at St. Bernard's Abbey in Alabama on that October day, Coode, who is also a retired major in the National Guard, continues reading his letter to Father Lott.
I remember many things. I remember you gaining my mother's confidence, I'm sure, assuring her you were working to turn a troubled boy into a perfect little Catholic. She insisted I must go to see you at the Cathedral rectory, and you always made me go to your room. I still cringe at the thought of a man caressing my body. I remember the intensity of the expression on your face.
I remember our "talks." I remember you telling me I was responsible for seducing you. I remember you hearing my confession—and telling me you went to confession to a priest across town—a priest who didn't know you.
Coode says that, now and then, he looked up from the letter, and Father Lott's face was red with embarrassment. The abbot, meanwhile, was mortified, shaking his head in astonishment.
I remember those horrible times in the Sacristy before 6 o'clock mass when my parents made me go and serve your masses. (The Sacristy is a room adjacent to the main sanctuary, a room where the priest vests for mass.) I remember the shame of watching you give my parents Holy Communion when I knew where your hands had been—and I hated the way you had them fooled. I remember you ordering me not to wear Levis because they were provocative and seductive.
Coode says his sexual encounters with Father Lott continued over a space of about two years.
"It was probably once or twice a week," he says. "I remember one summer it got really bad. He would take me out, and I would go up there to the rectory. I used to see Father [Bobby] Hofstetter all the time, and he would say, 'What are you doing here again?' I just felt that he had to know something."
Then, in 1955, Coode got what seemed to him like manna from heaven. His family dug up enough money to send him for his junior and senior years to St. Bernard Prep School, part of the Benedictines' complex in Cullman. He could leave behind the demeaning scenes in that rectory room at the Cathedral. His parents, who had unwittingly sent him into a trap, now unwittingly provided for his escape from the abuse.
"It was the best two years of my life," Coode remembers, "because he wasn't there. Roger stayed at the Cathedral and finished his degree. Then he was transferred to St. Joseph Parish in Florence, Ala. Once, he sent for me to come there. So I had to go. I was so grateful that Father Lambert fixed me up with a date and loaned me his car."
Coode spent his freshman college year at Peabody in Nashville. Then came what at first seemed like another gift from heaven.
"My parents wanted me so much to go to a Catholic college, but I couldn't afford it. Then, suddenly, I got a work scholarship at St. Bernard College. That was great. I was loving it. Now, looking back, I suspect Roger had something to do with my getting that. But this son of a bitch in October or November of that year , they called him back to St. Bernard as registrar. And I thought, oh shit, here we go again. And sure enough, that's when he called me to his cell there in the monastery. We were nude. He was fondling me like when I was a kid."
I remember, so well, the most devastating encounter of all, Coode read to Father Roger in 1996, about the abuse recurring when he was older. I remember hoping I would be able to successfully avoid you—but this was not to be. Eventually, I was summoned up to your cell.
I remember being unclothed, and you told me you wanted to have anal intercourse with me, that every time I submitted, you would give me money—one hundred dollars.
I thought such an act was totally unacceptable to me, so I fought you off. I remember you trying to kiss me and put your tongue in my mouth. I even remember your beard. I remember pushing you off and leaving. I know we haven't spoken a word since that day....
I feel that what you did to me had a profound effect on my life: my religious faith, my marriage and my economic and social well-being.
This is all I have to say to you. You obviously don't care. You've never attempted to contact me or in any way make amends. I have no reason to believe that, after 40 years, you care to now.
Coode describes what happened next. "After I finished reading the letter," he wrote in personal notes he shared with the Scene, "I sat back and faced Roger, seated across the table from me. He simply stated that he barely knew my family, had been to my house perhaps one time when his mother was visiting from Minnesota. He explained that, while he might have done all this, 'As you know, I was an alcoholic,' etcetera, and he couldn't remember any of this.
"I stated to him that I had come for the purpose of reading this letter. I didn't wish to hear any explanation. Father Roger was dismissed. Beth, the abbot and I talked, gathered our emotions and left the room."
To this day, Father Lott is cryptic on the matter. "I really have nothing to say," he tells the Scene.
Abbot Meagher confirms Coode's account of the scene in the dining room in 1996. He confirms that Father Lott never denied Coode's allegations.
"I have no reason not to believe [Coode]," the abbot says, "and there is no reason for it, alcoholism or whatever. If I allow myself to think about it, it's unthinkable. I have concerns for [Coode's] growth, his spirituality, his healing. But even if you have healing, you have scars."
Indeed, in the years since Coode fled that cell in the fall of 1958, there have been a lot of scars and not much healing. Shortly after that last, ugly sexual encounter with Father Lott, Coode lost his work scholarship at St. Bernard. He feels that just as Father Lott had something to do with him getting the scholarship, he also had something to do with him losing it. Coode eventually graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in 1967.
In 1965, Coode married Donna Marie Duffy, a nurse. They had two sons. Coode, though, by his own admission, says he was never prepared to take on the responsibilities of such a union, including fidelity. After two decades of dysfunction, the marriage ended in civil divorce in 1986.
The abuse by Father Lott was the only ongoing relationship he had with a priest, but there was at least one other incident.
"I had one other experience when I was in grade school," Coode says, "sixth or seventh grade. This priest is dead now.... He took me to Memphis one weekend. We went to his brother and sister's house. He got me drunk and sick, and I woke up and he was giving me a blow job. And I turned over and acted like I was still asleep. I haven't talked about that one, because I didn't want people to think that all the priests in the world have been hitting on me."
Coode says he remembers from his school days "all the talk about which ones of the priests were queer." As for the priest who took him to Memphis: "Everybody knew about him. And everybody knew about [another priest]. A lot of those priests were so effeminate that you wondered about some of them. I'm not saying they were pedophiles. I'm talking about homosexuals."
Eleven years after his divorce, the Nashville Diocesan Tribunal granted Coode an annulment of the marriage. Catholic marriage tribunals delve deeply into all the factors involved in cases brought before them. The investigations are time-consuming and exhaustive and can stretch out over a year or more. The psychological states, past and present, of those seeking annulments are among the factors in the decisions that are rendered. And those findings are spelled out in carefully worded, confidential reports. Coode's case was no different.
"Psychic-natured incapacity to assume marital obligations is based upon the fact that petitioner was a victim of sexual abuse by members of the Roman Catholic Clergy," states Coode's tribunal report, which he provided to the Scene. "Such abuse led to a myriad of psychological and moral dilemmas rendering any voluntary entry into such contracts impossible....
"The psychological (spiritual) burden of a young teenager to being exposed to sexual advances, especially by a cleric, while at the same time being constantly reminded of the sacredness of his body, the need to maintain purity, to never give in to the sins of the flesh were very contributory. To have a man of God bestow upon a teenager the burden of feeling that he (the teenager) has power over the wishes of the Deity is overwhelming indeed. Coupled with this, the offender appears to be reduced to a helpless pawn in the eyes of the teenager.
"Such psychological trauma caused the petitioner to feel above the laws of the Church; hence the sacredness of the marriage commitment could be disregarded."
The annulment process that Coode began in 1996 marked the final bust-up of his marriage to Donna Marie, with whom he had two sons, both in their mid-30s now. But that was not the only thing in his life that began breaking apart that year. Some psychic dam deep inside him burst as well. He became determined to open up and let that pain of long, long ago run out on a public table for all to see: his friends and relatives, fellow Catholics, church authorities and certainly the man he says caused that pain in the first place.
But why would he wait 43 years, then suddenly begin raising holy hell about an ugly episode about which he had breathed hardly a word during the intervening decades? Why, since he knows that many of the hundreds of other priest abuse allegations sweeping the nation have been met with efforts to sweep the charges under the rug? Why, since he knows the statute of limitations has long passed and he can't sue the church? Why, since he knows that the man he accuses of once abusing him is now a man too old and worn down to lift even his little finger in the direction of Eros? So why?
Dynamite, psychic dynamite, that's why. As with many other cases of various kinds of abuse—child abuse, battered wife syndrome, adolescent sex abuse, battle fatigue, post-traumatic stress syndrome—it's often some overwhelming trauma that breaks open the dam and sends the waters of pain rushing out. In Coode's case, the event was not his own abuse but the murder of a friend and colleague.
On Sept. 22, 1995, sheriff's deputies Jerry Newsom and Johnny Spears approached a home in Nashville to deliver an eviction notice. The man inside had a history of mental illness. He came out with guns blazing. Three bullets hit Newsom, and he died on the spot. Spears suffered a severe gunshot wound to the abdomen, hovered near death for days, but eventually lived. Both Newsom and Spears were two of Coode's closest friends and working partners.
At the insistence of authorities in the Sheriff's Office, those deputies who had been close to Newsom and Spears went to psychological counseling made available by the Metro Police Department. Coode resisted at first, but eventually found it therapeutic. It was in these counseling sessions, and in some private ones that followed, where the dam began to crack. Dealing with the trauma of Newsom's murder lit a fuse that made Coode start to deal with his sexual abuse four decades earlier.
Repression is a complicated process, but it involves pushing past events out of our conscious minds that cause too much conflict with our sense of morality, or our sense of what is acceptable in society, or our desire to avoid pain—physical or emotional. We don't necessarily forget these painful episodes—we just dance around them, push them off, refuse to think about them, bob and weave around excuses for them. That's what Coode, like many others, did with his past sexual abuse.
Dr. William Bernet, an M.D. in the psychiatry department at Vanderbilt University Medical School, says that the process of remembering painful experiences from the past takes many forms.
"Every variation happens," Bernet says. "In other words, people can have early traumas and forget about them forever. You can have early traumas, forget about them and then remember them later. You can never have had a trauma but later, for some reason, remember it, even though it never happened. So every possibility is possible."
The counseling sessions not only helped Coode blast down the walls that repressed his pain, they also led him to make some firm commitments: to confront his abuser, tell his ex-wife he was sorry for the pain he caused her, tell his story to the world, and confront church authorities about what he felt was both their unwillingness to deal forthrightly with clergy sex abuse and their resistance to take meaningful steps to guard against it in the future. He also talked with lawyers to determine if there was any way he might seek a bit of retribution, although he strongly maintains that money has never been a major consideration for him. Basically, all the lawyers told him that his abuse was so far in the past there was little he could do about it under present law.
Coode's passion for fulfilling the commitments he made in counseling has, at times, approached the spirit of a zealous cause. And this has led him into some confrontations, particularly with some church authorities.
"I got into contact with several groups that try to support people who have been abused by priests," Coode says. "They told me basically what I was going to go through. I said, 'Naw, I'll go to [diocesan officials], and they will be so sorry and ask, 'What can we do.' And this priest with the support group said, 'No, they are going to deny it and treat you like shit....' And they did."
In 1997, Coode requested and got meetings at various times with Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, the bishop of Nashville; Father David R. Perkin, the bishop's administrative assistant; and Gino Marchetti, the diocesan attorney. Coode was not satisfied with the meetings, which came as the diocese was about to be confronted with accusations involving former Nashville priest Edward McKeown, now serving 25 years without parole in state prison on multiple counts of raping an underage boy. McKeown left the priesthood in 1989 after admitting sexual misconduct with a minor, and recently a judge ruled that the diocese could not be held accountable because he had already left the priesthood several years before committing the crimes for which he is now imprisoned.
"Kmiec was very condescending," Coode says of his meeting with the head of the Nashville Diocese. "He denied that [sexual abuse by priests in general] happened, said it never had happened. He said if it had happened—which he didn't think it had—then it sure as hell wasn't happening now. And here I am knowing about McKeown and them about to be blown out of the water. I knew that. And I knew there were a bunch of queers [in the priesthood]. I knew that was happening whether he knew about it or not. And he's sitting here telling me all that. And I'm saying, damn, this guy doesn't have a clue or he's covering it up."
On this point, there is distinct disagreement both about the tone of the meeting and its substance.
"I'm sorry Mike feels that way," Bishop Kmiec tells the Scene, noting that anger is a typical response for victims of sexual abuse by a priest. He doesn't at all deny that such abuse happens or has happened, but he says most cases he knows about are, in fact, from long ago.
"We really do try. Our motives are good," Kmiec says of the diocese's efforts to help victims. In fact, he says that when he meets with victims, "I make it a point to apologize." He says he has had an open door to meet with any who want to. In fact, the policy the Nashville Diocese has had for a decade about dealing with priests who sexually abuse minors closely resembles the national policy U.S. bishops adopted at their meeting in Dallas two weeks ago. That policy calls for reporting allegations of abuse and states that a priest who sexually abuses a minor is unfit for ministry. Church officials also say that there is no priest—or employee, for that matter—in active duty in the Nashville Diocese parishes or schools who's been credibly accused of such crimes.
"There are times, in dealing with the victims, when they come in with all kinds of feelings—they're angry, they feel separation," Kmiec says.
In his meetings and through various letters to diocesan authorities, Coode was most aggressive on one point: that the diocese should establish and publicize group therapy sessions for victims of priest sexual abuse.
The most formal response from the diocese came in a letter that Father Perkin, the bishop's administrative assistant, wrote to Coode in 1997, saying that the diocese had no one "with the professional training to conduct such counseling sessions," and that such counseling is best left to professionals.
"We understand," Perkin added, "that you were in counseling and therapy and have offered to assist you with that endeavor. That offer remains open."
Today, the bishop says that offer still remains open, and he stands by the diocese's initial reaction about group therapy. "Our experience shows there are all kinds of treatment options, some of which include group therapy," he says. "But I don't think for us to run it [is a good idea]. We leave it to the professionals."
Coode has since said that he didn't take the diocese up on its offer to help him with counseling because, simply put, he doesn't trust anything set up by the church hierarchy. He has lost his faith—but not in Christianity itself. He has lost his faith in church authority. His words echo those of thousands of Catholics across America as they have responded to the priest sexual abuse scandal.
"I love the mass," Coode says. "But I don't go every Sunday. I go to communion, but I have not been to confession in 30 years. I consider myself a practicing Catholic. But I don't have any respect for the authority.
"My reaction is that with [church leaders] it's denial.... They are saying, 'If there was a problem—which there never was—but if there was, it's all straightened out now. Let's just forget about it.' I am just appalled that they are still treating people this way, and they are not willing to bite the bullet. [The American cardinals] went all the way to Rome to hear this poor, pathetic, old man [Pope John Paul II]. I'm sure he doesn't know what the hell time of day it is. It's so embarrassing to see. They could have met at my house and done what they did."
But if Coode is dissatisfied—fairly or not—with the reaction his story has gotten from the Diocese of Nashville, he praises the intervention of Abbot Cletus Meagher, who has essentially placed the 80-something Father Roger Lott under house arrest at St. Bernard Abbey, where he now lives.
Father Lott is not allowed to have anyone in his room (or cell, as the monks call it) except an outside priest who serves as his confessor, he's not allowed to roam the campus (on which there is a prep school) and he's been stripped of all his priestly faculties, meaning that he's not allowed to say mass or hear confessions.
The abbot, a quiet, bespectacled man of middle age who exudes humility, says he sanctioned Coode's alleged abuser because of "inconsistencies in monastic observances." He says he "would have tried to address some of these things even if [Coode's claim] didn't happen," but that Coode's story certainly was a factor.
As well, "There was an incident in the [monastic] community that I found was serious," Abbot Meagher says, referring to unspecified contact with a man Father Lott was not supposed to have contact with.
Has Father Lott ever been accused before? "No allegations," the abbot says. "Rumors or sometimes allusions, maybe yes, but allegations—none that I'm aware of."
Abbot Meagher says he believes Coode's story, and that the priest sex abuse issue threatening the Catholic Church saddens him. "I love the church for what it stands for. I don't love it for its failure or its sins.... Maybe we've been a little too protective of the clergy."
He says Father Lott has been diagnosed with unspecified psychosexual and behavioral disorders, but that he's now in the right place. "He's in a more controlled situation here than he would be in the outside world.... Because of the nature of the situation and because of the nature of the allegations, I'm very aware of his presence."
After all the pain and bitterness and heartbreak, it's worth noting that there is still a connection of sorts between Deputy Sheriff Mike Coode and Father Roger Lott. As the old priest sits alone in his cell at St. Bernard, he suffers from prostate cancer and coronary heart disease. He has a few books, no television. But he has one specific daily burden related to Coode, a burden Abbot Meagher placed on him.
"I told him," the abbot says, " 'Regardless of what happened back there many years ago, Mike is in great need of some healing. Every day for the rest of your life, I want you to pray for Mike to be healed.' "
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