Poet laureate confronts his childhood abuse by priest
By Will Higgins
April 20, 2014
Norbert Krapf, Indiana's poet laureate from 2008 to 2010, kept a secret for a half-century: As a boy in Jasper, in Southern Indiana, he had been molested by his parish priest, Monsignor Othmar Schroeder.
He told only his wife, Katherine, providing no details, and afterward the couple rarely spoke of it.
Krapf didn't want the abuse to take over his life. "I wanted a career and a family, and for a long time I was able to put the abuse aside and focus on living," he said. Norbert and Katherine Krapf (pronounced Cropf) have been married since 1970 and have two children. They spent their working lives in education in New York. She taught middle school English; he taught English at Long Island University and directed the C.W. Post Poetry Center.
He left teaching in 2004 and with his family moved back to his native Indiana to concentrate on his poetry.
Soon, for multiple reasons, childhood memories came flooding back. Indiana was the scene of the crimes, for one thing; and in 2006, Krapf read an Indianapolis newspaper account of a Catholic priest named Harry Monroe, who had abused boys throughout Indiana before being drummed out of the priesthood. Also, Krapf was aging — people often get reflective as they age. (Sting, 62, talked about this at the last TED conference; he said he recently overcame writer's block by revisiting his old haunts.)
Krapf was 63 when he told of the abuse to the Bishop of Evansville, who presides over Jasper's Catholic community. Many other men were coming forward about Schroeder, who died in 1988 at age 74. The Evansville bishop, Gerald A. Gettelfinger, in 2007 publicly urged the rescinding of Schroeder's many honors and accolades.
Krapf that same year began writing poems about his abuse. He was by then an experienced poet, had published 10 books of poetry. But they had never flowed out of him as they did now — 325 poems in a year.
He was in no hurry to publish them. He set them aside for three years. As a former poet laureate, Krapf is at least somewhat of a public person. He endures the distinction, does not relish it. He figured a book about priest abuse would attract quite a bit of attention and some derision. He steeled himself for both. He changed his phone number to an unlisted number. He urged that this interview not be published Sunday, which was Easter.
The book, which contains 130 of the poems, was released April 1. It's called "Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet's Journal of Healing."
Krapf's story may give hope to other abuse victims, said David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, because Krapf's life is one of achievement and happiness. "Most clergy sex abuse victims have done destructive or self-destructive things to cope with their pain and depression: substance abuse, crime, eating disorders, etc.," Clohessy said in an email. "Most never will speak publicly, so every time one of us does, it's validating and encouraging to the rest. That's especially true when the survivor has gone on to become a 'thriver.'"
Krapf spoke with Will Higgins on the phone, in person and via email.
Question: On the cover of the book is a photo of you as a boy taken by Monsignor Schroeder. In it you look tormented. You are confronted with this picture a lot these days, as you read from the book to audiences. Does the photo get easier to look at? Or harder?
Answer: Easier, because I had to scrutinize it so many times in the production process. Writing four poems in response to it also helped. I am reminded of the power of the cover when people at readings see that photo for the first time. In Minneapolis last weekend, I showed the book to the manager of a bookstore who was visibly shaken, almost couldn't face the photo. "This is hard to look at," she said, "isn't it?" I agreed. When I read her "These Thy Gifts," time stopped, she closed her eyes, and big beautiful tears oozed out of them. She too is an abuse survivor.
Q: Your abuser, Msgr. Othmar Schroeder, was an icon in the heavily Catholic town where you grew up — heavily Catholic, nearly two-thirds of the town's 15,000 people are Catholic. He started a parish there. He started a school there. The local Knights of Columbus Council was named for him. A statue was built and dedicated to him. Did his celebrity make it harder for you and others to come forward and say he's a pedophile?
A: The percentage had to be higher in the 1950s. His celebrity made it not just harder, but virtually impossible for us to tell our parents. This is always the case. Abusers know their power and how to make and keep their victims most vulnerable. My father was suffering from depression and had electroshock treatment several times. If he had known what his spiritual adviser was doing to his son, what would that have done to him? See "Once Upon a Time Another Boy" (on video) for an example of what happened to a guy who tried to tell his dad about what the priest was doing to him!
Q: In your poem "Pedophile Priest Confession," you seem to see Schroeder as sick, unable to help himself, rather than purely and simply evil. When did you first begin seeing him this way?
A: My vision changed when I wrote the poems in the last section, "The Priest on Sorry," at the suggestion of a therapist. That required placing myself in his shoes and speaking in his voice. I resisted doing so at first but then realized I still knew how he thought, what his strategies were, how he denied what he was doing. I have trouble believing that any human being is all evil, though Hitler contends as an exception. I read about abusers and learned that many of them are abuse victims who repeat the cycle. It was therapeutic to speak in his voice. I loved it when the boy voice went right for the jugular whenever the priest faked it, in denial. It helps to get outside yourself to write about someone else, even your abuser. Also I had fifty more years of lived experience to draw on by 2007. People have been telling me this section deepens the book. I agree.
Q: You stayed away from church for 20 years but then returned. What made you return?
A: I am a poet who returns to origins. In 1980 and '83, my wife and I adopted two infants from Bogotá, Colombia, and she felt we should give them a religious experience. Katherine is deeply religious, sympathetic to my situation, saddened by the damage and hurt I suffered, but doesn't pressure me to attend Mass because she knows, especially since I wrote the poems, the long-term effects of the abuse. Without her loving support, I may never have come back. But I am still an uneasy Catholic. Good priests, like Father Michael O'Mara, have made it possible for me to return, at least some of the time. A few months after Francis became pope, I realized that my bitterness about the hierarchy's covering up the abuse was diminishing. Francis, a healer, gives me hope. His Bavarian predecessor, Benedict, had the opposite effect.
Q: Have you forgiven Schroeder?
A: I think so, mostly. I am not nearly so angry at the priest as I was when I started to write the poems. My therapist pointed out that if you remain angry at your abuser, he retains power over you. I am proud of the boy I was for venting his anger at what that priest did to him. The boy and the man he became are on excellent terms, have worked their way through a lot, and my old pal Mr. Blues counsels, encourages and applauds them. I am all three! Anger galvanizes us into action, but if we stay angry too long, it corrodes us at the center. To forgive is not to forget. Remembering enables me to speak for other survivors so we understand, sympathize and work together to protect our sacred youth. Helping others heal, we heal ourselves.