Western Mass. actor depicts clergy abuse survivor who rejects church settlement — like he did

New England Public Media [Springfield MA]

November 26, 2023

By Nancy Eve Cohen

A play that opens Thursday at CitySpace in Easthampton, Massachusetts, tells the story of a man who was abused by a priest when he was a boy.

“Unreconciled” is based on the experience of western Massachusetts actor and playwright Jay Sefton, who co-wrote it with another survivor, Mark Basquill. James Barry directs the play.

Sefton and others said the priest allegedly abused boys who played the part of Jesus in school plays.

Sefton has been practicing his performance working out on a treadmill and while walking around town. But about two weeks before the show, he was “running lines,” as it’s called, with his friend Yago Colás in Sefton’s dining room.

I thought, to try to just get it into the body, today,” Sefton said. “We just start at the beginning and then if I missed words, maybe just mark them. If I miss chunks, we’ll stop.”

“I’ll pause you,” Colás said.

Colás settles at the dining room table, script and pencil in hand. Sefton begins.

JAY: I’ve never been very good at saying no. I mean, I’m an actor. We say yes to almost anything. We have to, even if it doesn’t always make sense.

The main character, based on Sefton and also named Jay, said “no” to money from the Catholic Church. The abuse by a priest took place at the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary school in Philadelphia in 1985, when Jay is 13.

Sefton — now 52 yeas old — plays all the parts, including of a nun, his teacher.

SISTER PAUL: As you know, the Passion Play will be done for the third year here at Annunciation. […] We are thrilled to have Father Smith direct his original script again, and I will be assigning the parts except that, of course, of Jesus which will be voted on by you…

Much to his surprise, Jay shoots up his hand to volunteer to play the part of Jesus.

JAY: Traditionally, passion plays are these elaborate performances with props and  costumes, and songs. Ours had a bunch of kids draped in old sheets and curtains, and some ripped-off music from “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The play describes how the priest had Jay undress in front of him in a locked closet while other students changed into their costumes with the help of mothers and teachers.

The priest pinned a loincloth on Jay and pricked him until he bled.

Sefton said the play is based on facts. A grand jury report, published in 2005 by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, said the Archdiocesan Review Board in 2004 unanimously found this priest abused boys who played the part of Jesus over the years.

Although the topic is downright serious, the playwrights inject humor — it’s theater, after all. Sefton said it helps the audience not worry about him.

One character is Philly Jay, the voice inside Jay’s head

PHILLY JAY: How youse doing? Good of you to be here today. I’m the side of him that’s not gonna put you to sleep, OK? Couple notes for you, my man. What the f*** is this thing that we’re doing here?

JAY: Oddly enough, he also shows up to cheer me on when I am ready to quit something. I’ve spent a lot of my life ready to quit something.

PHILLY JAY: Dude, you got this. Don’t be such a f***ing pu**y all the time.

JAY I mean, that’s kind of supportive.

Sefton, a mental health counselor, wrote this script with Basquill, a 62-year old clinical psychologist, who was also abused by a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

As a psychologist, he’s worked with sex offenders. And he has a relative who is a defrocked priest who is accused of abusing children. When he wrote the priest character, Basquill had a goal of humanizing him.

“Because in the work that I have had with offenders, these are regular people that have some really, really destructive ways of coping with their own stuff,” Basquill said. “But they’re still people.”

The character is based on a real priest described in the 2005 report from the district attorney. It said he “engaged in depraved and sadistic behavior with many boys.”

The script uses similar language for the priest’s lines.

FATHER SMITH: I admit I may have used poor judgment with the pins and the real whips, but sharing a little pain with the tough young men of Philadelphia is not exactly sadistic and depraved. I was training those young men to become true soldiers of Christ.

In the play, as in real life, Jay says his father contacts him after the DA’s report is published.

JAY: No one ever called what happened during the Passion play abuse so I didn’t either until 2007 when I receive an email from my dad with the subject line: “The Bastard” —

“Jaybird, I just saw this in the Inquirer. Please call me. Love, Dad.”

I didn’t know my Dad knew how to email a link to an article, but the headline read “Priest defrocked over abuse cases.”

It was important to include family members in the play, according to Basquill.

“To remind people that when one person in a family gets hurt, everybody gets hurt,” Basquill said. “And I think sometimes we get so individualistic we forget that we got brothers and sisters and moms and dads that are really impacted when somebody gets hurt.”

DAD: Jaybird, I am so sorry.

JAY: Wait, wait, wait — what are you sorry for?

DAD: Did that happen? Did he do that to you ?

JAY: I mean, yeah.

DAD: Jesus Christ! We had him here for dinner.

JAY: Dad, come on. It’s not your fault. […]

DAD: That son of a b****. I’ll f***ing kill him.

JAY: Dad, calm down, OK?

DAD: I knew it. I knew. Son of a b****. Call the number. OK, Jaybird? Promise me you will call the number.

Jay calls the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Victims Assistance number. And, years later, meets with officials tasked with compensating victims. They offer him money from the Archdiocese if he signs away his legal rights to sue. He says no.

JAY: Is this reconciliation? […] All this so the Catholic Church doesn’t have to be held accountable in a courtroom. And they’re on my side? […] Now, I completely understand and support anyone who accepted their offers. However,  I term mine aggressively undervalued and decline to sign away my voice.

In real life, Jay Sefton also declined the offer.

“I said no to the money because I have more to say,” Sefton said. “I want to have a voice in this fight. And if I say yes to that, at that particular time, I’m saying no to having a voice in the fight. And I want one.

Sefton hopes the state of Pennsylvania will pass a law, as more than a dozen other states have done, that allows child abuse cases that are past the statute of limitations to be taken to court — something he hopes to do.

Massachusetts has not passed a law that creates a window of time when a victim of child sexual abuse can sue an alleged perpetrator. But in June 2014 the state permanently increased the statute of limitations when someone can bring a law suit against an alleged abuser — up until age 53, if the abuse occurred before June 2014.

Sefton also has a hope for the play.

“Here is a story that’s hopefully worthy of being told and being put on a stage,” Sefton said. “And what I hope for is other survivors in the audience can see themselves within it — that their story is worth telling. That their story happened. That it’s real.”

Sefton and Basquill said when a child is abused by an adult who is trusted by the community, the survivor may not trust their own belief about what happened.

That’s just one reason why they wrote this play.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro. See stories by Nancy Eve Cohen