Am I My Brother's Keeper?

By Frank Bruni and Elinor Burkett
New York Times
May 12, 2002

One night in early April, as the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church swept more and more priests into an unforgiving spotlight, David Clohessy stared at the telephone in his St. Louis home, wondering whether to warn one of the next priests in line. His stomach roiled. It would be easier, he reasoned, not to do it, and it would probably be best. But then he envisioned the priest in question rounding a corner the following morning without any knowledge that his name had hit the newspaper and facing a television camera he never saw coming. He imagined the man's humiliation. And he was not sure he could bear the thought of it.

For Clohessy, this was an astonishing thing. His sympathies had always gone toward the victims of such men, because he knew their devastation and rage, which were also his own. And he had forged those hard, cold feelings into a determination -- a quest -- to hold the church accountable for the actions of its servants. He stormed the barricades, time and again. He nurtured a national support group, now nearly 4,000 members strong, for those who had been molested by clergy members. He appeared on "Oprah."

Always his message was that the church must be treated like any institution that was causing such destruction, and that Catholic priests deserved no special protection, no special consideration.

On this night, however, Clohessy decided to "violate my fundamental bottom line," as he puts it, and grant this one favor to this one priest. He left an urgent message for the man, who called back 10 minutes later, just before 11:30 p.m. Clohessy told him that the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., had identified him to The Boston Globe as one of a half-dozen priests who had drawn "credible accusations" of sexual abuse over the years. The Globe planned to publish the man's name, which was certain to end up in newspapers and on newscasts throughout Missouri.

"I know this is going to make your life really hard," Clohessy remembers saying, and he felt both awkward and sad, for so many reasons, including his witting and unwitting roles in this chain of events.

"Thanks for the heads-up," the priest said, flatly. The call ended in less than 10 minutes. It was as long a conversation as the two brothers, David and Kevin Clohessy, had shared in years.

It was also an unlikely collision of roles and life stories: David Clohessy's as a well-known advocate forcing the church to come clean about its clergy; Kevin Clohessy's as a member of that clergy with his own secrets to keep. And it was a moment of grim truth for a family pulled apart by the church's scandal.

The Clohessy family's experiences encompass many of the themes and questions at the heart of the crisis in the church, and they suggest how ingrained and self-perpetuating the scourge of sexual abuse may be. Those experiences stem from the family's relationship three decades ago with the Rev. John Whiteley, an associate pastor in Moberly, Mo., the rural farming community where David and Kevin and their four siblings grew up. In the late 1960's and early 70's, Father Whiteley often sat at the Clohessys' dinner table, took the children on special excursions and, according to family members, reached for several of the children in ways no adult should.

"Who knows what was on his mind -- whether it was just a sense of power or secrecy or sexual gratification," says Patrick Clohessy, 37, who remembers having to fend off Whiteley's advances. "He was thinking only about the moment. He would have had no -- no -- understanding of all the repercussions he created, devastating repercussions in our family, over the course of decades."

I first met David Clohessy in 1992, the year after he filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Jefferson City for the abuse he claimed he suffered between 1969 and 1973, from the ages of 12 to 16, at Whiteley's hands. (That suit was later dismissed because it fell outside the statute of limitations, and Whiteley was removed from active ministry in light of what a diocesan spokesman calls credible accusations against him.) Clohessy waited so long to make his claims because it was not until 1988 -- when he and his fiancee saw the movie "Nuts," with Barbra Streisand as a victim of child sexual abuse -- that he even remembered that part of his past. After the movie, as Clohessy lay in bed, a flood of memories burst through the psychological dam he had built, and he relived the moments when, he says, the priest grabbed him and climbed on top of him during overnight camping trips. He developed insomnia. He recoiled from his fiancee's touch. For one two-month period, he barely left the house.

Clohessy told me all of this a decade ago. He told me, too, about the incredible strain on his family when he took the church to court, a course of action he says he chose because it seemed the surest way to expose Whiteley and get him away from children. Clohessy's churchgoing parents, Joseph and Mary, never missed weekend Mass and had felt honored by the special attention that Whiteley had paid them. It was clear to David that they and other members of his family thought he might be making too public a fuss over an isolated string of incidents that took place long ago. It was also clear that the lawsuit mortified his parents, especially because his younger brother Kevin -- who had, as a child, used vestments hand-sewn by their mother to pretend he was blessing the body and blood of Christ -- was now a real priest, working in the diocese David was suing. According to David, Kevin reacted to the suit by telling him, "From this point on, we probably shouldn't talk."

What David did not tell me then was something that, according to him and Patrick, Kevin also said at the time: that Whiteley had initiated sexual activity with him too. Kevin repeatedly declined requests to be interviewed for this article, and he was vague enough in his discussions with David and Patrick that neither is sure when or for how long Whiteley supposedly molested Kevin. Nor are they sure if that is the whole of what happened to Kevin. Around the age of 14, in the mid-1970's, Kevin heeded the urgings of the Rev. Anthony J. O'Connell, who was a family friend, and enrolled in boarding school at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo., where O'Connell worked.

St. Thomas Aquinas is to be closed next week amid a storm of accusations of sexual abuse over the past decades. In one lawsuit, a former priest named Christopher Dixon claimed that in the 1970's, when he was an adolescent, he was abused by three priests, including O'Connell, who worked in and around the seminary. O'Connell, who went on to become a bishop, resigned his post as the head of the Diocese of Palm Beach in March as more than a half-dozen men, in addition to Dixon, came forward with claims that he sexually abused them.

How many of the priests of one generation were abused by the priests of the previous one? No one can possibly know, but the Rev. Gary Hayes, who runs a support group for priests who were molested by their spiritual tutors, suspects that the number is not insignificant. He is in regular contact with 25 men who, like him, fit that profile. A. W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and psychotherapist who has written several books on the sexual lives of priests, says he believes that a multi-generation chain of sexual abuse may be one reason for the prevalence of molesters in the priesthood. "It's quite common," Sipe says, basing his assertion in part on the files he has seen as an expert witness in scores of civil trials.

From the start of Kevin Clohessy's career as a priest -- he was ordained in 1985, in his mid-20's -- he did most of his work with teenagers, clearly relishing their company. This did not initially strike his fellow priests or his parishioners as unusual: "Father Preppy," as Kevin was known because of his casual but finicky style of dress, was closer in age to the children than other members of the clergy were. But then, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, a lay youth minister named Donna Cox began hearing stories.

Cox supervised weekend retreats for teenagers in the diocese, and some of them would tell her about the priests who made them uncomfortable or hugged them too long or sometimes did even more than that. Over the years, the list of priests that Cox kept in her head grew to seven. It included O'Connell. It included Whiteley. And it included Kevin. According to Cox, boys told her that he would get drunk with them and make what seemed like sexual overtures. One of them said that when he was 18, Kevin had fed him booze and taken him to bed.

"Are these guys overreacting?" Cox recalls asking herself, because the scope of what she was being told sounded impossible. "Is what I'm hearing the truth?" These were questions she had not resolved when, in 1991, she heard about David Clohessy's public claim against Whiteley. She remembered anew that Whiteley had taken her son Steven on a trip to California in 1988 as a high-school graduation present, and that Steven came home not wanting to have anything to do with Whiteley again. His avoidance of Whiteley now seemed to be about something darker and more important than she had initially thought. She questioned Steven, who told her that during the trip, he had been forced to kick Whiteley out of his bed.

Cox took her list to the chancellor of the diocese. The chancellor, she says, told her that the matter would be investigated and implored her not to talk to anyone else about it. But when several months passed without any sign of action, Cox complained to a priest she knew well, and he contacted the bishop. Randy Kollars, who was the diocese's director of youth ministry at the time, says he was then told by his superiors not to employ Cox for retreats any longer. "I was angry -- there wasn't any discussion," Kollars says. "It was a tremendous loss."

Church officials did eventually take action against some of the priests Cox flagged -- although not, Cox says, directly because of her actions. In 1992, they put Whiteley on leave, and they now say they do not know where he is, a claim that Whiteley's mother, Edna, also made to me in a phone conversation that lasted just long enough for her to call David Clohessy an "idiot" out to destroy the church. Asked if that meant she knew her son to be innocent of any sexual abuse, she said: "I don't know what went on. He's 61 years old -- do you think he tells his mother everything?" In 1993, church officials removed Kevin from the Catholic center for college students that he was running and enrolled him in a treatment program. Although they were silent at the time about the reason, they now concede that Kevin had engaged in sexual behavior that was "inappropriate and serious," but not criminal, in that it did not involve anyone below the legal age of consent. After Kevin finished treatment, they placed him in a parish in Taos, Mo., where he served as the pastor.

David Clohessy knew about most of this, thanks to Cox, who contacted him about Kevin's removal because David had by then developed some renown as spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. Some time after David talked with Cox, the young man who had told her about being coaxed into bed by Kevin also called David, as had so many other wounded people who saw David in the newspaper or on TV. Thus began, for David, a violent seesaw of emotions toward Kevin.

"From early on," David says, "the raging debate within me was: he's my brother; he's an abuser. Do I treat him like my brother? Do I treat him like an abuser?" Those conflicting loyalties never settled into any easy balance.

On one hand, he wanted to help Kevin, to tend to him. Like him, Kevin had once been vulnerable, and Kevin had also been scarred, maybe even more so, for all David knew. "I knew the power a priest would have had over him -- a kid who single-mindedly wanted to be a priest from the time he was 7 or 8," David says, remembering that all during Kevin's childhood, "he never traded those vestments for a toy gun."

He understood that Kevin's actions might well be a manifestation -- a tortured echo -- of what had happened to him. By some estimates, perhaps half of adults who sexually abuse children were themselves molested, a figure that David says he believes is on the low end. In addition, Kevin's specific transgression, at least as Cox was informed of it and the diocese defined it, hovered at a murky intersection between a possibly repressed homosexuality, which was being channeled inappropriately, and outright molestation.

But to David, that was a distinction without a difference. "My position," David says, "is that clergy involved in sexual activity with parishioners is inherently abusive," because the relationship is one of intimate trust and unequal power. And what if there had been other young men, or boys, as the complaints to Cox suggested? What if Kevin was a present and future danger to the children who crossed his path? David says he felt he could not stay entirely quiet and had to confront Kevin, for those reasons and for others that, he admits, were selfish. "It would have eaten away at me," David says. "It would have gnawed and gnawed."

In his countless hours of psychotherapy, David had come to believe that nothing could be as damaging as running away from the truth, and he did not want to run anymore.

It was even more complicated than that. David was in the process of trying to rebuild his relationships with his parents and siblings, from whom he had drifted further and further since his lawsuit. They wondered about his involvement with SNAP and worried about its implications for Kevin. For his part, David wished they were better able to grasp his pain and passion, a desire expressed by one of his recurring nightmares, which also hinted at how haunted he still was by the feeling that no one had been able to protect him in the first place. "It was so transparent it was almost laughable," David says. "I was walking through my family's old house, and my mom was ironing while my dad was watching TV or something. And Whiteley was walking right behind me. He had a big, long kitchen knife, and he was stabbing me. And each time it would hurt, but I wasn't saying anything, and he wasn't saying anything, and there was no blood, so no one would hear or see."

David knew there would be less tension between him and his parents if he persuaded Kevin to divulge the details of his situation, and so he tried, over many months and many long phone conversations. "I want to have a relationship with our parents and the rest of the family," he recalls telling Kevin, "but here's my quandary: I can't do that and pretend I don't know what you've done. I can't sit across from you at Thanksgiving dinner and laugh and joke and pretend everything's hunky-dory."

David says that Kevin begged for some time, and then for more time, while David kept pestering him.

Apparently, in Kevin's eyes, David was something of a zealot. Msgr. Mike Flanagan, a priest in the diocese who was friendly with Kevin, says that Kevin could not understand why David "kept beating it into the ground, the whole thing. And his parents wanted to get over it."

Kevin did have a talk with his parents -- but not, apparently, the kind that David was hoping for. Their father called David one night to say that he knew that Kevin had been falsely accused of wrongdoing and that David was unnecessarily torturing him. "I don't know who screamed an obscenity first," David says. "But he screamed one, and I screamed one, and we slammed down the phone and didn't talk for several years."

David's wife, Laura Barrett, was then pregnant with their second son, whom David's father didn't meet until the boy was 4.

When David discusses that breach, he often stops midsentence, unable to go on. This happens during a recent conversation in his living room, as we talk late into the night. "Is this comfortable for you?" he asks me, referring to the couch on which we are sitting. Then he adds, "Because it's not comfortable for me," meaning something else. He tilts forward, planting his elbows on his crossed legs and his face in his hands. When he sits up again, his eyes are glossy with tears. He is now 45, but at moments like this, he looks as scared and lost as if he were a teenager all over again.

Although he has begun, over the last two years, to exchange phone calls with his parents and attend family gatherings, he and Kevin manage only short, superficial conversations. He wanted more, especially when he heard that Kevin, after therapy and soul searching, had decided to leave the Taos parish and stop working as a priest. According to church officials, Kevin did so on his own; there was never another complaint made about him. Family members say Kevin had come to terms with his homosexuality. Flanagan says, "He had a lover, and he was finding it very hard to lead a double life."

He went to work for the American Red Cross. David learned Kevin's e-mail address and, in November, wrote and congratulated him on the job. "I'd still like to talk with you sometime," David told him. "You know how to reach me. You can call collect if you like."

Kevin, who is now 43, never did.

By March, David was consumed by other concerns. The crisis of child sexual abuse in the church, which he had been trying for more than a decade to get people to notice, was becoming a national obsession, and David was spending hours every day talking with victims, lawyers and reporters. The Boston Globe called to ask him if he knew of any whistle-blowers whom the church had ostracized. David mentioned Donna Cox, but first he hesitated, explaining that his brother was part of her story. According to David, he and the reporter agreed that it was unlikely that Kevin's name would or could be published, because there had never, to anyone's knowledge, been a lawsuit or a victim who leveled a public accusation.

But the Diocese of Jefferson City, like others across the country, was suddenly trying to manage the scandal by being more forthcoming about it. And when The Globe inquired into the fates of the priests Cox named, an official acknowledged that a credible accusation had been made against Kevin. The reporter told David, who called Kevin.

In the ensuing days, Kevin's name and face appeared in the news in Missouri. He left a new job that he had just taken with the United Way. "It's been a very difficult time," said the man with whom Kevin lives when I showed up on their doorstep in Columbia, Mo., next to which stands a small stone angel, its head bowed in prayer. The man said that Kevin would not be coming out of the house. I left a note for him.

His parents grappled anew with sad truths they had never fully confronted and others they had never known. When the Globe story broke, they were already reeling from the recent revelations about O'Connell, toward whom they had felt such affection and respect. Back in 1988, they drove hundreds of miles to celebrate O'Connell's ascension to the rank of bishop in the Knoxville, Tenn., diocese. Now there was Kevin's public disgrace. On top of that, Patrick mentioned Kevin's experience with Whiteley to them and discovered that they were unaware of it. The Sunday after he told them, Patrick says, his father deliberately skipped weekend Mass for the first time in decades.

His father, a retired claims agent, told me in a trembling voice that neither he nor his wife cared to be interviewed. Like other members of their family, they are reviewing the past, now cast in the terrible new light of all that has come out about the church. They seem to understand David better. "I think all that he's doing is for the right reasons," says Michael Clohessy, the youngest of the brothers. "I didn't know a decade ago."

He still does not know if David and Kevin can reconcile, and neither does David, although he says he aches for it. When I tell him about my visit to Kevin, he winces. "The worst I've ever dodged is a bill collector," he says. "And I just think of Kevin, and your knock on the door."

David then says he should have given me a note for Kevin. I ask what he would have written. He composes it out loud: "I know you're hurting and you probably think I'm an evil person who wants you to suffer. It's not true. Ultimately, I hope we can be brothers again."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.