Priest Scandal Puts Focus on Victims' Advocate

By Dawn Fallik
May 12, 2002

David Clohessy talks to his younger son, Brian Barrett, 6, before leaving for a T-ball game in west St. Louis County.
Photo by Sam Leone /P-D

David Clohessy's world is spinning. On one hand, the Roman Catholic Church is finally listening to him and the voices of other sexual abuse victims. Even the pope is taking notice.

As director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the national news media has focused on him and his organization. There are television appearances on "Oprah," interviews with People magazine. His pager and cell phone ring constantly.

"We've always wanted to change the world," said his wife, Laura Barrett. "I think we are. . . . But it's early, in the beginning stages."

On the other hand, he's out of a job come June 30. The Riverview Gardens School District ended Clohessy's contract as community relations director, apparently for financial reasons.

Then there's Clohessy's brother, the Rev. Kevin Clohessy, who took a leave of absence in April from the Jefferson City diocese after being accused of molesting a college student nine years ago. What do you do when you're an advocate for those abused by priests and your brother is a priest accused of abusing someone?

For someone in the middle of life's whirlwind, Clohessy, 45, looked remarkably unscathed as he sat last week in the back yard of his St. Louis home, watching the birds attack a feeder.

His wife, a social worker, padded barefoot around the house, answering the phone, chiding her husband for flinging his shoes over the banister, disagreeing good-naturedly about dates and times and places.

Finger-painted art by his two boys, ages 6 and 8, adorn the walls, right next to the American Indian artwork and family photos.

Home is where David Clohessy is safe.

"I am a lot happier than I used to be," he said.

But signs of stress are everywhere.

A longtime insomniac, his co-workers are used to getting voice mails and e-mails with time stamps of 4 a.m. He keeps an extra change of clothes in his office, just in case he stays overnight.

Riverview Gardens Superintendent Chris Wright said she closes Clohessy's office door because she can't stand to look at the mess. And everyone - everyone - mentions the car. The mess. The bad driving. The mess.

"We could go camping for a weekend in that car and never have to pack," said his wife. "He has his clothes, kids' clothes, granola bars."

But his other qualities make up for the mess behind closed doors.

"He's an exceptional listener, almost like a sponge," Wright said, an opinion repeated by several of his friends and SNAP associates.

And he has been able to help others who say they also were abused by priests. Kathy Woodard said it was Clohessy's words that really touched something inside her and helped her turn a corner in her struggle to deal with her abuse.

"He said, 'I'm so sorry that happened to you,'" said Woodard, of St. Louis. "That's such a simple statement, but he was saying, 'I understand you, and I understand how much that hurt.'"

And while his clutter may be out of control, Clohessy tries to make sure everything else goes right where he wants it.

The New York Times is doing a story, he says, and he wants to make sure it's OK with them if he talks to the Post-Dispatch. The Boston Globe is also doing a profile, he said, but they haven't called back.

Clohessy epitomizes a man in motion. In less than two hours, he takes his sneakers on and off several times, for no apparent reason. He fiddles with the tablecloth. He puts his eyeglasses on. He takes them off. He pretzels his body in various positions in a wooden deck chair.

Life wasn't always so hectic. Growing up in Moberly, Mo., with three brothers and two sisters was "heavenly," Clohessy said.

"Living in a small town, from a big family with an unusual last name, everyone knew you," he said.

Part of that small-town perfection was serving as an altar boy at St. Pius X Church. But Clohessy said that was shattered by the Rev. John Whiteley, who served as associate pastor at St. Pius. Clohessy said that when he was 12, Whiteley first abused him on a canoeing trip. It continued for four years, Clohessy said. Whiteley could not be reached for comment.

Repressed memories

Clohessy says he repressed the memories and continued on with life, going to Drury College in Springfield, getting a degree in political science and philosophy.

In 1980, he joined the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, hoping to make a dent in the indifference in the world and living on less than $10,000 a year.

"If we had enough money to put gas in our car, it was a victory," said John Hickey, who worked with Clohessy in those idealistic days. "If we went to a corner bar and had a beer, it was a splurge."

As Clohessy looks back, he believes it was his own experience with sexual abuse that pushed him toward ACORN and other organizations that help the less fortunate.

"At one point, I was powerless as a kid," he said of his abuse. "So now, I'm very sympathetic to those who are similarly powerless."

Clohessy says the memories of abuse were just starting to emerge when he met Laura in the late 1980s. She was completing a social work internship at ACORN. The attraction was immediate.

"After talking to her for 60 seconds, I thought, 'I'd better have someone else supervise her,'" Clohessy said. "And about 60 seconds after she finished the internship, I asked her out."

Barrett, who was going through a divorce at the time, said she liked Clohessy's boyish good looks and his slight frame.

"He was so different from my ex-husband, who was so intimidating," Barrett said. "David was this blond, skinny guy. I could pick him up."

Barrett's training with abused children helped her deal with her husband's memories. And her accepting reaction helped him tell his parents and, eventually, the public. He filed a lawsuit against Whiteley in 1991.

It was the same year that Clohessy attended a meeting of SNAP in San Francisco and began to become active with the organization in St. Louis.

His case against Whiteley was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. Whiteley was placed on administrative leave when the suit was filed and left the diocese shortly thereafter.

Family is at a distance

Clohessy said his family supported him immediately. But now he keeps them at a distance. While the rest of his family gathers with his parents in Indiana for Christmas, Clohessy heads to his wife's relatives.

His father, when contacted for this profile, said he couldn't think of any particular stories to tell about his second-oldest child.

"We had six children," Joseph Clohessy said. "It's hard to keep track of what each of them did."

David Clohessy talks to only one of his siblings regularly (one brother died several years ago of a brain tumor).

"I guess I just kind of pulled back," he said. "I was in the beginning of recovery and really fragile, and I just kind of backed off from a lot of people."

One of those people was his brother, the priest. Clohessy believed that the priest who abused him also abused Kevin. He tried to talk to Kevin about it once several years ago but was pushed away. Then, in the mid-1990s, people started telling him that his brother was sexually molesting other young men.

"He told me he was getting help, getting treatment," Clohessy said.

Clohessy didn't tell police. He said he didn't think they would investigate his brother. He didn't tell the church. He said he felt it would be useless.

"The only thing I could have done that I didn't do that might have made some difference is leaflet his church," he said.

Clohessy's brother Patrick said he's not sure where to stand.

"There's obviously an irony here," he said. "It's a pretty fragile situation for everyone in the family."

These days are dramatically different from Clohessy's earlier efforts with SNAP to bring the issue of priest sexual misconduct to the forefront.

Back then, he leafleted churches and sent out statements and press releases, often with little result.

"People didn't want to stay focused on such a horrific crime," he said. "Plus, the church leaders worked hard at their own public relations."

Now, the news media and others are taking Clohessy and his group much more seriously. As the phone continues to ring, David Clohessy wrapped his arms around his pale, not-yet-summer legs and wondered what will happen next - in his job, in the church, in his life. "I'm not really sure I know," he said.

He is concerned that the church's early efforts to deal with the problem of priest sexual misconduct will lull many into a false sense that the problem has been dealt with and they can turn to other issues.

"Right now, the church is doing a lot of verbal posturing," he said. "But there's an enormous backlog of pain that's been unaddressed."

There's that, and a thousand other things to worry about. A news conference to organize. A dozen calls to return. E-mails to write. Baseball games to attend. Canoeing trips to plan.

Even though the nightmare began with a canoeing trip, that is where Clohessy goes to escape. Once he went alone; now he brings his family. But even canoeing, there are goals to meet and the world to take on.

"He wants to canoe every river in Missouri," said Barrett, shaking her head. "Maybe he'll finish the eastern half."

Reporter Dawn Fallik
Phone: 314-340-8183


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