Mr. David Brown is a paralegal and licensed private investigator in Tennessee. He is a survivor and change agent affiliated with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
JR: I am so happy to hear that you have taken up the work in Tennessee that Ann Brentwood, a dear and loved and dedicated survivor –advocate, began. What got you into your work as a survivor supporter?
DB: Jaime thanks for the compliment. To answer this I must go back for a little history on myself. My abuse began in the fall of 1961 and lasted till the spring of 1962. I was abused by a Catholic priest who was a teacher at my high school in Nashville. I never told anyone about my abuse. I did not feel anyone would believe me and if I had told my parents my father would have killed him. So I did what so many victims do and remained silent.
In fact I was silent for over 35 years until my wife and I were watching a story on television one Sunday night about some adult survivors in Boston. They were talking about what it was like to be a survivor. I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention when my wife touched me on my arm and asked me if that was what happened to me. I turned and look at her, and then the flood gates opened up. Please bear in mind we had only been married for 6 years and I had just turned 50 that same day.
It all came back to me. I immediately called my mother and told her and her response was “I always wondered about him.” Wow I was so stunned. I then contact the Diocese in Nashville and set up a meeting with the Bishop. That did not go well. He believed me, but told me I was the only one. I knew there had to be others. I was devastated. On my way home from Nashville, I called my wife and told her I did not think I was coming back home. I was going to kill myself. Later I went to therapy but every time he would ask me what all my abuser did to me I just used the safe words “he abused me.” I was so ashamed of what he did to me.
So for almost 9 more years I kept the darkest secrets inside me. I felt safer that way. Then one day, Ann Brentwood called me and left a message. She had heard about me from another survivor that my sister had spoken to a few years earlier. Well the next day when I spoke to Ann we talked for over 2 hours. She put in touch with a support group here in Memphis and that is what really began to put me on the path to actually surviving the abuse. At that time I did have a strong faith although I was not longer a Catholic. The support group taught I had nothing to be ashamed of and I did not do anything wrong.
A few months later I woke up with other nightmares and typed out a letter to the attorney for the Diocese in response to a comment he made to me that he could not imagine what my abuse was like. I had been having nightmares for over 9 years where I would wake up and feel my rapist whiskers and stale, smoky breath on the side of my face as he was raping me.
I got up that morning at 4am and typed out a 6 page letter to him and the Bishop. Well that story was printed n Nashville in June 30, 2005 and my life has not been the same since. That is when I began as an advocate although I did not realize it at the time. And I have never regretted it.
JR: You have mentioned some exciting work with statewide training and conferences. How did that happen?
DB: Ever since I began my work working with victims to help them transition to survivors, I have tried to bring a message of hope. I love your definition of what we used to call clergy sexual abuse. You call it Religious Authority Sexual Abuse (RASA). So many victims of RASA have lost their faith or religion. They hate God and do not want anything to do with Him. Yet they want to believe and have hope and more importantly trust again. I have tried to bring a positive message and to also have a dialogue with the religious leaders of these abusers. Anna Whalley of the Shelby County Crime Victims Center, who is our support leader, recommended me to Verna Wyatt of You Have The Power organization. YHTP is a group that was started by Andrea Conte, the wife of governor, Phil Bredesen. They were going to do a video project for their organization to be part of their educational program that dealt with RASA in the faith community. I was asked to tell my story of abuse and how I now have a strong faith. The title of the DVD is called “SACRED SECRETS.” It features another victim as well as a convicted Catholic priest, in addition to a minister that get it right when a church and pastor is faced with a situation of RASA.
YHTP has prepared an educational package that they put on across the state of Tennessee along with a panel discussion. I have been blessed to have participated in many of those presentations. In fact we have one we are doing in Memphis the same day this interview is going to be posted.
JR: You have mentioned training for all state workers in TN that includes the DVD. Can you say more about how that came to be a required curriculum?
DB: I need to clarify that a bit. It is mandatory viewing for Department of Health Services workers as well as workers and volunteers for the Child Advocacy Centers in Tennessee. I am not really sure how that happened, but the program that YHTP puts on is so powerful and informative, it cannot but help people that deal with children daily. In the program we try to give people the tools to possibly identify signs a RASA.
JR: What do you think is succeeding or/happening as a result of these trainings?
DB: I think first and foremost you continue to shed light on a crime that thrives in silence and secrecy. You give more tools to those that work with children to make them more aware of this crime. I have personally put on programs in local churches working not only with the staff but Sunday School workers. Although I was abused by a Catholic priest, I am now a Southern Baptist and in many ways my denomination has as much if not more problems in how they deal with RASA. All I can do is to try and change the hearts of those that work with our children and the faithful that sit in the pews.
JR: We have talked a bit about how survivors who wish to be effective need to work with survivor supporters, who may sometimes feel attacked by survivors. I have a theory that there may be a bit of a ‘generational’ difference between the first wave and second wave of survivor advocates? What do you think about that?
DB: I think in the early days when we first began to speak out we may have been shrill but that is not an apology. We were crying out for help and changes not really knowing what we were facing. We were just trying to draw attention to this crime and raise awareness to it. As time has gone, I have tried a different tact. I am trying to reach the faithful, those that sit in the pews every Sunday. Those are the ones that are going to bring about change in their churches.
JR: We have talked about the significance of survivors connecting with their spiritual self, whatever that means to them. How would you describe your spiritual journey since you’ve been involved with addressing clergy sexual abuse?
DB: I have seen way too many victims of RASA reject God all together. They want nothing to do with religion or church. That is why I say there is another dynamic to RASA and that being either soul rape or soul murder. For so many of us our faith left us when are abuse started. We have such a hard time dealing with trusting others — why add the problems of trusting another religious authority figure? So we just stay away from that. Fortunately I had a strong faith in place in addition to having a great supportive wife. Until recently, I had difficulty in even going into a Catholic church. That is so weird to be like that, but it is there.
As I transitioned by being a victim to survivor to becoming an advocate I began to see a ministry for me in working with victims of RASA. Previously, I had been part of the Christian Motorcycle Association and Bill Glass Prison Ministry in sharing the Gospel to some very hard core people. Little did I know what the Lord had in store for me. It has certainly strengthened me to hear the word “no” from so many religious leaders that refuse to take the proper steps to help victims, remove the offending minister and help their congregation understand what they are dealing with. They seem so quick to restore and forgive the fallen minister they forget the victim, their family and the church family.
JR: What has helped you in your personal recovery and what has not been helpful?
DB: First of all my faith and my wife. Without those two I would probably not be here. Next, being part of SNAP and the support group here in Memphis. It was so important for me to see I was not alone and there were hurting souls just like me. I have learned my abuse was not my fault. I have really been blessed to be in contact with some terrific people. Ann Brentwood, Susan Vance, Mike Coode of SNAP; Anna Whalley of the Shelby County Crime Victims Center, our support group leader and my local conscience; Verna Wyatt, Valerie Craig, Andrea Conte and others of You Have the Power; David Clohessy, our national leader of SNAP. David has to wear so many hats and juggle so many things in addition to dealing with each of us. Trust me I could NEVER do that. I have learned so much from David. Those are some real heroes that have helped make me what I am today.
I would be remiss if I did not say more about Ann. As you know her work is over and she recently went home to the Lord. In so many ways Ann was my second mother. Many times I listened to her as she lovingly chastised me. But she would always end the conversation, “Son I am so proud of you.” She toiled for so many years with little recognition and help in fighting this crime. There are time I feel guilty in getting the praise and awards I have gotten, when if it had not been for Ann making that first phone call, I would not be here doing this today. But she also taught we are part a much bigger thing and I am just one small part in the wheel. It takes all the spokes working together to make a wheel roll properly. Ann, sweetie we are on a roll!
JR: What do you see as the next steps for survivors as a whole in the year to come, with respect to impacting policies at state or national levels?
DB: I think it is extremely important that advocates be flexible and willing to work with other advocates and groups. SNAP certainly does not have all the answers. I try to involve others and be open to them. That is how I got involved with YHTP. The more tools we have available to shed light on this horrible crime the more successful we will be in defeating it.
JR: What have you learned about yourself in this journey?
DB: First not to be afraid to speak out. I often tell people, when they ask me if I am afraid when I challenge these religious leaders that they may harm me, that what that priest did to me in 1961 was far more harmful than anything these religious leaders could ever do to me.
Secondly, don’t take myself so seriously.
Lastly and most importantly, trust. That is a daily struggle. Being intimate with our spouses is a very real struggle. Just ask my wife. Being reflective as I have been forced to, to make that second or third look sometimes; and that reflection often needs work.
JR: I think that the deeper transformation in any religious organizations and in society at large will happen when the average member begins to believe what she sees and not see what she believes regarding clergy misconduct. What do you think?
DB: That is the ANSWER!! As I have said I can stand on a street corner and call the leaders of a church all the names I want. I can blast them all over the web. But what I have done to those that sit in those pews? Nothing except make them mad at me and SNAP. Did I really change anyone’s mind or opinion?
That is why the DVD project was so important to me. Originally I wanted to produce one locally due to a question my pastor asked me. He wanted information and guidance on how to deal with RASA. He saw how it impacted a very large mega church here in Memphis when the Senior Pastor continued to retain an associate pastor who admitted to him he molested his son 17 years ago. The Senior Pastor ripped his church apart and split his congregation. He used phrases as “this is uncharted waters; I have never encountered something like this before; I did not know what his job was; or the infamous “it is under the blood””.
In the forums and churches that I have participated in I hear time and time again a big thank you. Often when I do these, I hear from victims that have never spoken about their abuse before. Because of what we do, letting victims know there is help, they are not alone and we are there for them, they reach out.
That is where I have gotten so many requests to speak and share the DVD. When people learn that when I speak out I am not attacking their faith or religion, but their religious leaders, they begin to understand. They often want to know more. Slowly, oh so ever slowly we are making an impact. Often I want changes now, but God reminds me He is in charge and for me to just keep doing what I am doing. And until He comes and takes me home, I will continue to work for that change.
Jaime thanks so much for the opportunity to share this with you. I have watched you grow over the years and proud to call you friend. Keep up the work.