By City of Angels
Soon to be a major book, maybe a movie or at least part of one, here is Mike Coode’s story, something to read on a beach chair this weekend. Based on his experience going public as an adult victim of a pedophile priest in the early 1990s, Coode's manuscript should be ready for a publisher in mid-July, he told me today. I hope so, as Coode spins a good yarn in Tennessee straight talk style, as revealed in the speech copied here, which he delivered at a Nashville VOTF meeting in 2004. Enjoy this summer read, a taste of what Mike Coode’s upcoming book will be like.
I have a story to tell, and the question I ask myself is Why would I want to tell it? It is so painful this telling of my personal loss; the humiliation, the spiritual confusion, and the debasement. It’s difficult to publicly share my story with my sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and lifetime Friends. It’s difficult to see the pain in the eyes of those of you who share this terrible experience with me. It’s difficult to share my story with strangers.
But I must share it, because if by telling this story, one child is spared this horrible experience, if my story moves one person to see that the wrongs committed by the leaders of my church, our church, are corrected, then it’s worth the telling. If there are tears, it’s okay. When I see the pain in your eyes, it’s okay. That anguish you feel, that horrible pit in your stomach must forever be a reminder to you that this must stop. We must see that our children and our grandchildren are never caught up in this terrible tragedy.
When I was in grade school, I think the 7th grade, a priest at the cathedral, Father Riley, took me to Memphis on a weekend visit with his family. I remember we did a lot of drinking at his sister’s home. I knew nothing about drinking, but if a priest said it was okay, I guess it was. I remember getting very drunk, I remember getting very sick. And, I remember waking up in the middle of the night with Father Riley performing fellatio on me. I turned over and I went back to sleep.
This scared the hell out of me, and it was never spoken of again.
I don’t know what happened to Father Riley, I only know what happened to me. My 7th and 8th grade years were disastrous. My grades were failing. I was involved in some serious trouble, which resulted in me being taken out of Cathedral and sent to another school. When I speak of my abuse now, I very seldom tell of this experience, but looking back, I see what an effect it had on me, and my formative years.
The next few years were tough. Like the 7th and 8th grade, my first three years of high school were also disastrous. I guess you could say I was “troubled.” My grades were going badly, and I had very low self-esteem. I just couldn’t get anything right. As my classmate Catherine Edmondson put it many years later, I “marched to a different drum.”
At this point Father Roger came on the scene. (By the way, you will notice that I always refer to him as Father Roger, because he’s still a priest- a broken old man for sure, but still a priest.
Can you imagine? He’s still a priest!!!
Every time you hear the name Father Roger, remember that I am being revictimized, and the church is being ridiculed.)
My mother was so worried about me. I’m sure she saw Father Roger as a person who could work with me and make me the good Catholic boy she wanted.
Mother insisted I serve Mass, and Father Roger usually officiated. Mom and dad went to 6 o’clock Mass daily, and I still shudder at the thought of him giving them communion by those same hands.
The abuse all began by Father Roger having me come to his room in the cathedral rectory to hear my confession, but I soon found myself getting a Massage; first the shirt came off, then the pants, and I would find myself being fondled and sexually abused. This was very puzzling to me; I was brought up a good Catholic boy … sex was taboo. Boys agonized over the consequences, girls didn’t do it. Wet dreams were very confusing, and “impure thoughts” headed our list of sins for confession.
We were brought up to believe that priests were above us. They were special, chosen by God.
It was confusing to rationalize what Father Roger was doing.
And after he was finished, he would hear my confession!
And tell me he would go to confession to a priest across town who didn’t know him.
He would hear my confession! Is that incredible? Fr Roger would tell me I had seduced him. My jeans were too tight. It was my Fault. I must confess, and not seduce him again!
But he never failed to call me back again and again.
I never asked to see him, he always called, and I went.
This continued for about a year and a half. Then the opportunity came for me to go away to boarding school at Saint Bernard. This was the Benedictine abbey Father Roger was from. He would be in Nashville and I would be safely away in Alabama.
In the fall of 1957, I enrolled at Saint Bernard prep school. And I thrived there. I played varsity football and basketball, and I even made the honor roll. I met Friends I have to this day, one so close I call him “brother.”
During this time I considered the priesthood as so many boys did. But Father Roger had told me I wasn’t smart enough to go to college and be a priest, I would be better off as a religious brother. Despite his prediction, I had such a great experience at Saint Bernard I wanted to go to college there. I was unable to go my first year, but I received a scholarship to Peabody College in Nashville. In my immaturity and my relentless search for sexual identity, I must tell you this was quite a year. Having broken the yoke of a Catholic boarding school with all its rules, and being in a coed situation, was quite an eye-opener. I won’t get into details but I did have many, many sexual experiences.
My story would not be complete if I didn’t report that some of these involved situations with homosexuals, and my willingness to prostitute myself for alcohol, money and gratification. My self-respect and my religious training were all but gone, but the guilt was still there.
With this disastrous year behind, I was given the chance to return to Saint Bernard on a work scholarship. Father Roger was doing parish work, so he wouldn’t be there. I was happy to have this opportunity, and I went back with great expectations. They were short-lived, however, because Father Roger came back later that fall as registrar of the college. I was filled with apprehension and I had resolved to resist him this time.
But you know, when he called me to his cell, I went, and the routine began again.
This time, though, Father Roger wanted more. He wanted to have anal intercourse, and I resisted. A scuffle ensued, and I left his cell very afraid for my future.
And sure enough, as Father Roger threatened, shortly thereafter I lost my work scholarship and I left Saint Bernard heavily in debt. It took five years before I could pay this off and get my credits transferred and go back to college. But pay them off I did, and I graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in 1967. It was so important for me to graduate from college and prove Father Roger wrong. But to this very day I have dreams of having my degree taken away from me.
The next few years that followed were typical. I went to work, went into the military. In 1965, I married. My former wife, Donna, is a wonderful person. We are the parents of two beautiful boys. During the marriage, I struggled with my vows. I had a love-hate relationship with the church, and my career choices were unfulfilling. I was very frustrated with everything, and I decided to leave my marriage. Donna and I separated in 1982, and in January of 1986 we divorced.
I first started counseling in the early seventies, and I am not sure how much it helped. I remember telling one counselor I may have been abused, but he was rather flippant about it. I didn’t pursue it further at the time.
On September 22, 1995, what psychiatrists call a “triggering event” occurred.
I worked for the sheriff’s office in the warrants division. We would go to people’s homes and serve warrants on the people named. On that September morning, I was in Chicago, seeing my brand new grandson, born just a few hours earlier. At home, officers Jerry Newsom and Johnny Spears were serving a warrant, and the person they were serving drew a gun. He first shot Jerry … his heart exploded, and he was dead before he hit the ground. Johnny was critically wounded. He has since recovered.
The tragedy of this linked with the joy of a newborn baby was so very confusing. Jerry also had a little boy, 4 years old, and he was the joy of Jerry’s life. He was also the father of a little girl born a few months’ later. As a result the warrants officers were required to go to group counseling sessions. Most of us were resistant at first, but this was the most beneficial thing to come out of this sad, sad situation. It made me realize I had been victimized again, and I was about at the end of my rope.
I resolved to fight back and put an end to this.
I continued individual counseling, and thought of things I could do. I resolved to make my abuse known, and to face my abuser.
I understood that the statute of limitations had expired, and Father Roger could not be prosecuted. But I wanted some validation that this had occurred. So I decided to ask for an annulment of my marriage. This request for an annulment was based on grounds established by the church: “psychic natured incapacity to assume marital obligations.”
By asking for the annulment, I felt the church would investigate my claim, and validate the allegations.
But they didn’t!
Rather than going through the lengthy process that normally takes several years, I was granted an annulment very quickly, within a year. I knew I was given this annulment gratuitously, not in good faith. This has put me at odds with the bishop, and I have questioned the internal operations of the entire church. How could any organization, especially a church, make such a decision? How could they allow a priest to be charged with such a despicable thing without any redress? To this day it hasn’t been explained to me. Of course, I am not alone; this scenario has been repeated time after time after time. It seems to be a pattern of the church, so blatant, so morally reprehensible that some have compared the maneuvers of the church to the mafia.
I have repeatedly written the bishop, and copied my letters to bishops and cardinals, and yes I have even written the pope. None of them have seen fit to respond to me.
The bishop says I am angry, and yes, I am.
No one wants to be trivialized. We all deserve an answer. I have criticized the review board and its structure. I have been critical that it acts in secret. I have been critical of some of its members. The bishop promised to appoint a victim to the board. He didn’t keep his promise. I have reminded the bishop that he has been caught in untruths. I have criticized how the diocesan attorney conducted himself, and I have criticized the way this whole situation has been handled.
On October 16 1996 I went to Saint Bernard and faced my abuser.
He came into the abbot’s refectory and sat across the table from me. I read the letter. He sat quietly and listened, his face reddening from time to time. What he said after I finished was astounding.
First, he said he hardly knew my mother.
Then he said he might have done this but “as you know, I’m an alcoholic…”
I really didn’t want to hear any more. Fr Roger had been in our house many, many times. He even left his clerical clothes there when he went on vacation, and mother insisted I put on his Roman collar and let her take a picture of me. I wanted so badly to tell her what this meant to me! But I couldn’t. It would have broken her heart. I saw no need to put her through the hell I was going through, and, honestly, I was afraid she would blame me.
I thought I was to blame.
There was something wrong with me that caused priests to break their vows.
When I decided to make this public, and seek an annulment, I first went to Donna and told her my story. I told her how sorry I was she had to be part of all this, and asked her to forgive me. We cried and cried together that day. The next thing I had to do was tell my two sons. They were in their twenties, but I was concerned how they would accept an annulment. I will never forget, we were in Chicago, and I took them aside and told them. They were so kind and understanding. And they supported me.
It was not until later that I discussed it with family members.
In early 2002, I knew my story was going to appear in a local publication, and I felt I had to tell them. So I began to tell some of them, including my sister, Sister Judith, who is a mercy nun. Stories began pouring out of Boston early that year, and on June 29 2002 the cover story in The Scene was “mike cooed was sexually abused by a Catholic priest.” The story was co-written by an old friend, joe sweat, and Liz Murray Garrigan, both Catholic, and it was fair and accurate.
The repercussions were swift.
I received many, many phone calls, some from old friends. I received many calls from people I didn’t know. And I received letters from many people, some I had never met. I heard from victims, some who had never told another soul of their abuse. And I heard from Martha l. Shay, from Massachusetts, a Saint Bernard graduate who accused me of just wanting money. When I was out in public, so many people wanted to stop and talk with me. They were either very surprised or had their suspicions confirmed.
By the way, only one priest took the time to talk with me. That was my friend and classmate at Father Ryan, Father Owen Campion. About this same time, a former priest was convicted of sexual abuse in Nashville. He is now in prison. Other stories and allegations came out … allegations about Father Haas and Frank Richards were told me. It was a sobering time, a sad time.
The story of Ron Dickman and his accuser, a young man dying of AIDS was published in The Tennessean. The story once again recounted how the church was in denial and in certain cases, simply lying.
I have to tell this next story and the dilemmas I faced.
When the bishop’s report on sex abuse was released, I was interviewed by a local television station, and gave my feelings and opinions. I thought they were pretty innocuous. But I was told that some people took exception to them, and even suggested, as has the bishop, that I had co-opted the Voice Of The Faithful. I have never mentioned Voice Of The Faithful in any interview. And if any of these people took the time to go to Voice Of The Faithful meetings, they would see that many, many times I have been very critical and frustrated at how slowly Voice Of The Faithful moves.
Along with my interview that day, Bishop Kmiec was also interviewed. He was asked if this abuse ever occurred when he was in New Jersey. He said with a look of relief that while he was there, he didn’t have to deal with this, another bishop had that job. Well, he told me in a meeting on Friday, August 15, 1997, that he wasn’t familiar with this problem of sexual abuse by the clergy, it didn’t happen back then.
I write a poem of angels
And the duties they perform
I write a verse of roses
And the hearts they’re meant to warm
I ask the God of peace and love
To give comfort and hope to Friends
For me I ask to find and share a way to make amends
I’m filled with so much hurt yet to be secure
My past struggles with the present and takes away the cure
With gratitude for all things good and hope to change
Prayers for happiness and life, to make the sadness glad