Writing is Surviving:

Memoir as a Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse

Rockhurst University

Project Description

This project entailed developing a memoir about my growing up Catholic and being abused by my parish priest. As a professor of literature and writing, I found that working in memoir has been my best way of taking responsibility and, in a very literal sense, my best way of responding to the clerical sexual abuse crisis as it directly impacted and still impacts my life.

I am writing in the memoir genre because I see great value in the particularity of experience and in the reflection on that experience. While there are informative patterns across cases of clergy sexual abuse, it is also true that every experience, every trauma, is unique, and each survivor responds in their own way. When we read a survivor’s account, we watch the story unfold in an actual time and place, and we have an opportunity to understand it from the survivor’s perspective. But I think the most poignant contribution of memoir is in the reflection on the experience, how I as a writer try to understand it now and how I situate the experience within my life’s journey—this is the tension between the past and the present, the reflecting self in contact with an earlier experiencing self.    

The grant has allowed me to add new passages to the memoir, particularly memories that surround the abuse, memories of being around the priest in ordinary and sometimes communal settings as well as memories of personal and private interactions that were not abusive but in retrospect were obvious precursors to abuse. One such passage involves a photograph of my Eagle Scout ceremony in which my priest and my father, as our scoutmaster, stand a opposite ends of a group photograph, and the young scout who was me turning his neck to look at the priest who had said something to get the boy’s attention.

In the mental space provided by the grant, I began to think about the way priests have been understood as father figures and the way this positioning allowed my priest (and surely many others) to place themselves between parents and the child victim. For me, there emerged a sharp contrast between my father (as humble, selfless, loving) and my priest (as arrogant, egoistic, manipulative). Some of the new work sparked by Taking Responsibility develops a contrast to clerical priesthood by exploring the elements of a nurturing fatherhood embodied very powerfully in my own father. This has been a kind of epiphany for me.

Further Reading

Martin, Daniel J. “My Priest.” Pleiades: Literature in Context, vol. 42, no 2, Winter 2023. https://pleiadesmag.com/

“Five Questions with Dan Martin on Memoir and Survival.” https://takingresponsibility.ace.fordham.edu/five-questions-with-dan-martin-on-memoir-and-survival/

Principal Investigator

Daniel J. Martin lives in Kansas City, Missouri and writes memoir and creative nonfiction, often focused on nature and the environment. His work has appeared in various journals, including About Place, Ascent, North Dakota Quarterly, Kairos, and Animal: A Beast of a Journal.  Dan teaches literature and nonfiction writing at Rockhurst University, where he is a professor of English. Recently, his most meaningful labor has been teaching college composition to incarcerated women. These students have inspired him to be a better teacher, to be a better human, and to value the act of writing with greater hope and deeper respect.  He has been enthralled lately by the work of Colson Whitehead, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Kathy Park Hong.