By Sarah E. Murphy
It’s a new year and a new decade, but I’m still reflecting on 2019.
Over the past twelve months, my life has changed and my world has expanded, in countless ways. After working secretly with Dan Sherwood, a clergy sex abuse survivor from my hometown, who has since become a trusted friend, he decided last February it was time to tell his truth, and asked me to share his story.
Not long after emailing my copy and photos to the local newspaper, where I had been working as a human interest reporter for twelve years, I found myself on a plane to Rome, headed to meet Dan, who was embarking on his own profound journey.
Within 48 hours, Dan was sharing his story at an international press conference, detailing the decade of sexual abuse he suffered as an altar boy at St. Anthony’s Church in East Falmouth, Massachusetts, and the two of us were peacefully protesting in the streets of Rome, as military police silently walked alongside us wielding rifles.
The trip felt like the next logical progression in a personal and professional path I started to embark upon in 2002, when my parents and I began watching the clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church unfold each day in the pages of The Boston Globe, as reported by the tenacious Spotlight team.
I’ll never forget seeing those headlines splashed across stacks of frozen newspapers piled up next to the Clam Shack on Falmouth Harbor, waiting to be transported aboard the Quickwater Ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. I was usually out taking landscape photos, and I’d jump in my car and head to my childhood home, two minutes away in Falmouth Heights, on the other side of the harbor. My parents, who never began a day without the Globe, were waiting with the tea kettle on, ready to discuss the latest developments. Although self-described “typical Irish-Catholics,” who both attended parochial school, as they grew older, they began to question what they viewed as the hypocrisy of the Church, and its teachings, as evidenced by the sermons we heard at our local parish. Now 84, my mother has been sounding the alarm on the danger of Patriarchy long before it became a hashtag. So when Voice of the Faithful met for the first time in a church basement in 2002, she was in attendance; my father dropped her off on his way to teach at Boston College one Saturday morning.
Fast-forward 17 years. When I started to feel the Universe was urging me to follow the story to Rome, my mother not only agreed, she insisted. “This is something you must do,” she told me. If my father were still with us, there’s no doubt he would have said the same. Before I left for my trip, my mom presented me with the keychain she bought when visiting Vatican City as a young woman in 1959. My dad was also touring Europe that summer, but they had temporarily broken up and and were unsuccessfully attempting to avoid each other throughout their travels. But all roads lead to Newton…
Once I made the decision, everything seemed effortless – from finding an affordable flight to Rome, just days before departure, to the indescribable feeling of homecoming that I felt upon arrival, to the affable strangers who were kind enough to offer directions when I needed them, usually punctuated by “Follow me,” and a wave of the hand. A metaphorical reminder that when you’re feeling lost, stop and ask for help.
Along with the keychain, I brought a green rubber bracelet, similar to the one my dad wore in his final year, as his wrist, covered in spots from the early leukemia we didn’t know was ravaging his body, continued to wither. It also symbolizes the courageous cancer battle conquered by our dear family friend, Wayne, with a simple, one-word reminder in white letters: PERSISTENCE.
I returned to Italy seven months later and, on September 27, the fourth anniversary of my father’s death, I wandered around the Eternal City, imagining him joking with his travel partner about how they had to “get the hell out of there” before they ran into Margaret Ann Matthews. Like a wholesome version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” culminating in marriage rather than murder.
All day long, and all throughout my trip, from Rome to Cinque Terre to Lucca to Assisi, I could feel my dad’s presence. Although I ache to share my adventures of the past year with him, I know he is watching, and his silent voice has been one of my loudest cheerleaders.
Like travel, my investigation has revealed what I already knew: the world is smaller than it is vast, and we are all more alike than we are different. My work on Cape Cod has led me to Benjamin Kitobo, who suffered abuse as a young boy in the Congo, and was recently featured in a CNN documentary. Benja’s mission is to highlight the issue in his native Africa, demanding zero tolerance and accountability for abuse and cover-ups, a message he brought to the Pope’s summit last February as the only African victim protesting in Vatican City. Somehow our paths never crossed in Rome, but we recently connected on social media, and he has requested my help in bringing this cause to the forefront of this global safety crisis.
To say that I’m honored is an understatement, and I’m excited to see where this journey will take me in 2020.