Statement by MaryJo Briggs, Victim-survivor of clergy abuse and SNAP advocate

Good Afternoon.  My name is MaryJo Briggs.  I am a Victim-survivor of clergy abuse in the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania by Fr. Edward Jungquist, I am also a retired senior sexual abuse investigator in the Chautauqua County Child Protective Services Unit and SNAP advocate in Columbia, South Carolina. 

For almost 50 years I thought the repeated sexual abuse and rape I suffered was an isolated incident.  I, like Stephanie, was silenced by threats, blame and shame.  “No one will ever believe you.”  “You will be taken away from your family and never be able to see them again if you tell.” and “Keep your mouth shut.” were messages I received regularly from my abuser. 

My work with Child Protective Services opened my eyes to what is needed for victims to come forward so the sexual abuse can stop and healing can begin.  Blaming, shaming and taking sides was not helpful to anyone during my time as senior sex abuse investigator. 

I am appearing publicly for the first time today to support Stephanie and all victims who are suffering and in pain.  Many victims remain unable to put words to what they went through. This is something I understand completely. 

Supporting society’s weakest and most vulnerable people has been my life’s work.  You see, abused children lose the right to choose.  Many people look the other way because of disgust, denial or paralyzing fear.  A victim does the same to survive.  This is exactly what I did too.  But eventually the denial, repression of memories and fear shut down my desire to live.  The desolate box that I created to keep me safe from my abuser and the society he said would never believe me was suffocating.  

Eventually I mustered the courage to disclose the abuse I went through including a horrifying rape.  Society and the counselors I saw seemed ill equipped to help me.  The result was continued shame, fear, anxiety, depression and other serious health problems.  

Thankfully, on July 18, 2018 I returned to Buffalo, New York to visit family.  I picked up a newspaper that contained a story about clergy sex abuse.  It is difficult to return home knowing memories of my abuse will surface.  PTSD, as you may know, is life debilitating.  

Seeing this newspaper story was life changing.  This was the first time I read about another person being abused by a priest.  Immediately I reached out to the author.  That bond set me on a path to real healing.  The shame and blame I struggled with for decades began to lessen.  

Since that day in July 2018 much has happened.  Hundreds of victims have come forward. Some priests have been convicted and sent to jail.  And the Pope has recognized a greater need for further change.  Much more work needs to be done before we can say progress has been made. 

Watching the cover-up in the Buffalo Diocese also impacted me.  Specifically, watching and reading about priests who actively supported victim disclosures has helped to restore my hope in humanity and the church. 

I share this because I want Fr. Jay Scott Newman to realize a few things: 

1-  Victim-survivors need to be heard.  Shame and blame for speaking the truth only serves to further harm the suffering victim.  Hearing it from a priest is even more devastating. 

2-  In his August 15, 2019 homily Fr. Newman stated “great progress has been made in the purification of the priesthood in dioceses all over the world.”  Yet in a homily given on December 16, 2019 (four months later) Fr. Newman said quite the opposite and I quote “The worldwide college of bishops is still clearly clueless about how to reform and purify the church…” end quote. 

Fr. Newman’s words are confusing.  Which is it?  I do not wish for this to be viewed as an attack on Fr. Newman but rather, a sincere question because I realize it is easy to become confused when dealing with such serious and delicate matters of sexual abuse. 

I cannot stop there without adding that while purification of the church is a nice ideal.  It is not the real issue.  At least not at this time.  Helping victims come forward and be heard without fear of being shamed and blamed is critical.  

Fr. Newman’s homilies hurt my heart on a very deep level.  I will be okay regardless of what anyone says about me and the victimization I suffered.  The voiceless fearful victims hiding in the darkness are my concern.  I am a gentle woman and also a fierce protector of victims who need to be heard. For I know that only then can real healing begin.  

Victim shaming in a homily does not uphold Pope Francis’ apostolic letter of guidance called “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” which, for those of you who don’t know, means “You are the light of the world.” 

Article 5 of this document states “ecclesiastical authorities shall commit themselves to ensuring that those who state that they have been harmed are to be treated with dignity and respect and are to be welcomed, listened to and supported.” 

Fr. Newman’s words go against the Pope’s letter of guidance.  Furthermore, shaming and blaming one victim impacts all victims and their families.  

We need to be bridge builders.  Rather than use words and metaphors that bulldoze over a victim’s disclosure and create greater shame and fear in victims who are still not strong enough to speak about their own abuse by clergy, I invite Fr. Newman to publicly apologize to bishop Guglielmone’s alleged victim and to all other victims and families for the pain he has inflicted whether intentionally or unintentionally. 

In closing I invite Fr. Newman to become a bridge builder and help victims and their families beginning today.  He can do that here.  The Bible tells us we are to care for one another.  Let’s start caring for one another and working together now.  

To victims, survivors and their families who need more support, understanding, hope and healing.  As the SNAP advocate for Columbia South Carolina and a victim-survivor of repeated clergy sexual abuse, I am here to listen to you, sit with you, cry with you and hold space so you can do whatever is necessary to heal and move forward with your life.  

Thank you for your time.