May 12, 2010

Carmine Galasso: Clerical Abuse Revisited

With the Vatican sexual abuse scandal prominently in the news, we revisit Carmine Galasso’s fine images of clerical abuse documented in his book, Crosses. Besides discussing the back story behind particular portraits, we were also interested in an update on some of the people he profiled.

Michael Shaw: Given that you’ve spent so much time photographing and getting to know victims of clergy abuse, what is your reaction to the latest abuse scandal that’s extending up to the Vatican now?

Carmine Galasso: What really bothers me is the denial, and the counterattack.  Like everybody knows the truth — except the church itself, maybe.  If only the church could listen openly and see the pain in the hearts of these victims, and see how the pain continues. How the denial is an abuse in and of itself.

Victims continue to feel pain – it’s like a life sentence for them. I know because I continue to be in touch with people in my book.

MS: Do you think the Vatican is more in denial than the church in America?

CG: My book focuses on victims in the US, but really, you could do a similar book in so many countries. D, the Sunday magazine for La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper, did a nine page spread when Crosses came out. I thought I wouldn’t be able to step back in that country again. But I realized the Italians were so far ahead of us in terms of a healthy cynicism about the church. The first public wave of scandal that came out of Boston surprised me, but it didn’t surprise them. It was like, “well yes, we know this.” I’ve heard from several Italians voicing their understanding of this issue and their support.

MS: Because BagNews is about looking at and understanding specific pictures, can we talk about a few from your book? First, I was interested in the cover photo.

CG: That picture is Father Robert Hoatson. Around his neck is a photo taken of him at the time his abuse stopped. When some victims of abuse demonstrate, they sometimes wear photos of themselves from the time they were abused. I photographed him on a sand dune in New York down the block from where he was living. There was something very delicate about the sea grass, but the sky turned so powerful behind him as I shot. The back light accentuated the clouds. He doesn’t look victim-like, and is such a strong advocate for the victims of clergy abuse – those abused by priests, brothers, and nuns. He sees this as his calling now. He ultimately lost his collar, another abuse of sorts, at the hands of the church, but has helped countless victims. He was a tough interview. I spent countless hours talking with him, emailing him, to put some pieces together. My publisher, Gigi Giannuzzi, of Trolley Books, in London wanted this portrait on the cover. I have to say we bumped heads a bit over it. Guess who won?

MS: And the photo “behind bars?”

CG: That’s Charlie Perez. The church on the left in the background is the one he attended and where his abuse started. That’s him in a park across the street. He lives with his elderly parents who are Cuban immigrants. He’s been emotionally imprisoned by his abuse, and has twice tried to kill himself.  He’s been through intense and constant long-term therapy.  He told me in a phone conversation last week that he might be able to go live on his own soon.

MS: What was one of the more interesting experiences you had doing these portraits?

CG: Probably the photo of Jaime Romo.

I wanted to interview and photograph people from Southern California, a hotbed of abuse, and found out that he was going to be speaking in New Jersey at a meeting of Latino abuse victims. When Jaime spoke, he was vibrant, articulate. He didn’t seem fragile, like so many others I’d met. In fact, to me he was like a rock, and that’s how I thought I would later photograph him.

I finally met up with him in California. But, as we talked, it became clear that my first impression of him was not entirely correct. He was still angry and horribly hurt. We were at the beach near a very interesting rock formation.  I asked him to support himself with his arms while lying against the rocks, and because the rock wall turned out to be sort of fragile, it started to crumble beneath him, causing him to have to support himself with his arms, and mimicking a crucifixion –like posture. I had thought he was rock-like, strong, healthy. Healed? How naïve of me. And now the rock underneath him wasn’t so strong either, crumbling beneath him. The whole dynamic was a surprise to me, and I think makes a strong portrait of a man so troubled at this time in his life.

He’s doing great right now, by the way. He has PhD, he has his own blog and he’s doing really well.

MS: I have to tell you, I really love that photo of the statue.

CG: (Laughs.) That statue in Patterson, NJ is in front of the church where one of the people I profiled, Johnny Vega, was abused.  I had driven past that statue hundreds of time in my life and never really noticed it until I was doing this project. The boy’s expression looks so innocent … the priest’s expression doesn’t.  I’m not saying the model for the statue was an abuser, but because this project has made me pretty cynical, that’s just how I see it now.

Carmine Galasso is an award winning photojournalist at New Jersey’s The Record newspaper where he has won many awards for his portraiture and long-term projects. His work has taken him on assignment to Malaysia, Israel, Palestine, France, Mexico, Northern Ireland, India, and Kenya, covering topics ranging from money laundering; tracing where the steel from the World Trade Center Twin Towers went after the attacks; and the Intifada in the West Bank; to a homeless community living under the New Jersey boardwalk in Atlantic City; middle-aged surfers; and, the 9/11 attack of the World Trade Center. Crosses, Portraits of Clergy Abuse, was named one of the best PHOTO BOOKS OF 2007 by Photo District News.

Related website: Road to Recovery

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