In the midst of a betrayal of what could be considered one of the most sacred trusts, Mark Crawford saw a banner in church that read, “Things now hidden in darkness will be revealed in great light.”
At the time, he had no idea how true that would ring in his life. But years later, the survivor of sexual abuse is being recognized for his tireless work in bringing such dark things to the light.
As part of Crime Victims’ Rights Week, New Jersey Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman recently presented Crawford with the inaugural Ronald W. Reagan Compassion Award for his work helping victims of sexual abuse since 1987.
“I am truly humbled and honored,” said Crawford, state director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “But the real heroes are the … countless other brave victims who are willing to speak up.”
Crawford led efforts to eliminate civil immunity for charitable organizations in 2006, effectively preventing such groups from getting away with enabling sexual molestation of minors.
Invited to the White House in 2010, Crawford’s discussion with lawmakers helped change the definition of rape to include offenses against boys and men.
That same year, he was invited to appear on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for a twopart series on sexual abuse.
He is now working with state Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) — whom Crawford credits as a longtime supporter — to eliminate the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse victims.
“Why should there be a statute of limitations,” Crawford asked. “We’re talking about the ruination of a child’s life.”
Pointing out that it can take years for a victim to get the courage to speak up, Crawford said the statute of limitations further victimizes those affected.
“The only way to expose these truths is to allow them their day in court,” he said. “They don’t want money; they want to be validated. They want to be told, ‘You were wronged.’ ”
Crawford may never get that opportunity, as his abuse occurred long ago. But he wants to ensure that such torment does not go unpunished for others.
Growing up in Bayonne in a family of devout Catholics, Crawford attended church daily. When he was 9 or 10 years old, a parish priest took a particular liking to him, starting what’s known as the grooming process, he said.
“He really became ingratiated into my family,” he said, adding that the priest began taking him on outings and spending a lot of time with him.
Crawford said the first instance of abuse occurred when the priest was taking Crawford to Colorado on a sleeper train. He recalled awakening to being fondled. Crawford said he was frozen with fear, but that the priest told him such behavior was “normal for people who love each other.”
The abuse went on daily for weeks, and continued regularly for years, he said.
“I didn’t feel right, and as I tried to express it to him, he became angry and violent,” Crawford said, adding that beatings also became a regular occurrence. “It was just a horrific, horrific nightmare for many years.”
When Crawford found the courage to voice his anger, the priest would keep him isolated for hours until the young boy would break down and apologize to him.
The priest also forced Crawford to confess to him about the acts of sexual abuse, as if they were his sins, he said.
Amidst the horror, Crawford’s father was dying of cancer, and his mother was naive about the situation, he said.
“I was terrified of her finding out,” he said. “I felt like a prisoner of war.”
One night, the priest asked Crawford how he saw him. Crawford told him that at times he felt like his wife.
“He hit me so hard, he knocked me right through a row of hedges,” Crawford recalled.
The priest even accompanied the family to visit relatives in Ohio, and when Crawford went off to spend the day with cousins, there was hell to pay.
“He flew into a fit of rage,” Crawford said. “I really thought I would die that day.”
Crawford’s teen years brought depression and isolation. A bright spot finally came when he went off to college, seeking to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a religious order priest, which entails living a monastic lifestyle. But he could not escape his abuser. The priest called and got permission to visit Crawford and take him out. The priest, who was despondent, was seeking to join the order of priests to which Crawford was going to belong.
During Crawford’s time away, the priest sent him volumes of letters, professing his twisted version of love, Crawford said, adding that he still has the letters.
Trying to cope while juggling college coursework was becoming too much to bear. Crawford even considered suicide.
He dropped out of college and left the seminary in 1983. His dad died that same year.
Meanwhile, the priest had moved in on a younger relative of Crawford’s, he said.
After a college classmate convinced him to speak out, Crawford went to church officials for help.
“They basically did nothing,” he said. “They left him there for several years. I tried to avoid him, but he still tried to pursue me.”
The priest was eventually promoted to a much higher position in the church hierarchy, Crawford said.
“I was stunned,” he said. “It constantly goes through your mind, ‘They absolutely must think this is my fault, or they must not believe me.’ ”
Eventually, Crawford’s relative had also had enough, and began speaking out.
By then, Crawford was married with a child, and had not told his wife or anyone about the abuse. He began experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
He realized it was time to face his fear and speak out. What sealed the deal was seeing a church publication photo of the molester surrounded by children, despite clergy officials’ assurances that he would be kept away from minors, he said.
“To this day, he’s a free man,”
Crawford said. “He was extremely controlling, manipulative and absolutely evil.”
Crawford said it is appalling that the church has done so much to protect abusers of children.
“I absolutely do not believe that’s what Jesus Christ would do
— no how, no way,” he said.
According to Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, the priest in question left the priesthood years ago, and is not permitted to be in the ministry. Goodness declined to comment further on the matter.
Today, Crawford rarely attends church.
“Instead of giving me peace, it robs me of peace,” he said.
And instead of taking the priestly vows, he has made a vow to continue speaking out on behalf of victims.
“I’m a survivor. I truly understand the pain, the anguish and the torment,” he said. “I don’t want others to have to live for years in silence and anguish and shame that doesn’t belong to them. And that’s why I speak up.”
For more information on SNAP, visit www.snapnetwork.org.