Faith Prevails in Play about Abuse of Power


Faith Prevails in Play about Abuse of Power

Gwen O’Brien
Director of Media Relations
Saint Mary's College
Notre Dame, Ind.
(574) 284-4579

October 23, 2009 (Notre Dame, Ind.)—The original play “Confessions of the Chaff” by Susan Brabant Baxter will premiere at Saint Mary's College on Nov. 12-15. Baxter, a lecturer in Communication Studies and Theatre and a self-described traditional Catholic, wrote the play. The story line takes on the controversial subject of abuse by a priest, the resulting betrayal of trust, and the impact on the lives of those in the parish community. It’s a subject Baxter does not take lightly.

“We tell a story that supports the Church and the celibate priesthood, while demonstrating how someone could use the Church and a position of authority to abuse children. My hope is the audience will leave with a sense that one should not automatically associate the Church with those who misuse it,” Baxter said.

So what is the meaning behind the plays title? Baxter uses the term “chaff,” the husks of grain discarded during threshing, in reference to the laity. Baxter explains, “Members of laity, especially before Vatican II, so idealized priests and religious that they came to think of themselves as worthless and disposable (chaff) and of clergy as valuable (wheat). Good leaders were always uncomfortable with this type of idol worship, and sadly, it gave abusers the foot in the door.” The word “confession” refers to the sacrament of reconciliation that is an integral part of the plot. The play, set in Ireland in 1942, is about a Catholic community that comes to the shocking realization that their priest has been violating girls and young women in the congregation.

Baxter was compelled to write the play in 1995 after hearing what she called a disturbing homily at Sunday Mass. “It was just after a news story broke that a priest in Durango, Colorado, had given AIDS to a 14-year-old boy,” she explains. “Most local Catholics were horrified, but pleased that our bishop acted appropriately: the priest was removed from ministry and surrendered to civil authorities immediately. Yet our own parish priest, during his homily, condemned the actions of his bishop, saying that the Durango priest had merely ‘given in to the charms’ of the child; that the bishop should ‘simply forgive,’ since we are people of forgiveness." The bishop removed this priest, too, from his ministry. Baxter, meanwhile, was so infuriated with the homily that “I plopped myself down at my desk and cranked out the first draft of this play.”

The play was a finalist in the Panowski National Play Contest at Northern Michigan University in 1996, yet it was never produced. Baxter tucked away the script as news of Catholic priest abuse surfaced in the early 2000s. She felt the media coverage had become sensational and didn’t want to be associated with it. Baxter’s daughter Miranda, who graduated from Saint Mary's College in May, told theatre professor Mark Abram-Copenhaver, about the script. After reading it, he urged Baxter to let him direct it as the fall 2009 student production.

Baxter had reservations about how it might be received and held several readings of the script with audiences that included conservative Catholics. Time and time again, the reaction was positive, she says. First-year student Mary Kate Lamp emailed her, “I had to let you know that I thought your play was amazing…I would consider myself a very committed Catholic, and at no point in the play was I uncomfortable with being Catholic…I also think (the play) exemplifies that the Church is not defined solely by leaders, but also by its patrons and its teachings.”

Abram-Copenhaver will direct a cast that includes theatre professor Katie Sullivan and several Saint Mary's College students. It will be performed in Little Theatre, Moreau Center for the Arts on November 12-15, 2009.  Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Admission: Adult-$10, Senior Citizen-$8, SMC/ND/HCC Faculty/Staff-$7, SMC/ND/HCC Student-$5. To purchase tickets, click here.

About Saint Mary’s College: Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Ind., is a four-year, Catholic, women’s institution offering five bachelor’s degrees and more than 30 major areas of study. Saint Mary’s College has six nationally accredited academic programs: social work, art, music, teacher education, chemistry and nursing. Saint Mary's College ranks among the nation's top 100 liberal arts colleges in U.S. News & World Report's 2010 annual survey. Founded in 1844, Saint Mary’s is a pioneer in the education of women, and is sponsored by the Sisters of the Holy Cross.