What Pedo-Priest Treatment Centers, Epstein, and Cold Case Serial Killers Have in Common

The author at thirteen. Photo by Linda Wasko
At forty-two with her twelve year old daughter. Photo by Willow Cornelius

These two images tell very different stories. In the top, I am thirteen years old and living in the popular tourist destination of Santa Fe, New Mexico during the 1990’s. Beneath, I am in my early forties and a mother to a daughter nearing thirteen herself. By the time I’d reached my early teens, I’d already been molested by a neighbor at seven, my step-father at nine, date-raped by a friend of my brother’s, and would soon be raped by a man who later turned out to be a serial rapist and suspected serial killer. I look at my daughter and see a child, which is not how I saw myself at her age, and wonder if it is inevitable that she, too, will experience sexual assault. As an educator for over twenty years, serving teenagers from majority low-income and high-trauma populations, I wonder the same about the students I serve.

Jeffrey Epstein purchased the land for the now-infamous Zorro Ranch from New Mexico’s then-governor Bruce King in 1993. A July 2019 New York Times article reports that Mr. Epstein’s ambitions for Zorro Ranch included a desire “to use his New Mexico ranch as a base where women would be inseminated with his sperm and would give birth to his babies.” In August of 2019, CBS News reported that one of the multiple Jane Does involved in Epstein’s fall from power described an hours-long rape that included Epstein forcing her to lay on the floor while she looked up to “multiple framed pictures on a dresser, including pictures of Epstein posing with famous and ‘powerful people.’” During the abuse, Epstein would remark on how beneficial the experience was for her.

My reaction to Epstein’s Jane Doe held no shock. The tragedy of this acceptance by those who have endured sexual, shame-based torture is monumental, as is the expectation that it is up to us to eliminate the rape culture that caused our victimization in the first place. However, the more I explore this topic, the more I realize it is, indeed, up to us. When ready, we must tell our stories, and those who listen must confront the discomfort these stories bring them. Sexual and traumatic abuse thrives in shadows, in dark places we are all too ashamed to examine. Our children, our children’s children, will continue to endure such abuse until we flood it in the light of collective narrative strength.

In the nineties and into today, Santa Fe is rife with New Age spirituality. Growing up, I understood bumper-sticker jokes like “My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma” before graduating middle school. This purportedly woman-empowering “Goddess Culture” in which my friends and I were raised was often exploited by men, like Epstein, who talked of empowerment as a tool to groom the children on whom they preyed. By fifteen, I’d been “involved” with men in their twenties and thirties, de rigueur for a culture that embraced female “power” without clear definitions for the terms “woman” or “child.” I was not yet a woman and didn’t realize this amidst the culture of female “empowerment.” Men in their twenties and thirties sexually abused teens ranging in age from eleven to sixteen while, much like Epstein telling Jane Doe how beneficial his raping her would be, telling us what formidable women we were.

I still don’t know how many of my early sexual encounters were rape, and recognize this is, in part, due to the trauma of those encounters. More importantly, cultural acceptance collectively gaslit all of us, leading us to believe the abuse brought us maturity and power. Slightly below that surface, an even more sinister and violent aspect of that predatory culture lurked. As the Santa Fe Reporter describes in “Colder than Cold,” an estimated eighty to one hundred cold case homicides — all of them women, many involving rape — occurred in that relatively small community during those years. One of the cases described in the report is that of twenty-four-year-old Tracy Barker, who was raped and strangled in 1989. DNA directly tied her case to serial rapist and convicted murderer Chris McClendon, currently serving two life sentences in Lea County Correctional Facility. When I was around the age of fourteen, McClendon drove me into the mountains where strangled and bound bodies would later be found and brutally assaulted and raped me. My certainty I was to blame for the entire encounter, coupled with the nonchalant and rampant adult/minor sex surrounding us, made it impossible to understand or use the term “rape,” even in a situation as brutal as that. I told no one.

Decades later, a friend alerted me to the cold cases McClendon was being investigated for. McClendon, though nearing forty at the time, was a fringe part of our “friend group” of teens and twenty-somethings. We had no idea he had already raped women, likely murdered several, treating them to the precise treatment he’d given me — driving recklessly in circles to disorient me as my head knocked against the door of his pickup, forcing me down, ignoring my pleas. As an adult engaged in the first loving, healthy relationship of my life, it was my friend sharing this story, and researching McClendon myself, that allowed me to finally use the word “rape.” I was forty-one at the time. No one should have to wait this long to understand consent, and I will not allow this to happen to my daughter.

Fifty miles from Zorro Ranch lies the “Servants of the Paraclete,” a now defunct treatment center for pedophile Catholic priests. According to a May 2019 article by the Associated Press, “The Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs took money from other dioceses to treat known pedophiles, but did not prevent them from working with children after — and at times, during — treatment.” Though I did not meet my own father until seventeen, he and I spent hours sharing stories of our childhoods, including his own history of abuse as a child at the hands of a priest in his boys’ school in England during the forties. Again, I wasn’t shocked as I listened to him recount graphic, precise details with the same airy, cold detachment I hear in my own voice when telling of my experiences. “It happens to all of us,” a Nigerian friend once commented when we were talking about our childhood sexual traumas. This happens across cultural or even gendered lines. We detach ourselves from our bodies because we have to.

Epstein’s Zorro Ranch allowed billionaires to shield a sex-trafficking ring, the “Goddess Culture” of Santa Fe harbored a killer who raped me as a child, and the Servants of the Paraclete “treated” priests in active diocese without alerting the community a pedophile had been placed in their midst. They have much in common. They are the grounds on which cultures allow abuse to be cultivated and fostered to fertility. This ground is beneath our feet all the time, and we all bear a responsibility to open our eyes and ears to see and hear about them.

A few months ago, I completed a memoir sharing my stories of sexual abuse, including experiences I still don’t know whether I consented to. When people ask what my memoir is about, initial curiosity is often replaced with reddened ears, more than one uncomfortable cough, and change of topic when I describe the content. I understand this. No one wants to look at these places where so many of us hold our own shame and trauma, and stories like this can re-traumatize. But when ready, we must share, and when others share, we must move past our own discomfort and listen. If not, the shadows will continue to fertilize poison ground.

Recently, the “quote of the day,” a discussion prompt in my daughter’s online class, was about the social justice concept that being silent when bad things happen means consenting to them. Hearing the words without fully understanding the context relating to oppression and mistreatment of other people, she came to me in tears. I have been teaching her about assault and the boundaries of her body since she was much younger, and so her teacher’s question, and specifically the word “consent,” deeply triggered her. “If someone’s afraid to say something, that doesn’t mean they consent, right?” she asked, already knowing my answer.

The working title of my memoir, Every Time I Didn’t Say No, flashed through my mind as I nodded, on the brink of tears myself. “Absolutely,” I said. “When it comes to sexual assault or abuse, consent means agreement, and even saying ‘yes,’ doesn’t always mean the person agrees.”

Teaching our children is a step, but we must do more. We have to flood light in all the dark places, everywhere. That light can only come from those of us who have experienced sexual trauma coming forward and, when ready, sharing those experiences to an extent and in such a way that other people will learn to react with understanding rather than second — hand embarrassment and discomfort. Those who listen, too, must learn to listen beyond their own experience and reactions.

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