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Learning to overcome fear

Once I decided to talk, I got rid of the fear

The Homewood Star
December 28, 2016

By Sydney Cromwell

Jason Lee doesn’t enjoy recalling or talking about some of his childhood years in Homewood. In fact, he said a part of him still “wants to turn around and run away” when he discusses the sexual abuse he experienced at the hands of his assistant Boy Scoutmaster.

But Lee continues to talk about his experience, so no other victim of childhood molestation feels like they’re alone.

Lee moved to Homewood in 1986 with his mother, Billie Gray, and brother. Because she was busy trying to support her family, Gray looked for ways to build a support network for her sons. That included Boy Scout Troop 97 at Trinity United Methodist Church.

“That was our hub and kind of our home away from home,” Lee said.

The troop’s assistant scoutmaster was Don Corley, an established member of the community who had been part of the troop for a long time. What no one knew then, however, was Corley used his position to take advantage of some of the boys in his troop, including Lee.

At the time, Lee never said anything to his mother or anyone else. There were “layers and layers of reasons” he kept quiet. His mother had recently been divorced and was struggling with supporting the family, so he didn’t want to add to her burdens. Lee said discussing sexuality as a teenager would have been difficult anyway, let alone about something he knew was wrong.

“Part of the molestation and part of that relationship is an element of grooming involved and training the child not to tell anyone else,” Lee said.

Though he said he is proud of his time in the troop, including becoming an Eagle Scout, those memories are all tainted by Corley’s presence. He left the state in 1992 to go to college, fully intending to close the door on everything from those years.

“I left. I didn’t want to go back, I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to lock it up in a little box and never look at it again,” Lee said.

Then he got a call from the Homewood Police. Corley had attempted to molest another boy who had told his parents, and an investigation was underway. Lee decided to share his story.

From there, Gray said the investigation seemed to grow exponentially as more children willing to talk about their abuse came forward.

“We believe the number right now is 43 victims of Don Corley over a 30-year span,” Lee said.

Knowing her own son was a victim, however, still leaves feelings of guilt and personal grief for Gray. “I was pretty devastated to think that I had been totally unaware that this had been going on to my child,” Gray said.

Courtesy of Jason Lee

Jason Lee and Billie Gray worked together to bring a display of the Bristlecone Project to Homewood.

She wasn’t the only one. Gray said one of the other scoutmasters for Troop 97, who has since passed away, kept saying, “I can’t believe that man fooled me,” for years after the news came out.

Many of Corley’s victims wanted to keep their privacy, but Lee and two others pressed charges. Lee had been reluctant to talk about that part of his life for years, but once he chose to talk to the police, he wanted to see it through.

“Once I decided to talk, I got rid of the fear,” Lee said. “I made a commitment to put Don Corley in jail.”

Corley pleaded guilty prior to trial and went to jail in November 1995. Gray recalled that “half of Homewood” was at the courthouse for the day of his sentencing. At that point, Lee thought his participation was done.

A few years later, when Corley became eligible for parole, his lawyer contacted Lee to ask him not to oppose Corley’s parole petition. But Lee was convinced that his molester should serve his full 30-year term. That led to the creation of 30 is 30, Lee’s campaign to spread awareness about child molestation and Corley’s story in particular.

30 is 30 serves multiple purposes. Lee uses his website to encourage people across the world to write letters to the Alabama parole board in opposition every time Corley has a parole hearing. The next parole hearing is in April, and Lee said he is hoping to send a flood of letters to the parole board.

He also keeps in touch with fellow victims and a few of Corley’s family members, who have wounds of their own after Corley’s actions came to light. Lee said he was surprised, though, by the number of people who reached out to him through 30 is 30 asking for help healing from their own experiences or because they believe their child might have been molested. In many cases, they have no idea what steps to take.

“I’ve had so many people reach out to try to ask for help and guidance. It made me realize there’s really no leadership available and accessible on this topic,” Lee said.

Lee was contacted by the Bristlecone Project, a part of the 1 in 6 campaign that profiles male victims of sexual abuse and assault, to share his own story. He gave not only his story, but also the idea to set up a display of some of the profiles in Homewood.

Since Lee now lives in Atlanta, Gray took the initiative to get the City Council’s approval. They want the Bristlecone Project, which will be on display from Jan. 9 to Feb. 6 at Rosewood Hall, to show other sexual abuse victims that the future can be brighter than the past.

“It’s to show victims of molestation not as victims, but as current successes,” Lee said. “People aren’t alone. You’re not doing this yourself. You’re not trapped; you’re not damaged. You can come out of this.”

David Lisak, who is one of the Bristlecone Project organizers, said there are about 78 men who have participated so far. The display will include posters of a few of these men and their pictures and stories, as a way to break the stigma of talking about childhood sexual abuse.

“They’re pretty gripping,” Lisak said. “It’s a very personal kind of moment between a viewer and the man who’s being depicted on the poster.”

One of the profiles on display will be Lee’s story, and he will be making the trip back to Homewood when the display arrives. Lee said the Bristlecone Project display is a chance for Homewood to face an ugly part of its past and show tangible support for molestation victims even if they never come forward.

“It’s a ripple effect. It starts with Corley, but then it broadens out. I’m so proud of Jason and what he has done,” Gray said.

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