San Jose Priest Denies Sex Abuse Allegations, So Accuser Speaks out to "Set Record Straight"
By Michael Bott, Stephen Stock, and Jeremy Carroll
NBC Bay Area
October 19, 2018
After Father Phil Sunseri told NBC Bay Area he ended up on the Diocese’s list of priests “credibly accused” of sexual abuse because of a misunderstanding, one of his accusers is now speaking out publicly for the first time
A man who says he was sexually abused by a San Jose priest said he’s speaking out for the first time after the priest dismissed those allegations on the news Thursday night as a “misunderstanding.”
That priest is Father Phil Sunseri, a Jesuit priest dismissed from the Society of Jesus in the late 1980’s after he was accused of sexual misconduct. He was one of 15 priests the San Jose Diocese said Thursday have been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse in the South Bay. One of Sunseri's accusers said he's now telling his story publicly for the first time to encourage other victims to report abuse.
Timothy, who asked that NBC Bay Area not reveal his last name, said he grew up in San Jose in the 1980’s as a staunch Catholic, attending St. Christopher’s and serving as an altar boy. That’s where, at 14-years-old, Timothy met Father Sunseri.
“Here I was at 14, I was assigned to serve a mass with Father Phil, and almost immediately, and I definitely felt this was odd, I could tell that he was taking an unusual interest in me,” Timothy said
It was the summer of 1986 and Timothy said Sunseri invited him to sleep over at his house after seeing a movie together. Timothy still remembers the movie – Ruthless People – and recalls thinking it was strange that a priest would take him to an R-rated movie. But when they got to Sunseri’s mother’s house, where the priest was living, and still lives to this day, Timothy says Sunseri asked him for a massage.
“In the news last evening [Sunseri] was talking about how it was just a back massage,” Timothy said. “There was no back massaging at all involved in it. The only way I know how to describe it is it was this weird other sort of massage that was much more intimate.”
Timothy says he and the priest simultaneously massaged each other, naked except for their underwear.
“I woke up that morning to him – he was rubbing my arm just kind of staring at me,” Timothy said. “That was the most vivid, unsettling memory of it all.”
Timothy says he knew it was strange and wrong, and avoided the priest after that. He says he even told his mom he didn’t want to see Father Phil anymore. Timothy doesn’t recall Father Sunseri’s exact age at the time, but believes he was in his late 30’s.
Weeks later, the priest sent Timothy a letter asking if he wanted to go to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk together.
NBC Bay Area caught up with Father Sunseri at his San Jose home yesterday, the same home where Timothy says the abuse occurred. But Sunseri called the accusations against him a misunderstanding and said he was surprised he was included on the Diocese’s list of priests credibly accused of sexual misconduct. He told another news outlet that he was on the list because of back massages he gave to two high school students. Sunseri said he retired from the priesthood to take care of his ailing mother, and said he didn’t know he’d been dismissed as a priest.
That’s when Timothy decided he needed to share his story – to set the record straight and encourage other abuse survivors to come forward.
“I fear when he gets on the news and talks about this as if it was a non-sexual experience, those men who have not come forward are going to be discouraged from coming forward because their experience has been diminished, has been mischaracterized by him.”
And although the Diocese report only lists two accusers for Father Sunseri, Timothy says he’s learned of at least three more victims.
“He also said in his report it happened with a couple of boys and that is something I know to be untrue,” he said. “There are only two boys who have come forward. I know personally there are others who have not come forward, yet.”
Sunseri was dismissed as a priest after the first allegation against him in 1986, according to a spokesperson for the Jesuits. Timothy confronted Father Sunseri in 1998 at the priest’s home, but only decided to report the incident to the church last year after seeing how women who reported being sexually abused at San Jose’s Presentation High School were being treated by the community.
“The community will never heal if survivors are not given their opportunity to come forward without fear that the community, the Catholic community, will seek some sort of retribution.”
Timothy says the Diocese referred him to the Jesuits because of Father Sunseri’s affiliation with the order. He says the reporting process has helped him heal.
“They’re helping me work through my experience in a very positive way, and so I encourage everyone who has gone through [abuse] to go through the process of reporting.”