Clergy Abuse Survivors Finding Their Voices, and Each Other
Jim VanSickle recalls the “long walk” into the room where members the 40th statewide grand jury waited to hear him.
“I was nervous, I was sweating, thinking, ‘Lord, give me the words that I need,’” recalled Mr. VanSickle, 55, of Coraopolis.
He sensed an assurance from that Lord, in whom he has retained faith in spite of the betrayals he felt from its purported ministers: “Just be true to yourself and your story.”
So he told his story. He testified how his trusted priest and high school English teacher mounted a humiliating, life-altering assault on his teenage body and innocence.
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For two years, survivors of sexual assault told similar stories to the grand jury, which convened in Downtown Pittsburgh and reviewed decades of cases of sexual abuse in the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Erie, Harrisburg, Scranton and Allentown.
That grand jury has since compiled a massive report on those who allegedly abused children as well as those who allegedly helped cover it up, including church and public officials.
But the report remains under seal while some unidentified priests and others challenge its release, at least in its current form, before the state Supreme Court. These petitioners argued that nobody is well-served by a report that “unfairly implicates the innocent along with those properly accused.”
Even while those Supreme Court proceedings play out, the survivors of abuse have found their work isn’t done.
They’re finding their voices, and they’re finding each other.
Jim Faluszczak, a former priest in the Diocese of Erie, testified before the grand jury of being abused by another priest when he was a teenager.
From across the state, Juliann Bortz drove from Allentown to raise her right hand and tell the grand jury of being assaulted as a young teen by a priest who was one of her high school teachers.
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Mary McHale traveled from Reading to testify about her own abuse by a priest. She was inspired to give voice not just for herself but for numerous boys she went to school with who were victimized by a different priest, those “who are no longer with us or who no longer have a voice.”
They and others have begun speaking publicly and supporting each other.
In late June, after the scheduled release of the grand jury report was delayed indefinitely, more than a dozen survivors of abuse by clergy from around the state met in a room in Harrisburg with Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who assured them he was doing what he could to get the report released.
Most of the victims had never met each other.
But while the details may have varied, they recognized themselves in each others’ stories.
“It was like meeting long-lost family,” said Ms. Bortz, 68, of Allentown. It was a “reunion of people I never knew.”
Ms. McHale agreed. “I cannot put words to the power in that room,” she said.
This, said Mr. VanSickle, is why survivors of abuse are coming together. He disputed a law professor quoted as saying the only apparent purpose of the 40th statewide grand jury is to alter the state’s statutes of limitations.
While those statutes, putting time limits on when a perpetrator could be arrested or sued for assaults, have been extended over the years for newly committed crimes, some are advocating for a window in the statute so that people could sue over decades-old abuse.
“I don’t think any of us have ever talked about money in a conversation,” Mr. VanSickle said.
He said its power is in giving victims a voice, and for holding to account those who committed abuse and those who enabled them.
Mr. VanSickle identified his perpetrator as the Rev. David Poulson, a priest in the Diocese of Erie who was indicted by the grand jury in May for allegedly sexually assaulting two other boys on multiple occasions between 2002 and 2010.
The statute of limitations likely precluded prosecution of an action dating back to 1981, but the grand jury included a summary of Mr. VanSickle’s testimony in its written findings of facts against Father Poulson, who is awaiting trial.
Mr. VanSickle testified that Father Poulson was his English teacher at Bradford Central Christian High School in McKean County beginning in 1979. Father Poulson befriended him and other boys and created a chess club, taking members to dinner after matches, Mr. VanSickle said.
Soon he was taking Jim alone to dinner and buying him gifts including beer, Mr. VanSickle said. The priest would sometimes initiate horseplay and wrestling, he said. “After a while your alarm bells stop going off.”
On an overnight trip to Ohio to a Catholic shrine, they ended up at a seedy hotel, Mr. VanSickle recalled. He said Father Poulson, with an erection visible through his pajamas, suddenly jumped on him as if to wrestle.
Usually in such cases, “I would easily push him away. He would stop.” This time he stopped him, but only barely, he said. Mr. VanSickle was 17 years old.
The next day they had a silent ride home. More gifts followed, including cash. “Looking back I feel like he was trying to buy my silence.” Eventually he stopped hearing from him.
Mr. VanSickle studied at St. Vincent College, where he met his wife. The couple settled in the Pittsburgh area, and he said the after effects of the abuse always haunted him, hurting his relationships with his wife and now-grown daughters.
“I spent a lot of time dealing with issues of anger, truly not liking myself,” he said. He got into counseling a couple years ago at the urging of his wife. “She’s a saint for staying with me, and so are my daughters,” he said.
The counseling helped, and so did seeing the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” about revelations in 2002 of sexual abuse and coverup in the Archdiocese of Boston, which erupted into a global scandal in the Catholic Church.
“As a victim, you feel like you’re the only one, and you want to hide because nobody else would understand,” he said. “I didn’t realize how big it was.”
In February, his mother sent him a news clipping about Father Poulson’s suspension from ministry due to an accusation of abuse.
“I just happened to be ready to come forward,” he said. He didn’t want Father Poulson’s accuser to be alone, so he got in touch with the attorney general’s office, and within days he was in front of the grand jury.
“I believe the Lord has said, ‘Hey, Jim, you have to speak out,’ ” said Mr. VanSickle.
He said he’s become a born-again Christian and attends a non-denominational church. He said he would encourage anyone who wants to remain Catholic to do so. But he wants those who enabled the abuse held fully accountable.
Faith isn’t so easy for the others.
Ms. Bortz envies the people who tell her in angry phone calls and social-media posts to “get over it.”
They don’t understand how the wounds of betayal last a lifetime.
“Some days it’s really hard to find a reason to get out of bed. I was crying all morning,” she said during a phone interview this past week.
“I miss going to Mass,” she added. “There are days when I ask, ‘Why did all of this happen?’ I envy the ones it didn’t happen to, the ones who say, ‘Get over it.’ I wish I had that kind of blind faith in religion.”
She was a student at Allentown Central Catholic High School in 1965 when, she said, she and a friend were assaulted by the same priest.
He was eventually removed from ministry in 2002 (when the “Spotlight” reports in Boston were prompting revelations throughout the church). Ms. Bortz filed suit against the diocese in 2004 and became active in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
She has remained in touch with many victims, including her long-ago classmate and fellow survivor.
“Almost every Christmas and Easter the same victims would call me because those are triggers,” she said. News of the grand jury report has brought some new victims forward, plus she’s heard from others from the past.
Ms. McHale, 46, is hearing from them as well. She came forward around 2004 to report abuse by a priest in support of another woman who was accusing the same priest.
“That’s why I feel these reports should be released,” she said. “It’s justice. My fellow survivors have been on a roller-coaster ride for years and years. I know people who have not survived.”
Mr. Faluszczak said he’s become something of an accidental advocate himself.
He said he was abused as a teenager multiple times by a priest in the Diocese of Erie, the late Msgr. Daniel Martin.
Mr. Faluszczak himself entered the priesthood in 1996 in the Erie diocese, but felt retraumatized numerous times as he revisited the places of his abuse and learned of other cases.
By 2008, when he was struggling with severe alcoholism, the diocese sent him to rehabilitation. A team of counselors helped him with his addiction, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. He returned to ministry.
“I began to have really strong doubts about whether I could remain in the priesthood and be healthy, not just because there would be constant reminders of what happened to me but that I knew there were priests whose lifestyles weren’t consistent with the vows they took,” he said. “There was always conjecture, the priests always talked about who the molesters were in our fraternity.”
He felt his superiors failed to take the issue seriously enough, and he eventually left the ministry and moved to Buffalo, whose own diocese has been rocked this year by revelations of previously unknown abusive priests. When a fellow former priest and advocate asked him to appear at a rally, he said, “You stood with me, I’ll stand with you.”
But the presence of a former priest, identifying himself as a survivor of abuse, drew media attention. He decided he owed it to other survivors to name his perpetrator and go public.
“I never intended to make a splash,” said Mr. Faluszczak, 49. I don’t want to stand in front of the cameras, I don’t want to talk about how my first sexual experience was with a priest.”
He also testified to the grand jury in Pittsburgh, and like the others, he plans to keep speaking out.
“The church can't handle this on its own,” he said. “That’s why we need to report.”
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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