John Delaney, vocal clergy abuse survivor and victim advocate, has died at 50

Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]

September 6, 2022

By Nick Vadala

John Delaney, 50, of Philadelphia, a clergy abuse survivor and vocal victim advocate, died Friday, Aug. 26, of a drug overdose.

Mr. Delaney fought hard as a victim advocate after coming out publicly in 2005 about his own sexual abuse as a child. Mr. Delaney said he was raped and sexually abused as an altar boy at St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church by the Rev. James Bryzski, who was later called “one of the archdiocese’s most brutal abusers” in a Philadelphia grand jury report. Bryzski, the report said, may have abused more than 100 boys during his time as a priest.

Bryzski, who was defrocked in 2005 and died in 2017, was never prosecuted.

“We can count at least 100 victims who stepped forward because of the courage and strength they saw that came from the voice of John Delaney,” said Mike McDonnell, a friend, fellow survivor, and communications manager for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Though cut short, he used his time to help others.”

Mr. Delaney said Bryzski began to abuse him when he was 11 and growing up in the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia. He said the abuse continued for a number of years.

Mr. Delaney developed drug, alcohol, and mental health issues, but in speaking out publicly about the abuse he suffered, he hoped to help other victims, which was a key component of his character, said his sister, Hope Hoover.

“He was a huge advocate for helping anyone in need, and I’ve been getting so much outreach from the Fox Chase community,” Hoover said. “He was a fighter. He had a great heart, the heart of a lion — just real strong, and would help anyone in need.”

Longtime family friend Patti Hartman recalled Mr. Delaney as an archetypal Philadelphian: “If I had to describe someone from Philadelphia, I would just show a picture of John,” she said. In addition to being an avid fan of the Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers, Mr. Delaney was known to many as Rocky, after fictional boxer Rocky Balboa. He even had a Rocky tattoo.

“Rocky is really John Delaney,” McDonnell said. “He was never afraid to step in that ring, to take punches for others, but he was also willing to stand ringside and cheer you on.”

Mr. Delaney began speaking out in the mid-2000s. He reached out to a prosecutor to testify about the abuse he endured that would later be included in the landmark grand jury report. In the 2005 report, Mr. Delaney was identified by a pseudonym, but he began speaking publicly about his experience. He later advocated for changes to Pennsylvania law that would allow victims to sue for abuse they suffered as children —but efforts to pass a bill in Harrisburg have not yet succeeded.

“He was always advocating for victims, and I hope he sees some change,” said friend and fellow advocate Catherine Spoerl, who is the mother of the late Jimmy Spoerl, another of Bryzski’s victims. “Maybe some change will come.”

Mr. Delaney later left Philadelphia and lived in Tennessee for more than a decade before moving to San Antonio, where he lived with his wife, Sheri, before the pair separated. Hartman visited him recently and found the same caring, thoughtful person she always knew. He greeted her with a souvenir magnet, a coffee mug, and a full itinerary.

“It was his ‘Welcome to Texas’ packet,” Hartman said. “Anyone who knows John knows the heart he had.”

Mr. Delaney returned to Philadelphia in April to live with his sister, who works as a detective in the city’s East Detectives division. He returned to be closer to his two children, Anthony and Erin, and to reconnect with the community where he grew up, Hoover said.

During his time in Philadelphia, Mr. Delaney also took up painting — an activity that stretched back to his childhood, when he would do Hoover’s art projects for her because she lacked artistic talent, she said. That pursuit was therapeutic for Mr. Delaney, whose canvases filled Hoover’s home and served as gifts for friends.

In the months leading up to his death, Mr. Delaney was also working with a priest at St. Cecilia’s for a memorial to victims of abuse, Hoover said. Mr. Delaney, she said, wanted the project to be “a bridge to heal the community from what happened at that school.” Now, Hoover hopes to continue to spread Mr. Delaney’s message.

“John was a big fighter,” she said. “I’m not letting the story die with him.”

In addition to his sister, Mr. Delaney is survived byhis wife andchildren.

A memorial service was held Saturday, Sept. 3, in the auditorium of St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church in Fox Chase. The location of Mr. Delaney’s memorial service caused something of a controversy among some survivors and family members of victims, but as McDonnell put it, the choice of St. Cecilia’s was meant to help heal.

“There’s nothing more than John wanted than for people to heal, and heal together,” he said. “He’s done it again.”

Donations in Mr. Delaney’s name can be made to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and Catholics 4 Change. Mr. Delaney’s family also started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for his funeral expenses.