Abuse Victim Now National Leader
Ex-Allentown Altar Boy Is Leading Support Group's N.Y. Chapter

By Kathleen Parrish
Allentown Morning Call [Allentown PA]
March 29, 2004

David Cerulli had always been comfortable in the shadows. Sexually abused by a priest as a 14-year-old altar boy in Allentown, Cerulli retreated into a carefully crafted shell. He preferred to work as a sculptor, spending hours alone in his basement studio, designing abstract pieces with names such as "Drift" and "Silent Sounder."

It wasn't until January 2002, when the priest sexual abuse crisis erupted, that Cerulli, a soft-spoken man with an easy smile and gentle eyes, was forced into the light of disclosure. His life hasn't been the same since.

The man who feared dinner with friends is now on the front lines of the ongoing scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church and is forcing widespread reforms.

Last month, Cerulli, 54, was named full-time director of the New York chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, a support group for victims.

SNAP has more than 4,000 members nationwide and has become the collective voice and refuge for victims who up until now said they had been cowed into silence. Cerulli is one of four full-time SNAP directors, joining others in Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis.

"It's been a completely life-changing experience," Cerulli said of his new role. "I chose to be a visual artist and hang out in the studio because that's all I could do. Now everything in my life has become outwardly focused. Before, everything was introspective and fearful. It feels good to be reaching out and taking things I've learned and being able to provide a safe place for others to begin the healing process."

For more than a decade, SNAP operated on a small scale, providing self-help, education and prevention of sexual abuse mostly by word of mouth.

In recent months, it gained national prominence by countering a church-commissioned study that showed about 4 percent, or 4,392, of priests and deacons nationwide were accused of molesting nearly 11,000 people since 1950.

SNAP officials believe the number of cases is far higher, considering the reluctance of victims to come forward.

Cerulli first read about SNAP in 2002 when the priest sexual abuse scandal centering on priest John Geoghan broke in Boston. The group's name began appearing in newspaper stories, and Cerulli was moved by comments made by its national director, David Clohessy.

"One day my wife, Sheila, came to me and said, 'You should check out this organization.' I went online and saw they were holding a conference in Dallas" to coincide with the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Without knowing anyone who would be at the conference, Cerulli, who was happily married and believed he had conquered his demons, decided to go, hoping he could help others. But he found he was far from healed.

"When I got to Dallas I realized the leaders of SNAP were way beyond me. They had no problem getting in front of a camera. I hadn't told my story publicly yet," he said.

It was the first time Cerulli didn't feel like he was the only one who had been molested by a priest.

"Most people, family members included, didn't want to hear what I had to say," said Cerulli, whose sculptures welcome visitors to Lehigh University's Zoellner Arts Center and the Air Products and Chemicals Inc. headquarters in Trexlertown.

"They thought I had gotten a bad apple the only apple. I knew there were others and these bastards had been covering it up. I felt so vindicated."

In the stories of others was the echo of his own.

For Cerulli, the abuse at the hands of the Rev. John Paul Sabas allegedly began in summer 1964. The priest took him on day trips to the Poconos and Jones Beach on Long Island, N.Y., and on long drives through the country. Behind the windows of his black car, Sabas would molest him, Cerulli said.

"I was threatened so many times by him," Cerulli said. "He would say, 'Who's going to believe you? I'm a priest, you're a kid.' "

The abuse continued for three months until Sabas, who died in 1996, was transferred, but the feelings of shame, guilt and confusion over his sexuality continued. He has been married three times and has no children, a consequence, he believes, of having been molested.

In Dallas, Cerulli was inspired by the courage of others and volunteered to be a spokesman for new chapters in New York City, where he lives, and Allentown, where he grew up.

"I wasn't going to run a support group," he said. "I was just going to be a spokesperson."

But the duties soon became overwhelming, pulling Cerulli from his second job as a designer of architectural models at Kennedy Fabrications Scaled Constructions in New York City.

He would often meet a television crew outside the ornate lobby of the company's W. 25th Street building for an interview, then return to work. He was fielding dozens of phone calls and e-mails a week from people who said they'd been molested, and found himself holding monthly support group meetings and helping the Allentown SNAP chapter organize.

"I felt like, 'My gosh, I could be doing so much more with this,' " Cerulli said. "But how could I do this? There wasn't time."

Clohessy, the national director, also was feeling overwhelmed by the calls for help and asked Cerulli to step into the $40,000 position as New York director.

"David is such a wonderful person and he's done so much good," Clohessy said. "He started not one but two local support groups. What our organization desperately needs is people who have the courage to speak publicly on behalf of abuse victims and bare your soul, and the compassion to spend hours patiently listening as victims pour out their hearts."

In January, Cerulli showed up at a news conference in Berks County to lend support to five people who filed lawsuits claiming the Allentown Catholic Diocese covered up decades of sexual abuse by priests.

He wore a photo of himself around his neck as a freckle-faced 14-year-old the age the abuse began and praised the victims who had come forward for their courage.

"Only in this way can we be assured history will not repeat itself," he said in front of a crowded room of reporters and photographers.

Tammy Lerner, co-director of the Allentown chapter, said Cerulli traveled back and forth from Manhattan to the Lehigh Valley for about six months to get the support group meetings off the ground.

"He is insightful and he imparts that insightfulness to other people," Lerner said. "He has an intuitive sense, so when he's talking to survivors he knows what to say to them, when to talk, when to listen."

The Allentown chapter meets the fourth Thursday of every month from 7-8:30 p.m. at St. Luke's Hospital-Allentown Campus, 19th and Hamilton streets.

One of Cerulli's first jobs as full-time director was helping Landa Maurielo-Vernon set up a chapter in Connecticut, where the 30-year-old mother of two lives with her husband.

Maurielo-Vernon said she was sexually assaulted by a nun when she was a senior at a Roman Catholic high school.

"My abuse happened under the guise of mentorship," Maurielo-Vernon said. "David has given me an example of what true mentorship is."

At his cozy Lower East Side apartment last month, Cerulli was helping Maurielo-Vernon prepare for a news conference the following day to announce the formation of the Connecticut chapter. It also would be the first time Maurielo-Vernon would recount in public how she had been repeatedly molested and pressured to join a convent.

Because her alleged abuser was a woman, and not another priest, the media's interest had been piqued.

"This is so wild," Cerulli said. "Her press conference has been picked up by the BBC."

Later that night Cerulli held a support group meeting in Brooklyn and Maurielo-Vernon, who had never been to one, tagged along to get pointers. Forming a support group will be part of her duties as Connecticut director.

The two braved the windy night for the hourlong commute by subway, arriving at the Park Slope branch of the Brooklyn Public Library about 6:30 p.m.

Cerulli taped a handmade sign announcing the SNAP meeting at the top of the stairs and headed down to the basement where the session would be held. He set up a ring of plastic chairs.

About a half-dozen men and women attended the meeting. They came to unburden themselves and find healing through the testimony of others who shared their painful journey.

Cerulli started. He told them how Sabas sexually and physically abused him as a student at St. Francis of Assisi School in Allentown. He told them how he attended Mass every Sunday and sat with his devout family in the first pew. He told them how he finally reported the abuse to the diocese in 1974 10 years after it happened and how he discovered in 1989 that Sabas had been transferred to St. John Baptist de La Salle in Shillington, Berks County.

"I flipped," he said.

Then, to make sure no other child was hurt by Sabas, he filed a lawsuit against the Allentown diocese, charging it had failed to protect him from a pedophile. In 1991, Cerulli settled out of court with the diocese for $40,000.

"Letting that go so I wasn't holding it in anymore was probably the best thing I did," Cerulli said.

A man in a blue turtleneck spoke about a priest who lured him and a friend to his room and showed them pornography.

"He started touching my friend first," he said, clearing his throat.

It was years before he was able to talk about it, he said, and alcohol and drugs became his coping devices. A few years ago, his friend committed suicide.

"What I did wrong is keep my mouth shut," he said.

Cerulli wrapped things up at 8 p.m., but the people lingered until he turned off the lights and walked out to the moonlit street.

"It's really scary sometimes but exhilarating," he said of his newly chosen path. "Some of it's so new; being a manager of anything. It's frightening, but then afterwards there's feelings of accomplishment and having done something important.

"That's nice."