Kelly: Actor's Play Helps Him Deal with Abuse by Priest

By Mike Kelly
Daily Record
May 11, 2009

Joe Capozzi, who grew up in Ridgefield and contends he was molested by a local priest, wrote a play about his struggles with abuse

Joe Capozzi's life has played out in two acts.

First came the secret part, lived mostly in Ridgefield. Then came the part after he went public with a painful tale of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest.

But dancing across every stage of his life, says Capozzi, are the questions.

Why was he abused? And why could he not speak up for so long?

"Things like this were not heard of, not talked about," Capozzi said, adding: "Who wants this to be true?"

We have heard many tales in recent years of sex abuse by Catholic clergy with good reason. Simply put, this is no small problem.

In 2004, America's Catholic bishops, with research help from John Jay College, admitted that 10,667 Catholics had accused 4,392 priests of sexual abuse from 1950 to 2002. But advocates for abuse victims say the number is probably far higher because many victims opted not to come forward.

The church nonetheless has paid more than $2 billion in settlements to victims, causing some dioceses to file for bankruptcy.

Capozzi, an actor who has appeared in NBC's "Law & Order" and the ABC soap opera "All My Children," is one of the few victims to write a play about himself then play himself on stage. But unlike the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Doubt," which was made into a movie in 2008 and depicts a priest who may or may not be a molester, Capozzi's play, "For Pete's Sake," leaves absolutely no misgivings about what happened to him.

Capozzi, who lives in Manhattan and manages an East Side chocolate shop when not acting, contends that he was regularly molested for a decade by Monsignor Peter Cheplic, a priest assigned to St. Matthew's Church in Ridgefield from 1972 to 1985.

Capozzi says the abuse began when he was 16. At that point, Cheplic had already left St. Matthew's for assignments at Catholic parishes in Hudson and Essex counties. But Cheplic regularly returned to Ridgefield to visit the Capozzi family, even to baptize several grandchildren.

The abuse did not end, Capoizzi said, until he turned 26. But Capozzi, now 40, did not even speak about it not even to Monsignor Cheplic until four years ago.

At the time, Capozzi was living in Cliffside Park and was married a wedding ceremony ironically performed by Cheplic. But Capozzi's marriage was breaking apart. And in one of his last conversations with his wife, Capozzi finally told his secret.

Two months later, after calling prosecutors in Hudson and Essex counties and failing to persuade them to open a criminal investigation of Cheplic, Capozzi called a Jersey City newspaper and told his story.

Six months later in March 2006 Capozzi accepted a $50,000 settlement from the Newark Archdiocese in return for withdrawing a lawsuit. Monsignor Cheplic, in turn, agreed to take early retirement from the priesthood rather than submit to a formal church inquiry.

Catholic officials now say only that the 63-year-old Cheplic lives "somewhere in New Jersey" and supports himself partly with a church pension accrued during his 34 years as a priest. But he is barred from presiding at church ceremonies as many retired priests do. Nor can he live in a parish rectory or any other church living quarters.

"Monsignor Cheplic did retire without faculties," said Newark Archdiocesan spokesman James Goodness. "He is not in active ministry. He does not say Mass.

"He has his own private living quarters, not related to a church. He's not involved with the church at all."

Cheplic could not be reached for comment. But Goodness said Cheplic denies he ever molested Capozzi or any of three other men who came forward with similar accusations.

"Cheplic has contended from Day One, even in his retirement, that he did not commit the acts that have been alleged," Goodness said. "But he chose to resign and retire."

For Joe Capozzi, though, the pain still festered.

Speaking publicly after so many years was a relief, he said. So was the knowledge that Cheplic was no longer an active priest.

But Capozzi wanted to examine more deeply what he had endured and why. So in early 2008, he started writing a play.

"I wrote it for myself," Capozzi said one day last week, sitting in a rehearsal room in midtown Manhattan after finishing a staged reading of the play with fellow actors. Next month, Capozzi will perform "For Pete's Sake" in New Jersey for the first time in a benefit for victims of sex abuse by clergy.

"I wanted to create something good, something for myself that good could come of it," Capozzi said. "But what I went through changed the way I looked at people. That's what I'm trying to get back."

The play begins with Capozzi wrestling with his decision to speak about the abuse. He is in his mid-30s. His marriage is a mess. His parents are deeply worried that their son seems so tormented.

Indeed, much of the dialogue in the play is within Capozzi's mind with Capozzi speaking to three other actors who depict different perspectives of his own psyche.

Should he divulge his secret? Should he just keep quiet? Why bother anyway?

"Seeing him hurt so badly was very hard," said Capozzi's mother, Judy, who saw the play with her husband, Joseph Sr., last February.

"As a mother, not being about to take that hurt away from him was difficult," she added. "We felt guilty. We brought this priest into our house. Now my son has a difficult time even coming to our house. I don't even use the dining room anymore. What happened never leaves my head. But if this play gives my son one more moment of peace within himself, it's all worth it."

Joseph Capozzi Sr., now 70 and retired from his manager's position at Verizon, served Ridgefield as a volunteer firefighter in the 1970s. Monsignor Cheplic was the fire department chaplain, and Capozzi invited him for dinner.

"I blame myself more than anyone else," Joe Capozzi Sr. said. "To not see what was going on, I must be stupid."

Judy and Joe Capozzi no longer go to church. Nor does their son.

"I love praying. I love going to church. I can't go there anymore," Joe Capozzi Sr. said. "I don't want to ever think about a Catholic church again."

Such words may seem harsh. But they are common among victims and their families. For many, the abuse is not just physical but spiritual. As a priest who counsels victims once told me: "Their souls have been raped."

And so Joe Capozzi's struggle is not over.

His play ends with the words he spoke to his wife those first words that broke his secrecy.

"Pete molested me," Capozzi says.

The words are cathartic in real life and, now, within the play.

"There is a feeling of real relief when I say those words," Capozzi said. "For a moment, I feel free."



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