Survivors of Childhood Abuse by Catholic Priests: the Word "Culpable" As a Living Wound

By Sean Kirst
September 15, 2015

Kevin.jpg Kevin Braney, a survivor of childhood abuse by a Catholic priest, speaks Monday to a packed room at the Craftsman Inn in Fayetteville. Charlie Bailey, another survivor, is seated behind Braney, in the blue shirt. (Sean Kirst |

At the beginning of the meeting, Dan Leonard was seated toward the back. He went Monday night to the Craftsman Inn in Fayetteville, where two adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse by parish priests - Charlie Bailey and Kevin Braney - shared their stories with a crowded room of listeners.

Once the meeting began - as Leonard saw the pain in the expressions of the two men in front of the audience - he moved to an open seat in the third row, where Braney and Bailey could see Leonard's face and hear his voice.

His presence was a message:

They are not alone.

At the meeting, Bailey and Braney expressed a central thought: They're dismayed by the words of Bishop Robert Cunningham, the top official in the Diocese of Syracuse. During a 2011 deposition involving allegations of abuse against a local priest, Cunningham was asked if an abused child has committed a sin.

"The boy is culpable," Cunningham responded. He went on to say it was impossible - without full knowledge of the situation - to ascertain whether the child encouraged the abuse or "went along (with it) in any way."

John O'Brien of The Post-Standard reported on that deposition in Sunday's Post-Standard. Cunningham responded with a letter to Central New York's Catholic community stating he regretted choosing those words, and that he does not believe a child can be a party to his or her own abuse.

Bailey and Braney maintain the statements were indicative of a diocese that has moved too slowly, historically, in taking the side of young victims. At the meeting, the two men said they're starting a movement that calls for Cunningham to either resign, or to be replaced as bishop.

But the symbolic purpose of the gathering was also clear, a specific reaction to wording in the deposition, and it was a major part of why Leonard attended as a show of support:

Cunningham's sentence - "The boy is culpable" - summarized the notion at the core of decades of silent pain, endured by survivors. The idea of "culpability," that somehow victims brought this suffering upon themselves, explains why so many men and women never seek help or counseling for what happened to them as children, Leonard said.

Bailey and Braney wanted to make it evident to the community - through the almost unbearable example of their own stories - that the notion of blaming a child can amount to a second wave of abuse.

"It's so far out of whack, it's unbelievable," said Leonard, 58.

He is part of two local counseling groups of men who were sexually abused as children. Leonard, as a child in Pittsburgh, was targeted not by a priest, but by a youth football coach, a serial pedophile. The coach ingratiated himself to Leonard's family, convinced the boy's parents the child would be safe with him, brought the 11-year-old to his house, pushed him to drink beer as a show of masculine camaraderie ....

And then abused the boy, repeatedly.

Think about it, Leonard said. If you're a parent, think of your own children at 10 or 11 or 12 or in their early teenage years, still finding their way, still unsure, still with childhood trophies and posters in their bedrooms ....

And then imagine that child - your child - in the crosshairs of a skilled, patient and seasoned predator, some adult who's earned your trust, who understands the dynamics of a family, who puts your boy or girl in a terrifying, impossible corner.

Dan Leonard and Kevin Braney: They were both Ivy League students, successful athletes .... and survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

To use the word "culpable," to Leonard, enables the whole sickness.

Bailey and Braney, 42, reinforced the point. In both of their cases, the diocese has ruled their accounts of abuse against Catholic priests are "credible." The two men warned the quiet audience, before they shared their stories, that the details would be difficult to hear.

Braney - an honorable mention All-American lacrosse player at Brown who then became a high school administrator - spoke of how Monsignor Charles Eckermann would take him to a room in the basement of St. Ann's Church in Manlius, often on quiet mornings when few people were around. Eckermann would assault the child while the boy wore his altar boy's cassock, Braney said, and the monsignor threatened to kill him if he ever disclosed the ordeal.

Once, Braney said he fled upstairs, ran to another priest, told him what had happened, cried out for help.

That priest struck him and said never to speak of it again.

Braney was 15. He was terrified.

How could any of that, he wondered, somehow make him culpable?

Story told, Braney struggled to contain his emotions. Bailey, 64, a friend and confidant, walked over and put his arm around Braney's shoulder, before Bailey began his own narrative:

He was 10 when the Rev. Thomas Neary began "grooming" him, Bailey said. The priest, in the classroom, would single out Bailey for praise, telling other pupils how Bailey was especially bright, building a connection of trust and loyalty. Neary would walk to the bus with the child after school, Bailey said, making a point of reminding him of how special he was.

Then Neary came to the Bailey home, and he told Bailey's parents he was going to offer special teachings, difficult spiritual lessons, on becoming a priest.

They would need privacy, the priest said. He warned that learning to serve God was a hard journey, and the boy might be upset, emotional, after the demands of each session.

Bailey said the word "abuse" is a euphemism: Neary took the child to a room and raped him, a routine that would be repeated dozens upon dozens of times. Bailey offered horrific details of the abuse, including physical damage to his body. He said Neary told him he was worthless. Bailey said the priest threatened to hurt others in his family if Bailey revealed the truth.

And what Bailey understood - amid the social and cultural structure of the time - is that few if any would believe him even if he did say something. What the priest did, Bailey said, in a brilliant and searing way that caused lifetime damage:

He made a little boy feel culpable.

When the presentation was over, listeners - stunned and quiet - stood in line to speak with both men. Leonard, too, waited patiently to thank them, to shake their hands. What's important to remember, he said, is that only one or two of every 10 victims of childhood sexual abuse will step out and seek help. The others carry their burdens as a poisonous secret, almost always - in some way - blaming themselves.

So every time a Charlie Bailey or a Kevin Braney stands up, Leonard said, they're offering strength to someone on the brink of finally seeking comfort for those wounds.

"You can't know," Leonard said, "how many people they might have helped today."








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