Silent Struggles: Craig Gribbin

Reading Eagle
June 26, 2016

Father John P. Schmeer

As state lawmakers debate a plan to make it easier for victims of childhood sexual abuse to seek justice, abuse survivors are coming forward to tell their stories.

After years of suffering in silence, Craig Gribbin mustered the courage to ask for an apology.

It was early 2002. He was about 50 and finally ready to take the last step in confronting the sexual abuse he said he suffered as a teen at the hands of a priest and teacher at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia.

Through years of self-reflection, Gribbin had started to come to peace with what happened to him. He’d become a born-again Christian, was ordained as a nondenominational minister and began helping couples through marriage counseling.

By ministering to others, he began the painful process of confronting the demons in his own past. And by the late 1990s, Gribbin knew he had a final step to take before putting his abuse behind him: Confronting the people on whose watch it happened.

“I needed to get satisfaction somehow,” said Gribbin, 63, of Lancaster County. “Even if it was just some half-assed apology.”

So he got in touch with Monsignor William Lynn and other leaders in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, telling them about his alleged abuse at the hands of Father John P. Schmeer and identifying other boys he suspected Schmeer also abused.

Gribbin said he’d hoped for an acknowledgement of his abuse, help paying for years of therapy and psychiatric treatment, and an investigation into Schmeer.

What he got instead — according to a 2005 report by a Philadelphia grand jury — was denial and a probe by the archdiocese into his own finances and court records from his divorces. The response opened old wounds. And, Gribbin was not going to take it sitting down.

“We’re forgiving people,” Gribbin said. “If you’d just come forward, if you’d just told the truth, by now, this would all be forgotten and forgiven.”

He publicly outed Schmeer in a lawsuit, drawing the rebuke of parishioners in Schmeer’s Bucks County parish. But Schmeer’s support began to wane as more alleged victims came forward.

Eventually, church leaders forced Schmeer to retire to “a supervised life of prayer and penance” or be defrocked, according to the grand jury report.

Schmeer, now 80, has not been charged with a crime because the two-year window Gribbin would have had to press criminal charges expired long before Schmeer was publicly exposed. But the archdiocese website lists Schmeer among the clergy who have been removed from ministry “due to credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor.”

Repeated attempts over two weeks to reach Schmeer at Villa Saint Joseph, a Delaware County retirement home for priests, were unsuccessful.

When a reporter called the center and asked to speak with Schmeer, staff members at the facility took messages and indicated they would relay them to him. A reporter visited the center Tuesday, asked to speak with Schmeer and left his business card when staff said they could not connect him with Schmeer.

Schmeer also turned down an opportunity to answer the grand jury’s questions.

Gribbin told his story to the grand jury.

Gribbin confirmed he is the boy described in the grand jury report, and the Reading Eagle also confirmed that through other sources.

The panel’s report detailed his abuse and church leaders’ response, shedding public attention on cover-ups of abuse in the archdiocese.

“I really believe that’s how God wanted these people to be exposed,” Gribbin said. “He wanted me to be a spokesman in a little way.”

Counselor to predator

Gribbin was a freshman in 1967 when he began counseling sessions with Schmeer, then his science teacher and guidance counselor.

Priests had a larger-than-life persona, Gribbin said, and to be hand-picked by one for special attention was an honor. His mother was ecstatic, he said. With his father out of the picture, she saw Schmeer as a male role model for him.

It was during the first counseling session that Schmeer first asked Gribbin about masturbation, according to the grand jury report. During the second session, the report said, Schmeer began to touch Gribbin sexually.

That continued for several months.

“He had plenty of reasons why I needed to be with him privately,” Gribbin said.

The abuse in counseling sessions ended after a particularly violent assault in the swimming pool at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Montgomery County, the grand jury report said. According to the report, Schmeer grabbed Gribbin from behind in the pool — leading the boy to think the priest was about to drown him — and then sexually assaulted him.

But the report said Schmeer would still take Gribbin to houses in the Philadelphia suburbs and New Jersey and on one occasion tried to facilitate a sexual encounter between the boy and a 17-year-old girl. Sometimes, another priest, Ernest Durante, was present and, in some cases, watching, according to the grand jury report.

At school, other students knew about the abuse and tormented Gribbin. He gained a reputation as “Father Schmeer’s boy.”

He said he’d tried to end the counseling sessions, but his mother, thinking he made up the story to get out of counseling, forced him to continue. Finally, Gribbin convinced his mother to transfer him to public school.

Kenneth A. Gavin, archdiocese spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on specific victims’ cases.

But he said, the archdiocese’s response to reports of abuse has changed dramatically since the 1990s. Now, he said, law enforcement is immediately notified and outreach to victims and the investigation of the allegations are handled separately and by former law enforcement professionals, not clergy.

For years, Gribbin continued to hide what happened as he sorted through feelings of guilt.

“The biggest issue that you have to come to terms with is: Why did you come back for more?” Gribbin said. “That’s the hardest thing to come to terms with. And it causes a lot of people not to come forward.”

Durante, who left the priesthood in the 1980s and lives in Florida, declined to comment when reached by phone June 7.

In 2007 media reports, he denied witnessing any abuse. It was unclear if Durante was invited to address the grand jury.

Lynn was convicted in 2012 of putting a known child molester in contact with children. He remains in prison as his case goes through an appeals process during which his conviction was overturned, reinstated and overturned again. The state Supreme Court has been asked to consider the case.

'Always there'

Though the abuse eventually became part of Gribbin’s past, the scars remain. Gribbin said his pain has continued for years.

“It’s always there,” he said. “It’s simmering, always out there. Always. It’s something you know you had to deal with and you have to get to it at some point.”

He didn’t come forward, terrified, ashamed and worried about the stigma it would bring. He spent years in therapy and was hospitalized and treated for anxiety. He contemplated suicide. But he was stopped by his faith and concern for his children.

“I guess I thought that they needed me, and needed me to be around,” he said.

Over the years, he said he started healing through his faith and self-reflection. When, after earlier marriages didn’t work out, he met his current wife, she helped give him the strength to confront the abuse head on. They celebrated their 20th anniversary this year.

When he decided to take his story to the archdiocese, he didn’t know that it would ultimately be part of a grand jury investigation and lead to more victims coming forward. And while he didn’t expect the church to admit to the abuse, he didn’t expect the lengths the archdiocese would go through to deny it.

He said the church’s investigators tried to pressure him into remaining quiet and make him feel guilty about opening up the church to any harm.

“They really count on you being a basket case and being a little unstable,” he said.

According to the grand jury report, church leaders deemed Gribbin’s allegations “not credible” after Schmeer himself denied the abuse. Church files uncovered by the Philadelphia investigators show leaders investigated Gribbin while failing to look into other allegations of abuse against Schmeer.

While Schmeer’s parishioners attacked Gribbin for accusing him in a lawsuit, archdiocese managers remained silent even though they knew other boys had come forward, the report said.

In 2004, church officials ultimately deemed the allegations credible and removed Schmeer from ministry.

Priests in program

Today, Schmeer remains in the prayer and penance program, according to the archdiocese website.

According to a fact sheet provided by the archdiocese, the program “provides pastoral care, social services and monitoring” for priests “credibly accused” of sexually abusing children. The sheet says the alternative is priests being defrocked and removed from the church’s control.

Participants can’t represent themselves as priests and must submit a weekly schedule of where they plan to be, according to the fact sheet. That’s verified, according to the sheet, by random checks and swipe-card and video systems that show when residents come and go.

The program is paid for by the archdiocese. The fact sheet says the 16 participants are housed on the property of Villa Saint Joseph, many of them in the facility itself.

The website for Heritage of Faith-Vision of Hope, the archdiocese’s major fundraising campaign, lists among its priorities raising $3 million to upgrade and overhaul the facility.

Gribbin said he was able to negotiate for the archdiocese to pay for some of his treatment expenses. But, he said, that only covered about $90,000 of a tab of more than $400,000. And he said he’s still waiting on an acknowledgement of what happened to him.

His lawsuit can’t move forward because his two-year time limit to bring a civil case expired long before he filed the suit.

And even if a proposal to extend the limits is enacted, his case would still be too old. Gribbin would need legislation that gives all expired cases a limited period to move forward.

But most of all, Gribbin said, he wants people to understand what abuse survivors go through and the lengths some institutions will go to cover it up. As he sees it, it all comes down to words.

As he sees it, to describe what happened to him as molestation, is an understatement. People, he said, have become desensitized to that word.

“I was tortured,” he said.

And as people start thinking about abuse in those terms, Gribbin said, they’ll begin to understand it in a different light.

He said: “It’s going to turn a light bulb on that hasn’t been turned on.”


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