Bradford native recounts abuse at BCC
By Marcie Schellhammer
May 09, 2018
It’s been 36 years since Jim VanSickle spoke to Father David Poulson.
The next time the Bradford Central Christian High School graduate sees the priest, he hopes it will be in a courtroom.
Poulson was arraigned Tuesday on allegations that he abused two young boys in the Cambridge Springs area. It was a story too familiar to VanSickle.
“My abuse happened from 1979 to 1982 while I was a student at Bradford Central Christian,” VanSickle said.
He spoke to Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office, and testified before the statewide investigating grand jury about what had happened to him so many years ago, when Poulson was first ordained. He’s hoping he’ll be asked to testify at his criminal trial, too.
Poulson won’t face charges for VanSickle’s allegations. The statute of limitations has expired in his case. He’s hoping his story will help prosecutors see a pattern of ongoing conduct on the part of the former priest.
“I met Father Poulson in 1979,” VanSickle said. “He was an English teacher at BCC.”
It was the young priest’s first assignment, to teach at the school and pastor at St. Francis. At the school, Poulson created a chess team, and asked VanSickle to be part of it.
“My grades were really bad,” VanSickle said. Poulson mentored him, helped him with his school work. “The guy knew everything about me.”
VanSickle told of a growing friendship with the young priest, who did so much for him. He was a priest after all, and the teen had a lot of respect and affection for him.
“One day he puts his hand on my leg,” VanSickle said. He thought it was a bit odd, and moved away from the contact. “He’d put his arm around me.” Again, he’d move away from the priest.
“We would go to dinner. He introduced alcohol to me. He picked me up with a six-pack in lay clothes,” VanSickle recounted. “A lot of times, he would get drunk. We’d go back to the rectory. There would be wrestling, tickling, groping.”
When VanSickle refused Poulson’s advances, he was told to leave.
“It was concerning, but I wasn’t worried,” he explained. “You have an affection, a respect for what he’s done for you.
“He still did a lot for me,” VanSickle said. “It was very hard to wrap my brain around when it started to get farther out of hand.
“But that grooming process put me in that place where it didn’t seem so alarming anymore,” he said.
A day came when Poulson wanted to make a trip to Our Lady of Fatima in Ohio, and he offered to take VanSickle. The two would go to the Cedar Point amusement park, too.
Here, VanSickle paused in his recollection, to explain that Poulson liked to spend money, and had a taste for finer things. However, on this trip, when the two checked in for an overnight stay, “I found myself in a shady hotel, with a bed you could put quarters in,” he said. “You know the kind.”
That’s when Poulson got more aggressive with his advances, VanSickle said. The two had a physical confrontation, and VanSickle was able to get away.
“It was a long, quiet ride home,” VanSickle said. “We never made it to Cedar Point … not that I cared.
“I ended the relationship without saying anything,” he said. VanSickle went off to college. Poulson came to visit. He brought gifts, left money, “showered me with gifts. He was trying to buy my silence.”
VanSickle said the last time Poulson visited him, he brought along a student from Gannon University. “He was flaunting it, like it was his new boyfriend,” VanSickle said. “And I was actually jealous. That’s how deep the grooming had gone.”
VanSickle told his father, but kept it from his devout Catholic mother for about 10 years.
This February, when Poulson was accused in Cambridge Springs, VanSickle shared his story with family and friends. He had some trepidation, but thought he was prepared for the backlash he anticipated.
“I got an outpouring of support,” he said, adding that he was very surprised.
On Tuesday, VanSickle said, “Today, when he was arrested, in a little way I was elated that justice was about to be served.”
But that’s not all he felt.
“In some ways I was saddened because I still have feelings … he was kind to me,” VanSickle said, explaining Poulson was there for him during an impressionable time in his life.
With a laugh, VanSickle said, “My wife of 33 years is a saint for putting up with me. My kids, too.”
Through it all, he has managed to separate his feelings for religion from his feelings for what happened to him.
“My faith was never shaken,” he said. He is not a practicing Catholic.
“I have no feelings toward religion or the good people of the church,” VanSickle said. “I have issues with humans, who are fallible.”
He does harbor strong feelings toward people who may have known about abusive priests, but did nothing.
“Not only should the priests be held accountable, but so should anybody who covered this up,” he said. “I do believe Bishop (Donald) Trautman and Bishop (Lawrence) Persico (of the Erie Diocese) knew.
“Father Poulson came forward in 2010 and said he becomes aroused around adolescent boys and he had a problem,” VanSickle said, explaining Shapiro said so during a press conference Tuesday.
According to a statement from Persico, released late Tuesday, he became bishop in October 2012. “At that time and until the production of documents to the grand jury, Father Poulson’s name was not raised.”
In January, when one of the more current victims came forward, the diocese suspended Poulson.
“The diocese apologizes for the crimes of its priests/employees and has taken numerous steps to ensure that the sins of the past are not repeated,” a statement from the diocese read, while outlining plans for going forward.
VanSickle said he’s hopeful that this is the end of the secrecy.
“There’s no other state that’s ever had six diocese being investigated at the same time,” he said. “I really want to help others come forward and I want to help the church become as transparent as they say they are.”
He wants others to know that they aren’t alone, and encourages people who had been victimized to come forward and get help.
“I would like to see some sort of organization where people could come forward to talk with other victims,” VanSickle said. He’d like the Erie Diocese to follow the Buffalo (N.Y.) Diocese’s example, to create a fund and hear cases and get some justice for victims.
“I’m not looking for a pay day,” he said, adding he’s more concerned that the abused come together to help and support each other. “It’s like the ‘me too’ movement. One voice doesn’t get the job done. I think the change will be much greater if we can pull together.”
What message would VanSickle send to the others at BCC whom he suspects were abused, too?
“Don’t be afraid to come forward. There’s a lot of support; there’s a lot of relief in it. People have a right to stay silent.”
It doesn’t take bravery to come forward, VanSickle said. “Bravery is what I have going forward from here.”
VanSickle offered his contact information for any victim who may want to reach out. His email address is email@example.com and his phone number is (412) 403-4720.