Memory of childhood rape by priest motivates Warwick man to fight for other victims
By Amanda Milkovits
November 23, 2018
|David Silipigni, in the room in Warwick where he lived until recently, talks about the sexual and physical abuse he says he endured as a young boy at St. Aloysius Home in Smithfield.|
|A family snapshot shows David Silipigni, age 6, in the backyard of his family’s home on O’Neil Street in Providence’s Eagle Park neighborhood.|
|St. Aloysius Home in Smithfield in 1976. Run by the Diocese of Providence, it closed in 1994 amid allegations of sexual abuse by more than a dozen boys in its care.|
|A file photo from 1958 shows one of the wards at the St. Aloysius Home in Smithfield.|
|Ex-priest Robert McIntyre, former director of the St. Aloysius Home, was not in charge while David Silipigni lived there and alleges he was raped by a priest. But McIntyre disputes the allegation: “He didn’t tell anyone because it didn’t happen.”|
Photo by Bob Breidenbach
|Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee will again sponsor a bill that would extend Rhode Island’s statute of limitations from seven years to 35 to allow lawsuits against those who sexually abuse children and those who employ the perpetrators.|
Photo by Kris Craig
David Silipigni says his life was ruined by what happened to him as a child at the St. Aloysius Home, an orphanage run by the Diocese of Providence. Now he’s fighing to give other victims the legal remedy that he’ll never have.
WARWICK — For nearly his entire life, David S. Silipigni has lived in a jail cell or a room the size of one.
He paces a room the way memories pace his mind, turning to what he says happened nearly 50 years ago, when he was a little boy in the care of a Catholic orphanage in Smithfield.
Silipigni says that he was sexually assaulted by a priest while living at St. Aloysius Home.
He says he remembers the weight of the man’s chin on his head while he was being raped in the basement.
He says he remembers when the same man shoved his hands down his pants in a room off the chapel.
For a long time, Silipigni didn’t tell anyone. Silence tortured him.
The 57-year-old man has been incarcerated. He’s been homeless. He’s been a thief. He’s been addicted to drugs. He was saved from suicide. It didn’t stop him from trying to kill himself slowly.
He’s been in and out of most mental-health treatment programs in Rhode Island and remains in the care of a psychologist and psychiatrist. He’s trapped by thoughts of shame and rage.
What Silipigni wants now is what the Rhode Island Supreme Court and state law won’t give him — the ability to sue the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.
So, he’ll take his case to the State House. State Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee pre-filed legislation last week to extend Rhode Island’s statute of limitations from seven years to 35 to allow lawsuits against those who sexually abuse children and those who employ the perpetrators.
Although her efforts rose out of her older sister’s abuse by their family’s parish priest, McEntee said she’s been overwhelmed with calls from other people who said they were victims.
The diocese points out that it offers pastoral counseling and assistance with therapy to people who allege they were sexually abused by clergy. McEntee’s sister was reimbursed $12,500 for therapy, provided she signed away her right to sue the diocese.
Silipigni isn’t interested.
“That’s bull— after the damage they did. They can take that therapy and do you-know-what,” he says. “Tell them to write a check for a million dollars — they’ll do anything but that. They’ll just pass the [collection] basket over and over.”
There’s no chance of a financial settlement for Silipigni and others like him — the state Supreme Court decided long ago that cases which have expired under a statute of limitations can’t be revived.
All he hopes for now is for his story to convince other victims of sexual abuse that secrets don’t stay buried.
And he hopes when he testifies on McEntee’s bill next year that he can make legislators understand how childhood sexual abuse stunted his life.
“I’m not going to give up. I’m going to tell them what [the priest] did to me,” Silipigni said. “It’s worse than murder. They took everything I had and left me alive. It’s worse than killing me.”
The stately three-story, brick-faced building on Austin Avenue, in Greenville, that once housed the orphanage is now home to an international Catholic boarding school for girls.
St. Aloysius Home closed nearly 25 years ago after a flurry of sexual-abuse allegations from more than a dozen boys in its care and troubling findings by the state child advocate and an independent consultant.
Former residents and their families sued the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, which had a contract with St. Aloysius to provide residential treatment for abused and neglected boys; the diocese; then-Bishop Louis E. Gelineau; and the Rev. Robert J. McIntyre, who’d been the home’s director since the mid-1970s. McIntyre was also accused as a perpetrator.
After the orphanage closed in January 1994, McIntyre left the priesthood, and a Superior Court jury eventually cleared him of being a perpetrator. Other lawsuits were rejected or dismissed in the courts for various reasons.
In 2002, the state Supreme Court determined that a man claiming abuse at the orphanage had missed the statute of limitations. The decision had an impact on more than three dozen other lawsuits alleging the diocese had covered up child sexual abuse by priests going back to the 1960s.
One of the lawyers who represented victims says he still hears from other people who say they were abused at St. Aloysius. Timothy J. Conlon says there is nothing he can do to help them.
“It’s not the kid’s fault. The nature of abuse is insidious,” Conlon said. “But there’s nothing you can do under the statute.”
In the 1960s, David Silipigni was growing up in Providence’s Eagle Park, a working-class, mostly Italian neighborhood.
“Nothing was easy for us. My father was so broke,” said David’s younger brother, Paul. He remembered “wish sandwiches” — “two slices of bread and we wished there was something in it.”
During the Hong Kong flu pandemic in 1969, the boys’ mother, Irene, became sick and died within days in January. Their father, Santo, was left to raise David, who was 7, and Paul, who wasn’t yet 2.
It was too much for him. After burying his wife, Santo brought Paul to live with the boy’s grandmother. He pulled David out of second grade at Veazie Street School and drove him to St. Aloysius.
David remembers the tall nun who grasped his hand as his father walked away.
“I don’t remember what he told me,” Silipigni says now. “I just remember crying and watching him walk out that front door.”
For more than a century, St. Aloysius Home was the last refuge for children with nowhere to go.
The Sisters of Mercy had run the orphanage since 1862, first in South Providence and when the home moved to Greenville in 1941. The children lived in the dormitory wings of the brick building on Austin Avenue, attended the chapel and went to classes at the adjoining St. Peter’s School.
As enrollment dwindled in the late 1960s, St. Aloysius began taking in youths from broken or troubled homes. Most were referred by the state, which paid for their care, with support from Catholic Charities.
In January 1969, the Rev. Rene Guertin, who’d been the chaplain at St. Aloysius since the 1940s, left to become pastor at a church in Burrillville. The Sisters of Mercy added staff members, including two brothers from the Our Lady of Providence seminary. Over the next several years, until McIntyre arrived in the mid-1970s, there were different chaplains, according to news archives and former residents.
When Silipigni came to St. Aloysius in early 1969, there would have been between 50 to 60 boys and girls living there, from 6 to 16 years old.
Terry Self, who lived there with his sister from November 1967 to June 1971, remembered outings to Rocky Point amusement park, Christmas parties, ice skating, movie nights, cookouts and Boy Scouts.
“We had a blast when we were there,” said Self. “I grew up in horrible conditions, so to me, St. Aloysius was paradise.”
He remembered Silipigni, who was two years younger, a small boy with glasses who often played in the yard.
“Dave was a goofy little kid,” Self said. “He was playful.”
Self remembered Guertin — “We put him on a pedestal” — but the next few priests left fleeting impressions.
He said the nuns were hard on the children, but he didn’t hear anything then about abusive priests.
“If anything like that happened, it would have been to someone who was meek,” Self said.
In the home, Silipigni said, he found no mercy. The nun who’d held his hand when his father left turned out to be especially cruel, he said, and singled him out for beatings.
Unlike the nuns, the chaplains weren’t around all the time.
Silipigni doesn’t remember the name of the priest who he says sexually assaulted him, or the exact dates of the incidents. He doesn’t remember the priest saying anything to him.
But Silipigni is sure that it happened. “Pain is the one thing you never forget,” he said.
The first time, he said, he was 7 or 8, roller-skating in the basement with the other children. “We were all downstairs, and for some reason I stayed down there.”
He remembers being in a room off the basement with the priest. “I don’t know how I ended up down there by myself, but I ended up in a room there,” Silipigni said, “and he started rubbing.”
The priest groped him, Silipigni said. He felt the man’s chin on his head.
“Pain was what I remember the most. ... The level of pain tells me what this guy did,” he said. “I remember not being able to sit down. I remember blood. I was saying, ‘Why am I bleeding?’ I just thought I was getting spanked again. I didn’t know. I just couldn’t sit down, that’s all I knew.”
Silipigni said he didn’t tell anyone. He remembers that he didn’t want to eat for the rest of the week, “because I didn’t want to have to go to the bathroom because it hurt so bad.”
He said a second encounter occurred in a room off the chapel. “I remember he started rubbing my back and pulled my shorts down and started rubbing,” Silipigni said.
When his father came to pick him up on some weekends, Silipigni said nothing about the priest. He just dreaded the drive back to the orphanage on Sunday evenings.
Sometime in 1971, his father finally took Silipigni back to their home in Eagle Park.
He was a different boy.
He didn’t tell anyone about what happened at St. Aloysius.
“How could I tell everybody from Eagle Park what happened to me? Then I’d get a beatin’ on top of it from all the guys in the neighborhood,” Silipigni says. “When you grow up in an old-fashioned Italian neighborhood, how are you going to tell somebody you were sexually and physically abused?”
His anger built against those closest to him. At his father, for sending him away. At his relatives, who didn’t take him in. At his younger brother, who found refuge with a grandmother.
“When David first came back, I don’t think it affected him that bad,” Paul Silipigni said. “But then he changed.”
After Veazie Street School, Silipigni went to Hope High, joining a “melting pot” of teenagers from different Providence neighborhoods.
“He was high-strung, but he fit in with us,” said David Lapatin, who was a classmate on the baseball team with Silipigni.
They were friends, Lapatin said, but, “You could tell there was something going on with Dave.”
Silipigni dropped out in 10th grade. Lapatin graduated and joined the Providence Police Department.
The next time he encountered Silipigni, they were on different sides of the law.
“I now know he had deep secrets that haunted him, but to come out with them in the 1970s — that didn’t happen,” Lapatin said.
Silipigni didn’t know where he belonged.
He’d stopped going to high school because he’d become too depressed to get out of bed. His father, a decorated World War II Army veteran, pushed him to get his GED and join the military.
After basic training, Silipigni returned to Providence and joined other neighborhood teens breaking into a house. A brief news article said the victim was a nun.
Silipigni was thrown out of the military.
He was 19 and stealing so he could buy marijuana and cocaine. He needed to be high. “It helps you forget about who you are, and what really happened,” he said.
For the next 25 years, Silipigni would be arrested more than 40 times and convicted 16 times, mostly for break-ins, fraudulent checks and drug possession.
He stole from family, neighbors, strangers. His father occasionally brought his brother to visit Silipigni at the Adult Correctional Institutions, but the boys never got along. “When David got in trouble, there was nothing anyone could do,” Paul Silipigni said.
Other officers told Lapatin about seeing Silipigni on the streets.
“He would run, he always ran, but he wouldn’t fight,” said Lapatin, now the major in charge of the Providence police investigative bureau. “He had a drug habit, and that’s why he broke into houses.”
Silipigni spent nearly 20 years in and out of the ACI, where he thrived on the prison’s structure.
He took EMT classes. He entered into a program that helps inmates change their behavior through changing the way they think.
“You’re as sick as your secrets,” he says he learned. “The more secrets you keep, the more they’re going to come out.”
St. Aloysius stayed buried.
One of the correctional officers called him a “professional inmate,” which Silipigni took as a compliment. He became a porter at the ACI, a trusted job for an inmate.
Kenneth Walker, now retired as parole board chairman, said he told the board’s administrator that he’d be comfortable having Silipigni work in their offices.
“He was a good person. He wasn’t sneaky. He wasn’t vicious,” Walker said. “He never blamed anyone for his problems.”
Silipigni just couldn’t stay out of prison.
“When David came in, I said, ‘What are you doing? You’re doing life on the installment plan,’” Walker remembered.
Silipigni would hang his head and apologize. To Walker, the inmate was like a little boy. “He’s lovable to me,” Walker said.
Outside the ACI, he’d burned away all of his relationships.
Said Paul Silipigni: “The only time he straightened out was when my father died.”
Santo “Chick” Silipigni died at the Providence VA Medical Center in July 2004. David was locked up, again, so Paul handled the funeral services alone.
David Silipigni was released three weeks later. He ended up at Zambarano Hospital, ruminating. “I’m no good. I lived an embarrassing life. I embarrassed my father. I spent my whole life getting my father back for putting me away. I stole everything he ever had. My father never had nothing because I took it all.”
He cried for their lost chances to reconcile. He played Neil Young’s song “Old Man” over and over:
“Look at how the time goes past
But I’m all alone at last
Rolling home to you”
A year later, Silipigni tried to kill himself.
His father left his old Pontiac to Silipigni. He sold it for drugs.
He blew the money in a crackhouse in Providence. When the money was gone, the junkies threw him out.
With nowhere left to go, Silipigni decided to die.
He took his shirt off and tied it around a railing in a stairwell. He tied the other end around his neck. “I took my shoes off and stood on the railing, and I slipped off the railing,” Silipigni said.
“And God saved me.”
Two security guards found him, cut him down and called an ambulance.
Silipigni was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar-1 disorder, massive depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
He was still an addict. In February 2008, Silipigni was buying a $20 bag of marijuana in South Providence when two narcotics detectives pulled up. Guess who we just arrested? they told Lapatin.
It would be the last time.
Silipigni cycled through treatment programs but stayed quiet. Until one day, when a friend from Eagle Park was talking about his grandchildren and mentioned that they could be going into state custody because their mother couldn’t care for them.
Don’t let them go, Silipigni told him. He started telling his old friend about St. Aloysius. “I wanted him to know what them places do,” he said.
Once Silipigni broke his silence, he realized he was no longer afraid.
He told his brother’s girlfriend, Deanna Marsella, who also grew up in the neighborhood. She understood why he’d never told anyone back then: “A lot of people are scared to say and are ashamed, especially men, especially when it’s another man.”
Silipigni also told his old classmate Lapatin.
“Am I surprised?” Lapatin says. “Listening and reading about other people who’ve come to light in the 1970s, I’m not surprised.”
In May 2014, Silipigni told a therapist at Thundermist Health Center that he’d been physically and sexually abused at St. Aloysius. This was the first time he’d told a stranger.
He was 52 years old.
Each time he tells someone, Silipigni finds the words come a little easier. But there is no forgiveness.
“They took my life,” Silipigni said. “What’s a man’s life worth?”
Sometime last year, he decided to call a lawyer. He found out that he was decades too late to make the diocese pay.
Under Rhode Island law, those who say they were abused as children have seven years after they turn 18, or when they should reasonably know of the abuse, to bring a case in civil court.
While there is no statute of limitations to prosecute the crimes of rape and child molestation, there’s a higher standard of proof in criminal cases. Civil actions are seen as better remedies.
Yet because of the shame, fear, pain and secrecy surrounding childhood sexual abuse, many victims delay telling anyone for years. Statistically, only a third of victims disclose when they are children — and another third never tell anyone, according to Child USA, a nonprofit think-tank that researches policies for child protection.
The average age that a person discloses childhood sexual abuse, according to Child USA, is 52.
“You’re looking at someone who had a time bomb planted in them as a child,” says Conlon, the Providence lawyer.
He and lawyer Carl P. DeLuca sued the Diocese of Providence on behalf of multiple victims of clergy sexual abuse, including at St. Aloysius. Their lawsuits forced open the church files on numerous accused pedophile priests. The diocese settled three dozen cases for $14 million in 2002; by 2008, the settlements rose to $15.8 million.
Conlon said he hears from others who say they were victims, including at St. Aloysius. He has to tell them that time has run out.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court has said it’s unconstitutional to revive a case after the statute of limitations has expired. Expanding the statute of limitations, which Representative McEntee hopes to do, would only benefit someone for whom the clock is still running.
The diocese has an Office of Compliance, headed by a retired state police major, and policies to screen clergy, establish a code of conduct, and report all allegations. For those who claim to be victims, the diocese also offers counseling assistance.
The Rev. Bernard Healey, lobbyist for the diocese and director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, said in a statement Wednesday that it’s been “significantly under-reported” that the diocese reports all abuse allegations to police and, since 2016, to the attorney general’s office. “This protocol, which is unique to the Diocese, goes over and above the mandatory reporting requirements in the Rhode Island General Laws,” Healey said.
How many allegations? How many had criminal charges? How much has the diocese paid to victims? “We do not have those statistics available at this time,” responded a spokeswoman for the diocese.
In September, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin held a special weekday Mass at the Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul to reflect on the failures of the Church dealing with clergy sexual abuse of children. Though the cathedral can seat 1,500 people, barely 150 attended.
“They clearly have a significant problem, and it’s only in the last decade that people are seeing how significant it is,” Conlon said. “It’s good that they have the office [of compliance] and pay for counseling. But on the flip side, they’re going to do everything they can to take away people’s rights.”
In the last legislative session, the diocese lobbied against expanding the statute of limitations unless it was “prospective,” meaning it would only apply to people abused after the law is passed.
As revelations of clergy abuse erupt across the country, the attorneys general from multiple states and Washington, D.C., have launched investigations. In Pennsylvania, a grand jury reported the Catholic Church covered up the abuse of more than 1,000 children by 300 priests over seven decades.
Rhode Island doesn’t have a law to allow a grand jury to issue a report without an indictment. Attorney General-elect Peter Neronha has said Rhode Island should. He also supports extending the civil statute of limitations. So does Gov. Gina Raimondo.
Whether McEntee’s bill will get to the governor’s desk remains to be seen. Most Rhode Island lawmakers told The Journal they support extending the statute of limitations. However, after opposition from the diocese, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello let the last bill die without a vote.
“The question is, who are they protecting?” McEntee said recently. “It’s time to clean house.”
The former director of St. Aloysius Home is astonished by the widespread allegations of clergy abuse across the globe.
“I never heard of that in all the years I was there,” Robert McIntyre said recently in interviews with The Journal. “You never talked about it. It never came up.”
McIntyre left the priesthood in the mid-1990s, after St. Aloysius closed and former residents of the home sued him, Bishop Gelineau, the diocese and DCYF over allegations of abuse.
McIntyre had run the home since the mid-1970s, taking over from the Sisters of Mercy, and expanded its care to include boys who needed treatment for sexual abuse. Then, in 1993, the home foundered financially when DCYF removed children over abuse allegations.
An independent consultant and expert in child sexual abuse found problems at St. Aloysius at least since 1988. Then-state child advocate Laureen D’Ambra (now a Family Court judge) filed a lawsuit. Family Court heard allegations that St. Aloysius wasn’t following Rhode Island’s law on reporting child abuse.
McIntyre had a long-standing practice of investigating all allegations of abuse himself before deciding whether to notify DCYF. If he didn’t believe an allegation, nothing was reported.
He says now that there weren’t any problems to report. The only one he recalled was a staff member who had young boys sit on his lap while watching movies (court records alleged the man fondled boys). McIntyre said he fired the staffer.
McIntyre believes the child advocate just wanted to get children out of institutions and into smaller, group home settings and foster homes.
As for the boys and their parents crying abuse? “Listen, I’m telling you, how could it possibly be that they would say that, when I was there?” McIntyre insisted. “Nothing happened there. Nothing.”
Nothing came of the civil lawsuits against him. McIntyre believes the lawyers and accusers were just out for money.
Louis J. McIntyre, 49, one of two boys McIntyre adopted from St. Aloysius, said the experience made them bitter. “He’s been there for children all his life. He adopted me and my brother, and he’s been there for us, through thick and thin.”
McIntyre, now 81, lives in North Providence, about a mile away from where Silipigni grew up in Eagle Park. (Silipigni had left the home when McIntyre became director.)
When told of Silipigni’s allegations, McIntyre laughed.
“No, no, I don’t believe any of it,” McIntyre said. “He didn’t tell anybody because it didn’t happen.”
Jars of medication for his physical and mental illnesses sit on a shelf in Silipigni’s small room in Warwick. Religious memorabilia and an American flag decorate the walls. Silipigni lives on disability checks for mental illness and part-time work washing windows. His truck broke down recently and left him struggling to pay bills.
“I was never abandoned by God. He will never leave me. His promises are right here,” Silipigni said. He touched his Bibles — one belonged to his parents, and the other was his from the ACI.
Silipigni believes there is a reason for his suffering. He just wishes he knew what it was.
“I’m 57 years old and I live in a closet,” he says, sitting in his narrow room. “I’ve never had my own bathroom. I never had my own kitchen. I’ve never had my own real place.
“I never had a meaningful relationship.
“I never had any happiness.
“I’ve never had love.”