Man Who Told Catholic Church about Past Sexual Abuse Says He Was Brushed Aside
By Deena Yellin
North Jersey Record
April 4, 2019
When Johnrocco Sibilia finally broke a 29-year silence about the priest who sexually abused him when he was a teenager, he said he hoped to ease his pain and extinguish the demons that tortured him for years.
Instead, he said he was thrown into a labyrinth of frustration that left him wondering if opening up about his past was a mistake.
At first, he said he was hopeful, moved by Cardinal Joseph Tobin's impassioned speeches apologizing for the sins of the church, and urging victims to step forward.
But when he approached the Archdiocese of Newark, he said, each person to whom he revealed his terrible secret either sent him to someone else or brushed him aside.
One reason could be that his alleged abuser, the Rev. Rene Lima, was a member of the Society of Divine Vocations (SDV), also known as the Vocationist Fathers, a Roman Catholic congregation of priests founded by the Rev. Justin Russolilo in 1920.
The dioceses do not consider it their responsibility to investigate claims against religious orders, even if their priests work in diocese churches.
|Johnrocco Sibilia recently broke his silence about the abuse that he endured when he was 13. (Photo: Deena Yellin)|
As a result, the victims of religious order priests have fallen through the bureaucratic cracks, experts say. Their abusers are excluded from lists of credibly accused priests, and the victims are not generally compensated through the diocese funds, experts say.
There are about 11,424 Catholic religious order priests in the United States, including the Vocationist Order, Jesuits, Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based in Washington, D.C.
The religious order priests fall under the umbrella of the Catholic Church and each reports to a superior based in Rome, often working in cooperation with the Vatican. The order's national leaders, because of the way the orders are run, tend to be unknown to the public and not accustomed to public accountability.
The Rev. Michael Reardon, SDV, pastor of St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church in Newark, estimates there are 39 priests and brothers in the U.S. who are part of the Vocationist Fathers. St. Michael's is served by Vocationist Fathers, but is considered part of the Catholic diocese and sends priests to serve at diocese churches, Reardon said.
If there's an accusation of abuse made, there's a procedure, Reardon said. "We would inform the local authorities, the local diocese, and refer them to someone at the diocese that handles the procedure of the investigation," he said — meaning the Newark Archdiocese would investigate allegations, even against a Vocationist.
Attorney Mitch Garabedian, however, who has represented numerous victims of abuse by diocesan priests and order priests alike,said the dioceses in general have refused to aid victims of the Vocationist Order and other order priests, even those working in churches of the archdiocese.
"The archdiocese wants to distance itself from any pedophile priest for financial and public relations reasons ... the added argument is that the order priest did not belong to the archdiocese is also used."
But Garabedian said the archdiocese is obligated to police any priest working within its boundaries: "If the archdiocese is allowing that priest to work in its churches, the archdiocese is responsible for the supervision of the priest."
"The archdiocese and Vocationist Fathers are playing the blame game," he said.
Robert Hoatson, a New Jersey-based advocate for clergy abuse survivors, said he has seen it numerous times: The "superiors of the religious order very often do not treat the cases seriously, while the diocesan bishops wash their hands of the allegations."
Sibilia grew up in a devout Catholic Italian family in the North Ward of Newark. His parents were divorced, and his father largely absent. Sibilia was an active member of the Immaculate Conception Church, part of the Newark Archdiocese, serving as an altar boy, Eucharistic minister and choir member, he said.
The church's pastor was often ill and priests from other churches would frequently fill in, Sibilia said. Among them was Lima, from nearby St. Michael's..
|Father Rene Lima is currently serving in Brazil and is a priest of the Diocese of Guarulhos. (Photo: Internet)|
Sibilia told Lima of his love for the church and yearning to become a priest, and Lima encouraged him. He invited him on a personal tour of St. Michael's and a spiritual house in Florham Park. Sibilia was thrilled by the special attention of the charismatic young priest.
And so began a yearlong relationship that started with friendly talks and visits to his home for family dinners of corned beef and cabbage, but eventually included molestation and oral sex in the church, Lima's bedroom and on a trip to Florida that Lima paid for, Sibilia claims.
Lima repeatedly reassured him that "this is what people do who care about each other," Sibilia recalled. But he felt uncomfortable. "I realized something was wrong," he said. When he was 14, he finally summoned up the courage to end it, Sibilia said. He declined to tell his family what happened and why he was refusing Lima's calls.
Sibilia's older sister, Mary Marrero, remembers liking Lima. "He came to our house numerous times. He met the family, gave my grandfather Communion and came to our dinners." Nobody ever thought it was strange that a priest from another church was so close with her brother, and she said she was shocked to learn the truth last summer.
Erica Sibilia, Johnrocco's wife of nine years, said she was aware of his past a decade ago.
"On the night we got engaged, after he had a few glasses of wine with dinner, he told me that a priest had molested him. I didn't really know what to say or how to take it so I just listened and after that he never mentioned it again and I never brought it up." she said.
Other than that incident, Sibilia carefully hid his secret for 29 years. He was a man, after all. And these things don't happen to real men, he said, pointing to his large chest.
Then came the Pennsylvania grand jury report on abusive priests. Sibilia read it all in one sitting as the tears flowed. Suddenly, a lot of things became clear.
"I got mad at myself. I'm just as guilty as those bishops who knew and didn't do anything. Maybe he touched other children, too." He was determined to act.
But after Sibilia went to the Newark Archdiocese last August, spokesman James Goodness replied in a letter supplied to NorthJersey.com that the Vocationists "would be responsible for investigating the matter and taking any disciplinary action under church law."
Goodness also informed him that Lima had left the order over 20 years ago and returned to Brazil, where he is now a priest in the Diocese of Guarulhos. "We are in the process of notifying the bishop of this diocese of the existence of your allegation," Goodness wrote to Sibilia.
But when a reporter contacted the Diocese of Guarulhos in Brazil, a bishop confirmed Lima serves there, but said nobody had ever contacted the diocese about any allegations.
In December, a photo of Lima with his arm around a teenage boy at a Christmas event was posted on the Facebook page of the Santo Antonio Vila Augusta, the church where Lima serves. Sibilia was distraught when he saw it. "It doesn't look like anyone warned anyone," he said.
Attempts to reach Lima were unsuccessful.
Goodness also told Sibilia he was retiring and that Sibilia should correspond with his replacement, Maria Margiotta. Margiotta, however, told him to reach out to Karen Clark, the coordinator of the Archdiocesan Review Board.
Sibilia was told he would be asked to present his case to a review board, but despite his repeated emails and phone calls, nobody has yet contacted him.
"They don't care," he said flatly.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Margiotta said in a written statement, "We take all allegations seriously and as such we continue to actively and diligently examine the facts of this particular allegations."
She would not clarify whether the archdiocese has a policy regarding order priests. When pressed about the months that have elapsed since Sibilia sent in his complaint, with no word, she declined to comment.
But representatives of Trenton and Metuchen dioceses both said that when religious order priests who serve in the diocese are credibly accused, the diocese would notify law enforcement, notify the major superior of the religious community to which the accused priest belongs, and bar the priest from ministry in the diocese.
Counseling and compensation for the victim would be the responsibility of the religious order, said Tara Smith, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Metuchen.
Sibilia has brought his allegations to the Newark Police Department, where a detective passed the information to the Essex County Prosecutor's Office for review. His case has since been forwarded to the Attorney General's Office, according to a Newark Police spokeswoman.
In frustration, Sibilia recently hired an attorney, Daniel Levin of Philadelphia, to help fight his case.
"He comes off as a very sincere and credible person," Levin said about Sibilia. "The fact that Lima is a Vocationist priest is a big issue because the archdiocese claims he's not a part of the Archdiocese and they are not interested in resolving the situation with those victims even if the abuser was working in their church."
Levin and Sibilia are both hopeful that if Governor Murphy signs a bill extending New Jersey's statute of limitations on sex abuse cases, it could help Sibilia and others like him.
|johnrocco Sibilia with his wife Erica (Photo: Erica Sibilia)|
Now that he has spoken out, a weight has been lifted off his shoulders, Erica said. "He's been carrying this secret around for so long it was weighing him down emotionally and, in some ways, spiritually."
In person, the plainspoken Sibilia is affable and quick to smile. The 42-year-old director of building and grounds enjoys reading, cooking in playing with his two young children.
But the darkness is apparent. "My heart aches every day," he said. "I have suffered so much."
Despite everything, he's a believer who prays every day and always wears a cross around his neck. Religion is what sustained him during his most trying times, he said.
"I have a great love for the Catholic church and all the good priests in it."