Church Compensation Fund Dredges up Old Agonies for Onetime Altar Boy
By Deb Erdley
August 14, 2019
“It’s not about the money.”
In another time and place, Jack (not his real name) said he’d take the $41,990 offered through the Greensburg Catholic Diocese’s compensation fund for clergy sex abuse survivors and toss it back.
Nothing will ever erase what he says the Rev. John J. Nyeste, a trusted priest, did to him 53 years ago in a secluded farmhouse.
These have not been the best of times for Jack.
At 64, struggling to make ends meet and dealing with health problems, the one-time Connellsville altar boy and former seminarian says he’ll likely take what the church is offering. He was given until Monday to make his decision.
He is among hundreds of survivors of clergy child sexual abuse weighing monetary offers that seven Pennsylvania dioceses have extended.
The local dioceses will underwrite such settlements, but they otherwise washed their hands of the process. Church leaders have outsourced the duty of weighing claims to third-party mediators such as Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros or, in the case of the Greensburg Diocese, a Harrisburg-based service known as Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation.
The cash offers are part of the church’s effort to acknowledge the damage priests inflicted on children, many who remained silent for decades until a Pennsylvania grand jury last year gave voice to a festering wound that threatened to upend the Catholic Church.
Survivors who accept fund offers must absolve the church of any future legal and financial liability for the actions of predator priests — even if laws are changed to provide a window for old claims to be brought to court.
Jack shared the paper trail of his journey with the Tribune-Review to shed light on the process.
The last 18 months have been grueling for the semi-retired craftsman. In April 2018, he called a hotline set up by the Pennsylvania attorney general as word was leaking out about a grand jury’s work uncovering decades of old abuse allegations.
“I wanted to express some solidarity with other people who had been abused as children,” he said.
The grand jury report, released Aug. 14, 2018, detailed allegations of abuse against 301 priests over seven decades involving more than 1,000 children and adolescents.
Three months later, Jack handed a letter intended for Bishop Edward Malesic to a woman after a November service at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg.
A week later, he received a letter from Msgr. Raymond Riffle. He wrote that the diocese had referred Jack’s case to ChildLine, the Pennsylvania hotline for child abuse reports, and to Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck. Riffle also offered the services of a therapist employed by Catholic Charities.
Jack was hesitant, still suspicious five decades later of anything the church had to offer. Nonetheless, he said weekly sessions with his therapist have provided some solace and understanding.
“She’s not Catholic,” he said. That alone gave him more comfort that she would indeed keep his confidences, Jack said.
Their work has forced him to confront questions that still bother him:
Were there others who fell prey to Nyeste? Was Nyeste, who died in Cleveland in 1987, a good man who simply slipped once? Why did Nyeste bounce from assignment to assignment?
And what cost, a life, his life?
‘Keep his secret’
Before news accounts of the grand jury’s work, Jack thought he had put the past behind him.
He had married, fathered children who remain his greatest joy and divorced. He had built a life in a community where few know of his contentious relationship with the church that he once considered his greatest refuge.
Jack was the third of five children. He described himself as a painfully shy child, made even more reticent by his father’s harsh discipline.
He said he began to blossom as an altar server under the patient tutelage of Nyeste at St. Emory’s, a tiny Hungarian parish near his Connellsville home.
The priest made him feel special, he noted in his application to the compensation fund.
“I was quiet, shy and timid. But Father Nyeste was kind to me. He had a sense of humor. He didn’t pressure me to talk. I was his main, most dependable altar boy. Sometimes he took all of the altar boys somewhere — a play, the Dairy Queen. Sometimes he took just me. Occasionally, he took me to serve Mass with him to other churches he was responsible for.
“I felt proud to be seen in public with him. I helped him count the collection in the rectory a couple of times. He gave me the keys to the rectory, and I took care of his dogs when he was gone.”
He told how Nyeste would invite altar boys to his farm in the mountains for sledding or swimming. When they went inside, drenched in snow or dripping from a swim, Nyeste encouraged them to take off their clothes and drape them over the stove to dry.
“He sat at the dining room table working, he said on a sermon. But he watched us while we were naked in the next room.”
Finally there came a day when Jack was 11 and Nyeste invited him to the farm alone to help cut grass.
After working outside, Jack said the priest offered him wine.
“He said you have to drink wine if you want to become a priest,” he wrote. “He liked to encourage me toward the priesthood.”
When the priest left the room, Jack said he poured himself more.
“I wanted to show that I could drink like a grown-up. I had what it took to be a priest.”
His first experience with wine sickened him. When he threw up, Jack said Nyeste helped remove his soiled clothing, led him to the couch to rest and covered his naked body with a towel.
Jack said he passed out. When he came to, the priest was on top of him.
“I was shocked. I didn’t know what was happening. … I closed my eyes and pretended I was out again. I soon was out again.”
Later, Nyeste helped him dress.
“He explained that a priest had to keep secrets. He wanted me to keep his secret with him.”
And for years he did.
“If my parents knew, I would be in big trouble. It was my fault for drinking too much,” Jack wrote, explaining his silence.
Jack kept his secret and continued to serve as an altar boy for another year.
It never happened again.
Nyeste left St. Emory’s shortly afterwards.
His assignment record shows he moved around among Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio before dying in Cleveland more than 30 years ago.
None of the dioceses where Nyeste served list him among those credibly accused of child sexual abuse. Although mediators for the compensation fund have offered Jack a settlement, the Greensburg diocese has not publicly added Nyeste to its list of credibly accused priests.
“Every allegation, including those which came in through the Survivor’s Compensation Fund, is immediately reported to ChildLine and reported to law enforcement,” Jerry Zufelt, a spokesman for the Greensburg diocese, wrote in a statement. “If the allegation is found to be credible and substantiated, the priest’s name will be added to the list.”
Peck confirmed that the District Attorney’s Office had received a report about Nyeste from the diocese. Peck declined to discuss what a review showed.
Malesic, through a spokesman, declined to discuss the case or the pastoral impact of such stories.
Initially, Jack’s life in the church continued after Nyeste left.
Believing he had a calling, Jack enrolled in a residential seminary when he was 14 and continued to study for the priesthood.
Nagging questions about his own sexuality grew.
He said he left the seminary “a mess” at 19 after being sodomized by a priest in a storage closet.
After years of failing to hear the voice of God answer his desperate prayers, Jack became an atheist.
This year, when his therapist suggested he apply to the compensation fund, Jack said he was hesitant. He’d never reported his abuse to the church and didn’t think it owed him anything.
Nonetheless, he wrote a lengthy account of his abuse and a heart-wrenching account of a life stripped of trust and faith.
After the agony of putting his story into words, Jack said the scope of the release the compensation fund mediator required him to sign felt like a slap in the face.
Unlike many who applied to the various compensation funds, Jack did not engage a lawyer.
In his written offer, the diocesan mediator informed Jack he would have to meet with a lawyer of his own choosing or one the mediator would supply before signing the paperwork.
The Greensburg diocese closed its fund to applicants May 28. It has not made any interim reports on payments, making it unclear what range of payments the team from Commonwealth has offered. Interim reports from funds in Philadelphia, Scranton and Erie detailed average six-figure payments. The offer made to Jack is on the low side, compared to those.
Jack acknowledges that no one witnessed his assault, that he never reported it to the church and that his assailant has been dead for decades.
“I don’t feel like the church owes me money. But I did feel like the mediation company turned what happened to me and maybe to everyone else into some sort of commodity,” Jack said. “My impression was they had an equation of sorts. I don’t know how they worked it all out.”
He pulled out a stunning black-and-white photograph he took of workmen sand blasting the tower at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Erie.
“They’re sand blasting it, but the big hulking thing remains the same,” he said. “That’s how it feels.”