Survivors' Faith Can't Be Broken by Abusive Priests

By John A. Zukowski
The Express-Times
February 27, 2004

At one time David Cerulli wanted to be a priest.

When he was in the fourth grade at St. Francis of Assisi School in Allentown, he wrote an essay detailing how he'd like to be a priest when he grew up. The nuns at the school smiled and praised the essay, he remembers.

By the time he was in the seventh grade in 1964 Cerulli's thoughts turned more to girls. He wasn't sure he still wanted to be a priest. But he hadn't ruled it out.

His interest in the priesthood attracted St. Francis' priest, the Rev. John Paul Sabas. Maybe he could help him make the decision, the priest suggested.

So during the summer before eighth grade the priest started spending extra time with the 14-year-old altar boy.

Little did Cerulli or his parents know it had nothing to do with the priesthood.

"It was just manipulation," Cerulli says. "From the moment we were alone together, his only interest was having me as a sexual object. The priesthood never came up."

It started one night when Sabas took him for a drive.

They pulled onto a country road. Sabas started talking about sex and rubbing Cerulli's leg.

Then Sabas asked Cerulli if he had ever had oral sex before. Cerulli said no.

Sabas pulled the car over, shut off the engine and started performing the sexual act on Cerulli.

"I felt I couldn't say no to this man," he recalls. "There was a part of me thinking this was so bizarre. And another part of me was wondering if it was OK because it was a priest."

More oral sex and what he called rapes occurred in other places, he says. At the church. At the school. On a trip to Jones Beach.

Even at his family's home.

That happened after Sabas purchased a slot car set for him as a gift. Cerulli believes he bought it so that he could be alone to molest him while they were together with the set in the family's basement.

"And he told me not to even think about telling anyone because no one would believe me over a priest," he says.

So Cerulli said nothing. And Sabas helped intimidate Cerulli into being quiet by saying he could help pay for his college education.

The summer ended. And Cerulli was spared more pain when Sabas was transferred to another church.

Along with that went the end of one dream.

"After being abused and raped by a Catholic priest at age 14 there was no way I was ever going to be a priest," he says.

It was also the beginning of the end of something else: attending church.

But Cerulli still had to attend the church for several years. That's because his family diligently went to Mass each Sunday. So he continued to go.

But he remembers something that haunted him then.

Something that still troubles him now.

And it's part of the reason that he will step into a church only for weddings or funerals.

It was how he squirmed in his seat as he listened to Sabas' homilies. Sabas was a charismatic priest he recalls. And often the priest captivated his congregation during his homilies.

But Cerulli sometimes wonders why he didn't do one thing during those painful moments sitting in a church pew.

"I wish I had whatever it would take to scream out to everyone, 'You don't know what this guy does, don't listen to a word he says, it's all b.s.,'" he says.

Cerulli stopped attending Mass after he graduated high school.

And he never felt the same way about the priesthood.

"When I was a child I believed that a priest was next to God," he says. "As I got older I realized I was abused by a man and I was able to separate that from the religion."

However, he later grew frustrated with the leadership in the Catholic Church. That happened years later when he filed a complaint to the Allentown Diocese after he learned Sabas was still an active priest. (The Allentown Diocese paid Cerulli a $40,000 settlement in 1991. Sabas died in 1996.)

More frustration with the Catholic Church leadership came when news broke about the widespread and devastating priest abuse scandal at Boston and at other dioceses.

"The institutional leaders of the church for me do not exemplify Christianity or any kind of moral or spiritual leadership," he says. "So I am not able to continue to have a relationship with the Catholic Church."

Beliefs lay scattered

Cerulli and other abuse victims say that when abuse happens by clergy, they not only wrestle with all the other emotions abuse victims suffer.

They have another problem.

What do they do about their religious beliefs?

"If someone is abused it can get in the way of someone's spiritual life and in the way of God, especially if it happened with a religious leader," says the Rev. Edith Roberts of St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. "In many people's eyes they are representatives of God. If that person violates them, it's akin to God doing something to them."

It's a battle that starts when the abuse begins, alleged abuse victims say.

'God didn't do it'

"When you're growing up, you're told not to sin and you're told not to have a guy touch you, so when a priest does it, it's really confusing," says Juliann Bortz of Allentown. "You wonder if it's all right for a priest to do it."

Bortz's alleged abuse happened when she was a teenager. She claims the Rev. Frank Fromholzer abused her in 1965 when he was a teacher at Central Catholic High School in Allentown. He first fondled and abused Bortz after he took her on a daytrip to the Poconos. He also later abused Bortz in his car and the church basement, Bortz alleges.

Bortz is one of five people who filed a lawsuit against the Allentown Diocese in January.

Among the effects of the alleged abuse was "a loss of faith and a mistrust of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church," the suit stated.

The lawsuit was filed by Leisawitz Heller Abramowitch Phillips in Wymossing, Pa., a law firm which has filed suits against several Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses, including the Allentown and Philadelphia dioceses. One of the firm's attorneys say abuse by clergy leads to a common trauma.

"It's just about the ultimate psychological ordeal that someone can suffer," says Jay N. Abramowitch. "It's akin to being raped by a parent, because in a lot of cases it happened when they were altar boys or people whose families put priests on pedestals and said that priests could do no wrong."

Some abuse victims find themselves somehow trying to hold onto faith despite what happened to them.

Bortz still considers herself a Catholic, even though she hasn't been able to attend church since the scandal broke and she started speaking publicly about it.

There have even been times when she's pulled into a church parking lot, stopped her car, and sat there, watching other people go into the Allentown church she once attended.

"I hope that I can someday go to church again, but I just can't do it now," she says.

She misses Mass. She misses taking Holy Communion.

Instead, her religion comes out in other ways.

Sometimes she goes alone to a chapel. She says she carries rosary beads in her pockets and a container of holy water in her purse.

Even though her children were brought up in her husband's Protestant church, she put a spot of holy water on her children's first cars. That's because her mother did it. She took out her holy water again when someone had a stroke at a home.

She says she still believes in God.

"God didn't do it and he's not happy with what happened," she says.

Faith in God remains

Cerulli -- who now lives in New York City -- also says he still believes in God.

"He didn't take that away from me," he says about Sabas.

But he doesn't belong to a church or any organized religion.

Not that he hasn't tried.

He and his second wife were married in a church. She was a practicing Catholic. So he tried to be a Catholic again.

But the memories came back. And the pain of what he calls the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church resurfaced.

"I think that kind of hypocrisy exists in most organized religions," he says. "It's the idea that the reputation of the church is more important than protecting the people in the church."

Over the years, he's dabbled in transcendental meditation and also studied some Zen Buddhism. But he hasn't stuck with a spiritual practice.

"I've never been able to really become fixed on any kind of organized religious structure," he says. "I have found my most spiritual moments walking through a forest or out in nature. My cathedral would be among tall trees."

'I can forgive him'

Other people have had to go deep inside their faith to still maintain it when family members have been abused.

That happened to a New Jersey woman -- The Express-Times is withholding her name -- an avid churchgoer who in 2002 took her children to a Wednesday night program at the Faith Community Assembly of God Church in Palmer Township.

It was called the Royal Rangers and she described it as something like a Boy Scout Group.

A church volunteer started to take an interest in her children.

Although none of the abuse that would occur happened at the church, she later found out the church never performed a background check on the volunteer. (Because the volunteer had no previous convictions, nothing would have turned up even if a background check was done.)

Soon the volunteer wanted to know if he could take their children fishing. She asked around about who he was. People told her the man "was OK" and because of his personality he took an interest in children.

A month after that fishing trip, one of her children told her that the man was letting them swear. That troubled her.

"This was a man who professed to be a Christian," she remembers thinking.

One of her children said the man told her not to tell their mother they could swear.

"Then I started wondering what else he told them not to tell me," she says. "I went to one of my other children and got a whole lot more out of him."

What she later found out was that the man was abusing her children.

Warren County officials later said Robert Briglia, 22, molested the children at his Pohatcong Township apartment during the month of June 2002.

Briglia was initially charged with engaging in acts of sexual penetration with an 8-year-old boy, having sexual contact with a 6-year-old girl and engaging in sexual conduct with a 9-year-old boy.

He later pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault involving one of the children and two second-degree counts of endangering the welfare of the other two children. The agreement spared the children from testifying in court. In August 2003, Briglia was sentenced to four years in jail.

The woman's mother said she and her children have gone for counseling. And she has told her children not to associate the abuse with a religious figure.

"He might say he's a Christian, but everybody's not what they say they are," she says she's told her children.

She hopes her children don't connect the abuse to religion. One of her children was initially "a little funny about going back to church" after the abuse, she says. (She and her children have moved and go to a different church.)

Despite what happened, she believes that somehow God has a plan for what happened and that it can't be all bad.

"I just trust there's a reason for all of this, which I know sounds silly to some people," she says. "Maybe it's because one day my children will be able to help someone else who has been through the same thing."

Along the way she's also had to wrestle with a spiritual belief she says is important to her.

That's forgiveness.

Briglia apologized in court. And through her Christian beliefs she says she's been able to forgive the man who abused her children.

Despite that, she's concerned that he will be released from prison in a few years when he will be either 25 or 26 years old.

"I can forgive him and I've had people upset at me that I can forgive him," she says. "But that doesn't mean that I want him out of jail and that doesn't mean that I want him near my kids or anyone else's kid."

But being a Christian means forgiving, she says.

"If you don't forgive you stay angry and bitter and you punish yourself," she says. "I don't want to be hateful the rest of my life. You need to watch and make sure it doesn't happen again, but God says 'vengeance is mine.'"


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