Chaz Muth, Catholic News Service


Jim VanSickle, right, meets with Father Ray Gramata,
current pastor of St. Bernard Parish, Bradford.

             Pennsylvania survivors of clergy sex abuse spent the week after the release of the Grand Jury Report finding their voice as bishops and priests in the state wrestled with how to address the growing scandal.

             Several survivors traveled the state, speaking about their victimization at the hands of predator priests. Many gathered with members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, better known as SNAP, in front of diocesan buildings throughout Pennsylvania beginning Aug. 20, telling their stories, demanding changes in the statute of limitation laws and calling for accountability from bishopsand the church.

             When survivors and SNAP organizers arrived at the Diocese of Erie, they were greeted by Bishop Lawrence Persico, who invited them to move their news conference from the sidewalk along the street, a good distance from the front of the building, onto the diocesan headquarters property. It took some convincing — even the bishop wondered aloud if he had the right to do so — but participants ultimately accepted the invitation.

            Organizers told members of the media they appreciated the bishop’s presence.

            “I’m quite surprised,” said Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest regional leader, affiliated with the organization for 15 years.

             “I have done press events in many dioceses all over the country and he is the first bishop I have ever met.” 

            About an hour before the event began, Bishop Persico told Catholic News Service his only hesitation about attending was that he didn’t want his presence to overshadow what the survivors came there to say. Ultimately, he decided meeting with them was important for them and for the Catholic Church.

             Though Bishop Persico acknowledged the institution was reeling from the blow of the Grand Jury Report, he said it was a self-inflicted wound and that it was a moral obligation of church leaders to not only do penance for these sins, but to begin the healing process by listening to all of those who are suffering.

             Following the event, Bishop Persico had a private meeting with Pittsburgh resident Jim VanSickle, who has accused a former teacher at Bradford Central Christian High School, Father David Poulson, of molesting him in the late 1970s. Father Poulson was charged last May with indecent assault, endangering the welfare of children and corruption of minors, stemming from an accusation from two other victims.

             Though he had told his parents and wife about an incident involving Poulson many years ago, he didn’t speak out publicly until the priest’s arrest earlier this year.

             “Before I started to speak out, I told my wife (Trish VanSickle), ‘If I do this, I’m doing it all of the way,’” he told CNS. “She understood that meant media coverage and relinquishing our privacy. She was supportive, like she always is, and encouraged me to do it.”

             VanSickle has given countless national media interviews since the Grand Jury Report was released and has become a very public advocate to change Pennsylvania law to allow survivors to file charges and bring civil suits against their assailants decades later.

             “It took me decades to come to terms with what happened to me, and I’m being punished for that with the statute of limitations, meaning, I won’t get my day in court,” he said.

             Though his public crusade has drawn both praise and criticism, Trish VanSickle said it’s been cleansing and therapeutic for her husband, who was prone to erratic mood swings and outbursts before he came to terms with what had happened to him.

             Though people are often afraid to come forward about such abuse at the hands of predator priests, they usually find tremendous relief once they do, said Father Raymond Gramata, pastor at VanSickle’s boyhood parish, St. Bernard in Bradford. The #MeToo movement, a social media campaign that has emboldened women to call out sexual abuse and harassment without being publicly shamed for it, has made the current climate easier for those abused by priests to come forward with less fear of repercussions, Bishop Persico said.

             In the past it wasn’t unusual for accusers to be publicly shamed by parishioners who rallied behind their beloved priest, questioning their honesty and motives for coming forward, he said.

             “We have to stop that kind of shaming,” Father Gramata said, “or else there can be no healing. The people who were harmed and damaged can’t heal if that happens and the church can’t heal either.

             “We can’t continue to sweep this under the carpet,” he said. “We need to air this out and deal with it. Trust me, everyone needs to heal from this.”

This report was excerpted from As survivors find voice, church leaders wrestle with how to address issue by Chaz Muth for Catholic News Service