n the rear of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, the old school friends of the man in the casket were growing agitated. The funeral service for Jim Cunningham was about to begin.
Courtesy of Donna Cunningham
Jim Cunningham from his time as a local elected official.
It was a terrible loss: A 45-year-old father, prison counselor, and hostage negotiator — dead by suicide.
Handkerchiefs were out in the other pews. But near the back, fury decades in the making was boiling over.
"No. I can't do it," Kevin Emery told the others. "We can't stay here for this."
Like Cunningham, each had been a student in the same Northeast Philadelphia parish school, St. Cecilia's, in the 1980s when the Rev. James Brzyski turned their community into a stalking ground. Brzyski (BRISH-kee) had sexually assaulted possibly more than 100 boys during stints at St. Cecilia's and a prior parish, St. John the Evangelist in Lower Makefield, a grand jury later asserted, but like so many abusers had eluded prosecution.
As far as any of Cunningham's boyhood friends had known, the scrawny bookworm with a million-dollar smile had been among the lucky altar boys to avoid the predator's reach. He had earned a master's degree, built a career, even won a seat on his local board of supervisors.
Courtesy of Tommy Cunningham
But in truth, his world had spiraled over a simmering torment: long-ago abuse at the hands of Brzyski. His anguish peaked one February night in Doylestown, surrounded by the same Bucks County SWAT team he had helped with suicide standoffs. His mom had called the police to save her distraught son. Inside, Cunningham had posted a note on Facebook: "This is the face of being raped as a child."
Emery had a screenshot of that message on the smartphone in his pocket. He thought about it as three priests hovered near Cunningham's casket.
This was the second funeral in a year for the St. Cecilia's crew. Classmate Jimmy Spoerl, raped by Brzyski as an altar boy, died in March 2016 after his trauma- and addiction-ravaged body gave up on him. Another victim, John Delaney, sobbed in a pew at the Mass for Cunningham. Others, like Gerad Argeros, stayed away from both funerals, afraid of the demons they might stir.
These men and those who loved them were among a lost generation at St. Cecilia's. Casualties of long-hushed childhood horrors that seemed to have no end. Yet since being labeled a pedophile and walking away from the church decades ago, and despite little dispute about the damage he inflicted on children while wearing a collar, Brzyski roamed the country a free man.
His whereabouts had long been a mystery — though one soon to be solved.
Until he began telling friends last year, Cunningham wasn't known to be one of the priest's victims. Even then, he had kept specifics mostly to himself. Experts say as many as one in four girls and one in six boys endure some form of sexual abuse by age 18. Many hide, ignore, or repress the memories for years — until they confront their secret trauma or are destroyed by it.
As Emery and others left the Warrington church in protest, Cunningham's mother, a secretary at another Catholic parish, remained in the front row. A few pews back was Mike Bruzas, another St. Cecilia's alum and Cunningham's best friend. Brzyski had never targeted him, but he, too, felt damaged.
"Why did I survive and they didn't?"
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff
Mike Bruzas was Jim Cunningham's best friend and next-door neighbor. They attended St. Cecilia's together, too. He and other classmates still feel the sting of the former Rev. James Brzyski, who abused many of their grade-school peers.
"Why did I survive and they didn't? Was it just luck?" Bruzas would later wonder. "It just doesn't seem fair that they kind of stole a part of everyone's childhood."
Ripe to be exploited
St. Cecilia's was more than a sanctuary full of pews. Its buildings — the rectory, school, gym, and the church itself — blanketed an entire block in Fox Chase, a neighborhood so full of Catholic families in the 1980s that thousands of worshipers made the parish among the region's largest.
The Rhawn Street compound, as one altar boy called it, was the center of prayer and social identity. Kids spent almost as much time there as at home.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Dawn breaks over St. Cecilia's Parish School in Fox Chase, Northeast Philadelphia one morning in October. The buildings attached to the parish - including the church - cover an entire city block. In the 1980s, when the Rev. James Brzyski served as associate pastor, the parish drew thousands of worshipers.
Their neighborhood was packed with police and firefighters, factory workers and secretaries, and stay-at-home moms. They raised their children with sometimes unyielding discipline, some with an unflinching devotion to the church. Being an altar boy conferred status.
Courtesy of Mike Bruzas
Mike Bruzas, left, and Jim Cunningham, right, were best friends on Lawndale Avenue in Fox Chase.
Cunningham's family moved from Summerdale into a small twin on Lawndale Avenue in the late 1970s. His dad was a shipping company worker and a eucharistic minister at Sunday Mass. Jamie, as his family called him, was the oldest of four children.
Bruzas lived next door; his dad was an auto parts factory worker. Mike and Jamie became fast friends. With a third boy around the corner, the son of an officer, the trio became the Three Amigos of the neighborhood, playing all day long, in woods behind the house, stealing factory cardboard to make forts, walking on the railroad tracks.
"You've seen the movie Stand by Me?" Bruzas asked. "That always reminded me of our childhood."
Jamie was a good student and dapper little guy who never left for school without tucking in his shirt or combing his hair neatly to the side. "He looked like a politician," a fellow alumnus of the class of 1985, Louie DiNofa, recalled fondly.
He was a clever but kind soul, said his sister, Kristen Ott: "That 'old man' that could talk to anybody."
Every morning, she and Jamie left for St. Cecilia's on foot, joining the other boys along the way. Their dad would tag along as far as the SEPTA bus stop, where he began his downtown commute. On weekends, the kids would make the same trek again — for Mass.
Obedience. Trust. Devotion to the faith. These were the values in Fox Chase. It was an ethos ripe to be exploited by a predatory priest.
Suffering in silence
The Rev. James Brzyski was ordained in 1977 after a stint at St. Charles Seminary. This photo was from around that time.
The young priest lorded over the altar boys as they queued up in line for practice one afternoon. Brzyski was militant about them holding their palms together with fingers pointed to the sky; interlacing fingers was akin to pointing to the devil.
Anyone who didn't get it right would suffer the consequences: the 6-foot-5, 220-pound priest wrapping his hands around their knotted fingers until their knuckles felt like they were cracking.
On this day in the early 1980s, he exploded in anger. An altar boy in line was giggling. Brzyski grabbed him and tossed him headfirst through the confessional's velvet curtains. "What is this guy doing?" Emery thought at the time, petrified.
Brzyski had been a priest for four years when he became associate pastor of St. Cecilia's in 1981. Then 30 and the son of a cop, he seemed relatable to the boys.
Only years later would parishioners learn the charismatic cleric had sexually assaulted children during his first assignment in Lower Makefield.
Brzyski favored a certain type of boy — "shy, docile, bright, and intelligent and ... all physically attractive" and as young as 10, a grand jury would later assert.
Courtesy of Kevin Emery, John Delaney
John Delaney, bottom, in a grade-school photo from the St. Cecilia's yearbook, and above, on the right on the Fox Chase Soccer Club team. Jim Cunningham is the goalie in white.
He targeted children with fragile home lives or exceptionally devout parents, better to keep his sordid acts under wraps. This was a common strategy among pedophiles: They fished in troubled waters.
Delaney fit the profile. Altar boy of the year, soccer player, and son of a police officer. But a shy kid, a little kid, whose stepfather drank and who had a bad relationship with his mother.
"I came from a broken home," he said.
Delaney was just 12 and weighed 80 pounds when Brzyski raped him, he later told prosecutors. Over three years, Brzyski abused him in the grade school, the rectory, and the church sacristy.
Once, he was alone in the priest's bedroom when he found a metal lockbox in an armoire. Inside were photos of teen boys, many nude, some from St. Cecilia's.
But nobody would talk about what they knew.
Argeros was another target. The altar boy lived a block from the church with his sister, his dad, who was a Teamsters truck driver, and his mom, a part-time secretary. St. Cecilia's felt like home to the youngster.
At age 11, the priest raped him, pressing him facedown on the rectory floor. Adding to his torture, his job as a newspaper carrier required him to return to the priests' residence each afternoon — to drop off the evening Bulletin.
Courtesy of Gerad Argeros
Photo of former St. Cecilia's altar boy Gerad Argeros while he was a grade schooler at the Northeast Philadelphia parish in the the 1980's.
Sitting in religion class later, he and the other children were told that priests were the infallible embodiment of Jesus Christ.
Argeros would come to think his terror was God's plan.
Jimmy Spoerl had four brothers, a sister, and strict Catholic parents — the kind who were thrilled that a priest visited their home and showed interest in their son. They did not know Brzyski was pulling Spoerl from his classes in fifth grade to sexually abuse him.
Spoerl, too, buried the horror.
Once, he threatened Brzyski that he was going to tell his parents about the abuse. Brzyski scoffed, he said, and cowed him with a lie: He said Spoerl's mom and dad not only knew about their contact — they sanctioned it.
"He was afraid to go to school," his mother, Catherine Spoerl, said in an interview this year, "and he was afraid to come home."
Courtesy of Gene Spoerl
Jimmy Spoerl was in 5th grade at St. Cecilia’s when Rev. Brzyski began to sexually abuse him in the early 1980s, a grand jury asserted. Spoerl died in March 2016.
Among the parish adults, there had been signs, even suspicions. Some quietly gave the associate pastor a nickname: Frisky Brzyski. Years later, one victim would tell the grand jury about the time a priest had walked into the St. Cecilia's sacristy as Brzyski was fondling his genitals — only to walk out.
But nothing happened. In 1984, Brzyski suddenly disappeared from Fox Chase.
A whistle-blower priest had given archdiocesan officials evidence that Brzyski had abused boys at the Lower Makefield parish. Brzyski admitted "several acts of sexual misconduct," including with a 7th grader, church officials' records would later show. They sent Brzyski to a treatment center for priests in Maryland, where a top clinician declared him to be a pedophile.
The archdiocese, however, did not tell parishioners the truth.
"They said he had a mental breakdown," Catherine Spoerl recalled. "It said so in the parish bulletin."
Then-Cardinal Krol privately described the priest as a "wolf in sheep's clothing." But he took no steps to notify law enforcement, even after Brzyski walked out of treatment and abandoned ministry in 1985. Not long after, one of Krol's top aides ordered in writing that no effort be made to identify his victims at St. Cecilia's.
Scandal explodes, victims implode
“I’m an ‘alleged victim.’ I’m alleged not because it didn’t happen. I’m alleged because it’s never seen the light of day in court.” – Gerad Argeros
So the claims remain legally unproven allegations – and the people who bring them, “alleged victims.”
The furor over clergy sex abuse may have been ignited in 2002 by revelations in Boston, but the patterns of conduct and long-term impact on victims followed the same path worldwide. Children who are sexually assaulted often wrestle silently for decades, unable to understand or process their abuse. Some blame themselves, some question their sexuality, many plunge into destructive addictive behavior. Clergy abuse stings with still more psychological poison: victims attacked by a man of God.
The boys from St. Cecilia's were no different. Delaney and Spoerl battled drugs, alcohol, or depression and began acting out as they entered high school.
Argeros, too, lost his way. A high school guidance counselor chided him for not performing up to his high IQ. A few years later, he dropped out of George Washington University.
"My wife says I cry in my sleep. I call out in my sleep. I fight and kick and punch and cry."
Once in the early 1990s, Argeros, then back from college, was in a Roxborough diner when he spotted Brzyski in a booth. They exchanged glances but no words. Still, the encounter shook him.
In the ensuing years, he began to lose his grip, even grapple with suicidal thoughts. A critical moment came in 1998, he said, after he had moved to New York and was giving stand-up comedy a try. One night, the manager at a comedy club touched his thigh; Argeros dashed to a friend's apartment and panted three words. They had to do with Brzyski.
"He got me!" Argeros called out. "He got me!"
"That was my home"
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff
Gerad Argeros, a former altar boy and student at St. Cecilia's, shown here in his Brooklyn home on Oct. 6, 2017. Argeros struggled for decades to get his footing in life after allegedly being raped as a child by the Rev. James Brzyski.
Later that year, on his 28th birthday, he called St. Cecilia's rectory and demanded to speak to someone. He told the receptionist he had been raped there.
Soon after he met with Msgr. William Lynn, who at the time handled complaints about priests and personnel matters for then-Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. Argeros said he shared his story and asked if any other victims had come forward. No, he said he was led to believe.
Meanwhile, Brzyski lingered in the area, even emboldened. He was living in East Falls and running a children's birthday party business.
Delaney recalled the time in the 1990s he and his first wife were home in Mayfair after having their first child, a boy. A well-meaning newspaper announcement had spread the word. The phone rang.
"Hey. How are you doing?" the caller asked. It was Brzyski.
"What do you want?" Delaney said he demanded.
Brzyski had heard about the baby. "I'd love to meet him sometime," he said.
"Come out any time," Delaney said he replied. "But you're leaving with a hole in your head."
(Top) Jim Cunningham was a go-getter from a young age. Here, he receives the first-ever Richard Monetti Scholarship Award from KYW 1060 general manager Roy Shapiro (left), for winning a newsgathering competition in 1989. Photo Courtesy of KYW 1060.
(Middle) Graduation photo of Jim Cunningham, right.
(Bottom) Temple sophomore Jim Cunningham (at center, arm outstretched) leads a student march on Broad Street, demanding an end to a strike of 1,100 university teachers and staff members in September 1990.
Cunningham was not known to that grand jury. At that point, his own path had seemed, on the surface, to have been trouble-free.
He attended Holy Ghost Preparatory School for three years before graduating from Cardinal Dougherty High. He worked summers on freighters to pay his way through a bachelor's at Temple University and a master's in psychology from Holy Family College. He led student protests during a Temple teacher strike that halted classes for weeks.
By 30, he was married, had two boys, a career as a prison counselor, and the same winning personality everyone had seen in him as a boy.
"The perfect life," in the eyes of Bruzas, his Fox Chase pal.
At the Bucks County Correctional Facility, inmates came to view Cunningham, supervisor of addictions treatment, as atypically kind and empathetic. He also was the man on the scene who would help the Central Bucks County Response Team and police help defuse volatile standoffs.
"He talked people out of committing suicide," said Frank Rothermel, an attorney and friend.
But by 2001, Cunningham was drinking heavily. It was out of character. Friends and family chalked it up to the stresses of a career and family life.
Temple University's Special Collections Research Center
In September 2005, Philadelphia district attorney Lynne Abraham unveiled a 418-page grand jury report that unmasked 63 alleged predator priests over decades in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. This 6abc video captured the scope of the disclosures.
Nineteen pages of the Philadelphia Grand Jury report were about Brzyski
"Father James Brzyski was one of the Archdiocese’s most brutal abusers – emotionally as well as physically," begins the section of the report dedicated to Brzyski, detailing the accounts of numerous victims.
Brzyski was described as "one of the Archdiocese's most brutal abusers." The accusations against him spanned 19 pages of the 418-page report. But like the 62 other named priests and the archdiocesan officials who knew about them, he was spared from prosecution. Time had run out under state law to charge them.
The St. Cecilia's community was dumbstruck. Emery got chills as he read about it in the newspaper. "I almost threw up," he said.
Cunningham's mother asked her son bluntly if Brzyski got him, too.
A clip of vice chair Jim Cunningham speaking at a Northamption Township Board of Supervisors meeting from Oct. 24, 2012. Cunningham won an unexpected Democratic seat in 2007. He lost a painful re-election bid in 2013, a defeat that friends said added to his downward spiral.
Only years later would she think back to a snowy week in the early '80s, when Jamie marched from their home each day to serve early morning Mass with Brzyski. The priest had ordered it as "punishment" was all the boy had told his mother at the time.
Cunningham seemed to spend an unusual amount of time at St. Cecilia's that week. He explained coming home late one day by saying nuns had treated him to a cup of cocoa.
In 2007, Cunningham won an unlikely seat on his local board of supervisors in Northampton Township. But his drinking had intensified. His wife filed for divorce.
During a beach vacation the next year with extended family in North Carolina, he was inebriated and dejected about his marriage. Surrounded by siblings and in-laws, he blurted out "something to the effect of a man having sex with him as a child," recalled Jonathan Ott, his sister's husband. And that a priest had done it.
It was an uncomfortable moment. Everyone was drinking so most dismissed the shocking allegation as a raunchy stab at humor. But his brother-in-law was troubled.
"He had tears in his eyes," Ott remembered. "Like something was bothering him and he just wanted to get it out."
'I could see the pain in his face'
The next few years were rocky. By 2013, Cunningham was in a new long-term relationship but had lost reelection. He took that hard. The region was grappling with the fallout from yet another grand jury report on clergy sex-abuse, this one claiming the archdiocese had not done enough to remove predator priests and leveling unprecedented endangerment charges against a church official.
His mentor at the jail, addictions counselor Bruce Schaffer, was alarmed that he was showing up at work with the shakes from booze. In November 2015, Schaffer pulled him aside for a fatherly lecture.
"I need to tell you something," Cunningham said. "I was molested by a priest when I was a little boy. My mother doesn't believe me."
Schaffer, 70, didn't know what to make of the second statement. He had heard enough abuse stories to conclude the first one was true.
"He didn't look at me," Schaffer recalled. "I could see the pain in his face. And there was a long pause."
"Does that change the way you see me?" Cunningham asked.
"Absolutely not," came the reply.
"They had a lot of respect for him"
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Bruce Schaffer had become something of a mentor and a good friend to Jim Cunningham over their many years of working together as therapists at Bucks County Correctional Facility. Schaffer is shown here on Friday, Aug. 18.
Schaffer knew research said sexual abuse could change the wiring in a child's brain. It often caused lifelong problems, affecting relationships, feeding addictions, and making it hard to hold jobs. Victims often didn't remember the actual abuse for decades, when headlines or other stressors triggered flashbacks. Once out, the memories could be hard to contain.
Schaffer squelched the urge to seek more details because Cunningham was his boss. He told him to tackle one thing at a time and, with Cunningham's parents, helped him into rehab.
The sexual abuse remained in Cunningham's thoughts. He began to share it with people on the periphery of his life who also experienced dark times.
He gave a bare-bones account of his abuse by Brzyski to a friend and former inmate in early 2016. Cunningham also mentioned it to Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia, a social worker and political liaison to the prison, whose daughter had committed suicide. "He told me he had been abused by a priest," she recalled.
In March 2016, Spoerl died, after years of suffering from trauma, substance abuse, and diabetes. Cunningham went to the funeral. He was devastated. He began telling his parents that he, too, had been abused by Brzyski.
"Are you sure?" his dad would say. "Are you just saying this because you're drinking?"
This July 15, 2016 edition of the Philadelphia Daily News upset Jim Cunningham. On the front page are Archbishop Charles Chaput and alleged victim of former priest James Brzyski, John Delaney.
Cunningham posted a picture of the article on Facebook and seethed. He attacked Brzyski. He also criticized the archbishop.
"Chaput is a coward. Another attempt to exert power and control over a victim. Please give John-Michael Delaney closure on this chapter."
Three days later, in another Facebook post, the lid came off.
"So I'm meeting my friend John-Michael Delaney this evening. He and I are friends from way back. I admire his courage and honesty. Therefore, I'd like to state publicly that Brzyski got to me, too. I've buried it over the years, battled alcoholism and depression. John's fight brought it all up. And I'm with him."
"Was sorry to see one friend die and another suffer."
Friends swarmed with condolences and rage.
"Wow," wrote Bruzas. "Sorry you had to go through that. It certainly changes my idyllic perception of our childhood. Let me know if you want to talk."
His sister, Kristen, blew him an emoji kiss. "We are always here for you! I hated that grade school for all the secrets!"
Another alum, Linda Matthias Hee, now a lawyer, offered to help.
"Defend me when I kill Brzyski?" Cunningham replied.
"Makes me sick to my stomach that we were all there at the same time and were too young and naive to band together," wrote one classmate.
"Only as sick as your secrets," Cunningham wrote.
Delaney spent the next few days by Cunningham's side. Cunningham spoke of how the drinking had ravaged him. "You know what I'm going through," he told Delaney. "Nobody else gets it."
Shock, mourning and anger
Victim's mother speaks out
Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse
Soon after her son Jimmy's March 2016 death, Catherine Spoerl joined an advocacy campaign to change Pennsylvania law. In this video, produced by victim advocates, she called for changes that would give adults the right to sue private institutions for abuse they experienced as children. The measure was defeated in the Legislature.
In September 2016, Spoerl's mother spoke at a news conference near the archdiocese's Center City headquarters. She and others, including Boston advocates portrayed in the movie Spotlight, were pushing the statute of limitations bill the archdiocese was fighting to defeat in Harrisburg.
"I buried my son five months ago," she said, as tears poured out. And yet Brzyski was free, she said, "to do whatever he wants to do."
Delaney stood with her, also fragile. He had started using cocaine again, and would soon leave Philadelphia for five months of therapy and rehab paid by the archdiocese. He didn't want to be the next to die.
Cunningham, meanwhile, was losing grip of all he held dear.
Cunningham's Facebook posts on the night of his suicide
Facebook posts between Cunningham and his friends on Feb. 9, 2016, the night of his suicide. Note: The posts shown are a sample of those posted that night. Personal information and obscenities have been redacted.
His latest relationship had ended. A second rehab stint failed. He lost his job and home. By Christmas, he was penniless, living in an apartment rented by his mother and plagued by nightmares.
Once, caught up in a bad dream, he put his hands around the neck of his new girlfriend, a woman he had befriended in rehab. She would later tell his mother she was convinced he had post-traumatic stress disorder.
On the night of Feb. 9, Cunningham reached one last time for the Facebook megaphone that had become his confessional.
"To all those I've helped," he typed, "please remember me."
Cunningham's mom contacted police. Cops arrived. He texted with them for an hour. The Central Bucks Special Response Team he'd once advised got there, too. None would say what Cunningham texted during the standoff. On Facebook, however, he left no doubt as he ranted that members of his family had not believed him.
"This is the face," he wrote, "of being raped as a child."
Police found him hanging in a closet. A rosary lay on the bathroom floor. On the kitchen table a crucifix.
Kristen Ott threw her phone and fell to her knees when her sister called later that morning about Jamie's death.
Bruzas was at work when he heard. He bawled in the office, went home early, and cried in his wife's arms.
"They have broken these kids"
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Kristen Ott was one of Jim Cunningham's younger sisters. Ott is shown here in her Reading-area home as she talks with deep sadness about her brother's suicide and late-in-life clergy-abuse claims.
Amid the shock and mourning a consensus emerged — about Brzyski, a man whose whereabouts and fate had been an unknown for years.
"He needs to pay," as Emery put it over the summer. "He's gotten away with so much. And you know, he's still out there. He's still a predator."
Empty pill bottles
At Serendipity Apartments in Dallas, neighbors knew him as "James," a former salesman with vague ties to Philadelphia. Sometimes friendly, sometimes nasty, and always on the prowl for a gay lover. He cared for a garden of ferns and flowers, a Chihuahua named Precious, and a corgi named Buddy. He enjoyed free Meals on Wheels deliveries.
They figured Brzyski for a highly educated man. He spoke eloquently about current events and had a charming way. But neighbors found it odd how often he showed them pictures of naked teenagers on his computer. The boys seemed old enough; only in retrospect would the fellow tenants wonder if they had been underage.
Timeline of Rev. James Brzyski
Ordained a Catholic priest.
Assistant pastor St. John the Evangelist, Lower Makefield, Bucks County.
Associate pastor, St. Cecilia’s, Northeast Philadelphia.
Removed from St. Cecilia’s by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia after he admits to sexually abusing boys at the Bucks County parish. Sent to a Catholic treatment facility, where he is declared a pedophile.
Walks out on treatment and leaves ministry, and walks away. Archdiocese does not notify law enforcement or parishioners about his sexual misconduct.
1985 or 1986
Takes a high school teaching job in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J.
Owns house on 1200 block of Panama Street in Center City.
Runs a child’s birthday party business in Philadelphia while owning a house on the 3400 block of Midvale Avenue in East Falls.
Lives in Virginia. Arrested in 2002 on charges of molesting a teenager. The case is dismissed.
Sometime between 2002 and 2005
Called to appear before Philadelphia grand jury investigating sex clergy abuse. Refuses to answer questions.
Grand jury report unmasks him as one of 63 priests credibly accused of sexually abusing children in Philadelphia archdiocese. Estimates he could have victimized more than 100 children. Defrocked by Catholic Church.
Has addresses in West Hollywood, Calif. and Kenosha, Wisc.; arrested for drunken driving in New Mexico.
Run out of a Dallas residence after neighbors realized his past as an alleged pedophile ex-priest. Moved to a different Dallas apartment complex.
Abandons his Dallas apartment after neighbors are told about his past as a sexually abusive priest.
Found dead of a heart attack in Fort Worth motel.
Open full timeline
Brzyski told stories. Sometimes about priests from Philadelphia. But he never said he had been one, or had been hauled before a grand jury and refused to answer questions. Or that he'd been defrocked in 2005, and since led a nomadic existence, with stops in Virginia, Wisconsin, and California.
On Aug. 21, a reporter and photographer from The Inquirer and Daily News knocked on the door of Brzyski's ground-floor apartment. He opened it just a few inches. There was a bandage on his scalp. Grey stubble coated the unshaven, battered face of the 66-year-old.
Asked about St. Cecilia's he said just two words -- "Oh, no" -- and shut the door. Confronted outside the apartment hours later, he was told Cunningham killed himself after accusing Brzyski of raping him. Brzyski scurried with his dogs back into his apartment and said nothing.
It was the day of the historic total solar eclipse. Neighbors had been outside peering at the sky as Brzyski returned to his apartment. He became a pariah.
Ten days later, he gave his dogs away and left his apartment, walking away with only a suitcase. An acquaintance who spoke with him before he left said Brzyski was downcast, telling him: "I'm either on the verge of suicide, or a nervous breakdown."
Pathologists found antidepressants and alcohol in his bloodstream, though not enough to suggest an overdose. Ultimately, they ruled he died of a heart attack.
A bed, carpet, and other furniture sit in the parking lot of a Super 7 motel in Fort Worth, Texas. The items were removed from Room 135 in September, on the day after former priest James Brzyski was found dead on the floor.
The Tarrant County medical examiner found the name of a neighbor, Vivian Galbraith, listed on forms Brzyski signed to donate his body to medical research. Galbraith and Brzyski had been friends for about three years, she said, but she didn't know his past.
"I now recall him saying something, when he filled out the body donation form, about medical research -- 'Maybe they can find out what was wrong with me,' " she recalled in an interview. "At the time it didn't mean anything to me. But I think it does now."
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Vivian Galbraith at the front door of her Dallas apartment after speaking with an Inquirer reporter about her neighbor, former Philadelphia priest James Brzyski. Galbraith and others were shocked to learn of his past.
No one claimed Brzyski's body. A brother in Bucks County, who did not respond to a message from The Inquirer and Daily News, told the Medical Examiner's Office he had no interest in "the decedent," an official there said, and that his brother had been "dead to him for many, many years."
His body was shipped for burial by Tarrant County.
Helping others in torment
Two days after Brzyski's death, Cunningham's parents sat in the living room of their daughter's Yardley home. For months, Donna Cunningham had questioned her son's claim that he had been abused. Now, though, she and her husband felt certain it was true — and that Jamie had tangled alone with the trauma for years.
"He was crying out for help," she said. "And we failed him."
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Donna Cunningham holds a rosary that belonged to her son Jim. She keeps it by her bed and has slept with it since it was found in the apartment where he committed suicide in February.
James Cunningham nodded. "He kept saying he didn't want to disappoint us," he said of his son. "I've cried more in the last seven months than I've probably cried since I've been a little kid."
Donna Cunningham said she often imagined the actual moment when her boy took his life. To help comfort her, she had made his photo her computer screen saver at the Montgomery County parish where she works as a secretary. At night, she slept with the rosary retrieved from his apartment.
"I sleep good," she said. "I feel him there. I can feel him saying, you know, 'I'm sorry, Mom.' "
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
James and Donna Cunningham spent months in shock after their son Jim's death. By September, with word that Brzyski had just died in Texas, they had come to believe Jim's claim that he'd been abused and kept quiet for decades while plunging into alcoholism.
Brzyski's death provoked dark jubilation for some on social media. But it was not cathartic to those most harmed by him.
Catherine Spoerl wondered if Brzyski had been a casualty of the very institution that had left her son exposed to him — then stayed silent about his crimes.
"I hate to say it but he's another victim of the church," she said of Brzyski. "He should have gotten help a long time ago — and they just left him out there."
It wasn't her church. Spoerl walked away long ago. So, too, had some of the boys of St. Cecilia's. Emery, DiNofa and Bruzas do not send their children to Catholic school. Bruzas still attends Mass but feels "leery." Brzyski's death came "40 years too late," he said.
Delaney, 47, was frazzled by the news. By coincidence, five days later, he got the meeting he had been seeking for more than a decade: a sit-down with the archbishop.
He had hardly slept the night before the meeting. Breakfast was a soft pretzel, an energy drink, and Marlboro Red cigarettes.
"My wife says I cry in my sleep. I call out in my sleep. I fight and kick and punch and cry," he said before entering church headquarters. A gold cross around his neck, he said, was an old habit, nothing more. Just like the way he still recited the same prayer every night that he learned as a child: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…
"It's almost killed me"
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Last month, Delaney finally got his meeting with Archbishop Chaput to discuss his abuse at the hands of Brzyski and the impact.
He is among the scores, if not hundreds, of abuse survivors and their relatives the Philadelphia archdiocese has sought to help with therapy and other services. Church leaders say it has spent nearly $19 million on those programs as well as training and background checks to prevent abuse. Delaney, Spoerl, and Argeros received such assistance. They also unsuccessfully sued the archdiocese years ago.
Delaney's complaint was with the archbishop's public stance on legislation that would make such lawsuits pass legal muster today. He and Chaput spent about an hour talking cordially, he said, in the rectory of Ss. Peter and Paul Basilica.
"He told me he was very sorry for what happened to me and what I'd had to go through in my life," Delaney said. Still, he left feeling uneasy.
To the outsider, Argeros, 46, may appear the strongest survivor. Married and with three children, he runs an event space connected to a buzzy Manhattan restaurant. He dabbles in the arts and has seen a therapist weekly for 20 years — paid for by the church. But equanimity is fleeting.
"I've spent decades," he said, "having to straddle this incredible sorrow and incredible pain and incredible rage."
Brzyski's death moved Argeros to tell his story publicly for the first time. During an interview at his Brooklyn home, he said the damage has lived inside him like timed-release poison. Maybe, he thought, sharing his story would help him — and others in silent torment.
"I thought that testifying [at the grand jury] would make me feel better. And it didn't. I thought that talking about it would make me feel better. And it doesn't. And his death. And it doesn't."
"You don't get a pass. You don't get to say it once and then it's over. It lives in you."
He's livid that most priests and the cardinals in charge of them avoided prosecution. He is unforgiving that worshipers did not do more to demand answers. "Down at that office, how many people in that office knew? In the main archdiocese office? Did the secretaries know? Who in the world would sit on that information?" he said. He wept as he raged.
Argeros has kept stacks of journals. He may use them to write a play and documentary about the abuse that nearly destroyed the boys of St. Cecilia's. Perhaps it will heal the damaged little child he still cradles deep inside.
He wonders what life would have been like if Brzyski hadn't come to Fox Chase. But all Argeros knows for sure is that the pain lives on, flaring when a trigger such as Brzyski's death rolls through his life.
"You don't get a pass. You don't get to say it once and then it's over. It lives in you," Argeros said. "And you open up the newspaper one day and there's a picture of this monster. And it looks like he crawled out of hell. And you have to see that face every day."
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
"This really is the only path out of this: Holding this in the light and showing it for what it is," said Argeros, shown here in his Brooklyn home. "It’s not a death sentence for me. I just refuse to die from this."
About this story: This story is based on more than 40 interviews in three states conducted over eight months, as well as reviews of public records, court filings, news reports and social media.
Reporter: Maria Panaritis Editor: John Martin Visuals editor: Frank Wiese Photo editor: Michael Mercanti Design and graphics: Jared Whalen Project Manager: Ellen Dunkel Photography and video: Jessica Griffin Copy editor: Gina Esposito