VATICAN CITY — As a boy raised Catholic in Erie, Pa., Jim VanSickle never imagined that his first trip to Rome would be to talk about the priest who tried to sexually assault him in a rundown hotel room just days before his high school graduation.
But by the time VanSickle arrived in the Eternal City last week for Pope Francis’ historic summit on the issue, that once unimaginable prospect had morphed into an ambitious — some might say quixotic — goal.
“I want to have a private sit-down with the pope,” he said. “I want him to know who I am. I want to tell him what happened to me.”
VanSickle, 55, now of Pittsburgh, is among the handful of Pennsylvanians who have joined scores of abuse victims and reform advocates in crowding St. Peter’s Square as Francis gathered top Catholic leaders here to consider a global response to the crisis that has plagued their church for decades.
Some are victims raging against a hierarchy that enabled their abuses. Others came just to show their support, pressing against barricades and demanding the attention of cardinals with bright yellow T-shirts plastered with mottoes like “Speaking Truth to Power.”
Regardless of their motivation, they have quickly became the darlings of the worldwide media.
“I’ve done interviews with media from about six or seven countries,” VanSickle said Friday from his perch in St. Peter’s Square, where he attracted one camera crew after another. “Poland, Spain, South Africa — I’m still surprised they all want to hear from us.”
Some have even the attention of the conference organizers. Shaun Dougherty, abused as a Catholic grade-schooler in Johnstown in the 1980s, was among a dozen victims invited to share his story with top cardinals Wednesday, the eve of the summit.
Such attention is no accident. Since the landmark Pennsylvania grand jury report last year identified more than 1,000 victims of abuse and decades of systemic cover-up, the state has become ground zero for this latest wave of the crisis. One of the leading bishops to lose his job in the resurgence of the scandal — Cardinal Donald Wuerl, former archbishop of Washington — was brought down by allegations he mishandled abuse claims during his stint as bishop of Pittsburgh.
In fact, it was just weeks after the release of the grand jury’s findings that Francis announced he would summon top Catholic leaders to the Vatican for the summit now playing out here behind closed doors.
Still, many of the Pennsylvania victims found the journey to the seat of their church more emotional than they might have expected.
James Faluszczak, a former priest who told the state grand jury about his abuse as a teenager in Erie, said he was looking for an excuse to cancel until the day he boarded his flight. The last time he was in Rome, long before he decided to come out publicly as a victim, he had just been ordained and celebrated Mass at the Altar of St. Thomas in St. Peter’s Basilica.
“This really is the belly of the beast,” said Faluszczak, 49. “There’s this contradiction here between the Eternal City, one of the cradles of Western Civilization. But our tragedy is also enshrined here. You can see it play out on some people’s faces. ‘Wow, we’re in Rome. But man, this sucks.’ ”
Dougherty, a 49-year-old restaurateur, also had second thoughts about making the trip.
He worried that coming to the epicenter of Catholicism — with its grand cathedrals, marble statues of saints, and lavish symbols of faith — would be too much to handle. His wife said he still has trouble visiting any church, much less the Vatican’s majestic St. Peter’s Basilica.
“In my mind, I had always thought there was no way I could go to Rome,” Dougherty said. “There’s too many triggers all over the place. It’s just too Catholic. I thought I would be a 10-year-old boy all over again.”
Still, since arriving he has crisscrossed the city with Mark Rozzi, an abuse victim and state legislator from Berks County, meeting with Italian lawmakers, U.S. Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich, and anyone else who will listen to their arguments for laws that would grant abuse victims more time to sue their accusers.
Two Philadelphians, Johanna Berrigan and Mary Beth Appel, have camped outside the entrance to the summit all week and watched a parade of high-ranking Catholic officials, all men, walk past each morning to begin their confidential deliberations.
“That’s just not right,” Berrigan, a member of the Kensington chapter of the liberal Catholic Worker Movement, said Friday. “The people that facilitated this problem are going to sit in a room and try to figure it out with no lay people, women theologians, parents of survivors, or experts on abuse?”
VanSickle, meanwhile, has settled into a different role.
As he was interviewed Thursday in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica by a news crew from Poland, a crowd of tourists began to form around him. One woman from the Bronx teared up as he described the physical and emotional abuse he endured as a teenager in Western Pennsylvania from his English teacher and chess coach, the Rev. David Poulson.
VanSickle gave her a hug and told her to not let his story affect her faith. They’ve been texting back and forth ever since.
“I’m not against the church,” VanSickle said later. “I’m not against the religion or the faithful. I’m here with a whole different message than you’ve probably heard over the last few days.”
In fact, since he decided a year ago to come forward and discuss his abuse, VanSickle’s life has changed. After testifying before the Pennsylvania grand jury, he left his job as a private tutor and now works with charities and runs support groups for abuse victims in Erie and Pittsburgh.
He continues to speak with Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico, the prelate who supervised Poulson before he was suspended and ultimately sentenced to prison last month for abusing two other young men.
But that relationship has at times put VanSickle at odds with other victims’ groups, which don’t understand his willingness to still work with members of the church hierarchy — or for that matter, his drive for a private meeting with the pope.
Despite the long odds, VanSickle came closer to achieving that goal than he had ever imagined.
Thanks to a friend of a friend in the Vatican, he secured highly coveted last-minute tickets to Francis’ weekly public audience Wednesday. He hardly slept the night before, staying up all night to draft a five-page, handwritten letter to the pontiff.
VanSickle wormed his way through the crowds as he was ushered into the basilica the next morning, and reached the railing just as the pope was walking past.
They made eye contact. VanSickle pressed his letter into the hands of one of Francis’ bodyguards.
“Hopefully, he’ll read it,” VanSickle said Friday. “I don’t know, maybe they throw that kind of stuff in the trash can.”
Francis hasn’t yet called, but he still considers his trip a success.
“I was able pass on my message,” he said.