Victim of priest abuse: ‘It’s your word against God’s’
As Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Tuesday discussed a sweeping grand jury report accusing 301 Roman Catholic priests of sexual abuse, he was joined by more than a dozen victims or family members of victims.
One man held his cell phone toward the audience, panning to capture the long-awaited moment.
A mother held a photo of her son, his wide smile belying a pain she said drove him to substance abuse and death at age 31.
Five sisters — each a victim of abuse by the same Roman Catholic priest — held one another.
Hundreds of priests named in grand jury report | Grand jury: A child porn ring in Pittsburgh diocese | Report says cover-up began at the top | Read the full report | Dozens of pages shielded from public | Maria Panaritis: Thank the law, not the Men of God | Key findings from each diocese | How the Allentown diocese dealt with an abuser | John Baer: Questions in wake of the report
"These women no longer need to be silenced," Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said of the sisters seated behind him on stage as he discussed a sweeping grand jury report alleging abuse by 301 priests, and a decades-long cover up by church officials state-wide. "Today the grand jury finally gives this family of victims their voice."
The much-anticipated report was based on the allegations of more than 1,000 individual victims. On Tuesday, a group of victims and family members of victims, 16 in all, joined Shapiro on stage, and others filled the audience. Though few chose to speak publicly, some of their stories were told in a video played as the conference began.
"Who would have believed me?" 83-year-old Robert Corby said in the film. "A priest, in 1948 or '47, would abuse you?"
"It doesn't ever go away," said 48-year-old Shaun Dougherty. "It has an effect on you for the rest of your life."
"It's very lonely," said 37-year-old Carolyn Fortney, one of the five sisters. "Especially when it's your word against God's."
The room was silent but for the clatter of camera shutters and the cries of those on stage.
The sisters said they were abused by the Rev. Augustine Giella of the Diocese of Harrisburg. Shapiro on Tuesday said church officials became aware of allegations against Giella five years before removing him from ministry. He said Giella was charged in 1992, after the girls' mothers went to the police. He died awaiting trial.
>> FROM 2017: Stolen Childhoods: Decades later, the damage from one Philadelphia predator priest still torments a generation of victims
In a statement, family members said they needed a few days to "contemplate the magnitude" of the report before sharing their story.
"While five sisters were the first victims, our family and second generations continue to be impacted," they said. "The depth of this abuse has been life-altering for this and future generations."
James VanSickle, who has accused the Rev. David Poulson of the Diocese of Erie of abuse, called the report " a victory, a major victory," for those longing to be heard. But he said the day did not bring closure.
"I think that all of us will have a hole in our soul for the rest of our lives," he said while standing with two other victims and surrounded by a crush of cameras and reporters. "Healing is impossible."
"Catholicism is in my DNA, but they killed something in me," Juliann Bortz, beside him, said in response.
"But we can help others," VanSickle said. "And through that help, we've begun to heal ourselves."
>> FROM 2005: How silence let clergy abuse continue in Philadelphia diocese
They said they will continue to help other victims and lobby for legislative changes, such as eliminating the statute of limitations on how long victims of childhood sexual abuse have to file civil complaints.
"This is the murder of a soul," said James Faluszczak, a former priest who says he was abused by a priest as a child in the Diocese of Erie. "There is no statute of limitations on the crime of murder."