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Victims of alleged clergy sexual abuse find their voices … and each other

Victims of alleged sexual abuse by clergymen find strength in each other.

Jim VanSickle recalls the "long walk" into the room where members of  the 40th Statewide Grand Jury waited to hear him.

"I was nervous, I was sweating, thinking, 'Lord, give me the words that I need,' " recalled VanSickle, 55, of Coraopolis.

He sensed an assurance from the Lord, in whom he has retained faith in spite of the betrayals he felt from its purported ministers: "Just be true to yourself and your story."

So he told his story. He testified about a humiliating, life-altering assault on his teenage body and innocence by a priest who was his high school English teacher.

For two years, survivors of sexual assault told similar stories to the grand jury, which convened in downtown Pittsburgh and reviewed decades of cases of sexual abuse in the Dioceses of Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Erie, Harrisburg, Scranton, and Allentown.

That grand jury has since compiled a massive report on those who allegedly abused children as well as those who allegedly helped cover it up, including church and public officials.

But the report remains under seal while some unidentified priests and others challenge its release, at least in its current form, before the state Supreme Court. These petitioners argued that nobody is well-served by a report that "unfairly implicates the innocent along with those properly accused."

Even while those Supreme Court proceedings play out, the survivors of abuse have found their work isn't done.

They're finding their voices, and they're finding one another.

Jim Faluszczak, a former priest in the Diocese of Erie, testified before the grand jury of being abused by a priest when he was a teenager.

From across the state, Juliann Bortz drove from Allentown to raise her right hand and tell the grand jury of being assaulted as a young teen by a priest who was one of her high school teachers.

Mary McHale traveled from Reading to testify about her own abuse by a priest. She was inspired to give voice not just for herself but for numerous boys she went to school with who were victimized by a different priest, those "who are no longer with us or who no longer have a voice."

They and others have begun speaking publicly and supporting one another.

In late June, after the scheduled release of the grand jury report was delayed indefinitely, more than a dozen survivors of abuse by clergy from around the state met in a room in Harrisburg with Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who assured them he was doing what he could to get the report released.

Most of the victims had never met.

But while the details may have varied, they recognized themselves in one another's stories.

"It was like meeting long-lost family," said Bortz, 68, of Allentown. It was a "reunion of people I never knew."

McHale agreed. "I cannot put words to the power in that room," she said.

This, said VanSickle, is why survivors of abuse are coming together. He disputed a law professor quoted as saying the only apparent purpose of the 40th statewide grand jury is to alter the state's statutes of limitations.

While those statutes, putting time limits on when a perpetrator could be arrested or sued for assaults, have been extended over the years for newly committed crimes, some are advocating for a window in the statute so that people could sue over decades-old abuse.

"I don't think any of us have ever talked about money in a conversation," VanSickle said.

VanSickle identified his perpetrator as the Rev. David Poulson, a priest in the Diocese of Erie who was indicted by the grand jury in May for allegedly sexually assaulting two other boys on multiple occasions between 2002 and 2010.

The statute of limitations likely precluded prosecution of an action dating back to 1981, but the grand jury included a summary of VanSickle's testimony in its written findings of facts against Poulson, who is awaiting trial.

VanSickle testified that Poulson was his English teacher at Bradford Central Christian High School in McKean County beginning in 1979.  Poulson befriended him and other boys and created a chess club, taking members to dinner after matches, VanSickle said.

On an overnight trip to Ohio to a Catholic shrine, they ended up at a seedy hotel, VanSickle recalled. He said Poulson, with an erection visible through his pajamas, suddenly jumped on him as if to wrestle.

Usually in such cases, "I would easily push him away. He would stop." This time he stopped him, but only barely, he said. VanSickle was 17.

The next day they had a silent ride home. More gifts followed, including cash. "Looking back I feel like he was trying to buy my silence," VanSickle said. Eventually he stopped hearing from Poulson.

VanSickle studied at St. Vincent College, outside Pittsburgh, where he met his wife. The couple settled in the Pittsburgh area, and he said the  aftereffects of abuse always haunted him, hurting his relationships with his wife and now-grown daughters.

"I spent a lot of time dealing with issues of anger, truly not liking myself," he said. He got into counseling a couple of years ago at the urging of his wife. "She's a saint for staying with me, and so are my daughters," he said.

The counseling helped, and so did seeing the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight, about revelations in 2002 of sexual abuse and  cover-up in the Archdiocese of Boston, which erupted into a global scandal in the Catholic Church.

"As a victim, you feel like you're the only one, and you want to hide because nobody else would understand," he said. "I didn't realize how big it was."

In February, his mother sent him a news clipping about Poulson's suspension from ministry due to an accusation of abuse.

"I just happened to be ready to come forward," he said. He didn't want Poulson's accuser to be alone, so he got in touch with the Attorney General's Office, and within days he was in front of the grand jury.

"I believe the Lord has said, 'Hey, Jim, you have to speak out,' " said VanSickle.

Faith isn't so easy for the others.

Bortz envies the people who tell her in angry phone calls and social-media posts to "get over it."

"Some days it's really hard to find a reason to get out of bed. I was crying all morning," she said during a phone interview last week.

"I miss going to Mass," she added. "There are days when I ask, 'Why did all of this happen?' I envy the ones it didn't happen to, the ones who say, 'Get over it.' I wish I had that kind of blind faith in religion." or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.