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Survivor Of Pennsylvania Clergy Sex Abuse Shares His Story


The Catholic Church is, again, in turmoil and forced to apologize - this after a Pennsylvania grand jury report described case upon case of child sex abuse by over 300 priests and a systemic cover-up by church leaders. We're going to hear now from someone who helped bring this scandal to light by testifying before the grand jury. And a warning - his story is disturbing.


Jim VanSickle was a high school junior in 1979 going through a rough time at home. A young priest named David Poulson became his English teacher, and soon, a mentor.

JIM VANSICKLE: You know, we would go out and go to the movies. We'd go to dinner. Quickly, you know, alcohol became a part of that. And we'd go drink, go hang out. But very early on, you know, he would touch my leg, or he would brush my shoulder.

KELLY: VanSickle says alarm bells went off in his head, but he didn't do anything. The touching became wrestling. And one day, he says, it became something else - an attack.

VANSICKLE: The wrestling previous to that was easy to push away. But, in this instance, it felt like he had like nine arms - that I couldn't get him off of me. And I ended that relationship shortly after that. But I was traumatized from that point on.

CORNISH: VanSickle says he eventually told his parents - and then after he got married, his wife. But mostly, he told me, he stayed silent in fear and in anger.

VANSICKLE: I've lived the last 37 years in secrecy without letting people know what's going on inside my body and inside my head.

CORNISH: At what point did you decide that you wanted to be part of this grand jury process?

VANSICKLE: David Pouslon was reaccused. And I received that message from my mother, and I...

CORNISH: Right. We should say he was arrested and charged in connection with the abuse of two other boys. And he was a member of the Erie diocese, right?


CORNISH: Which people have talked about a lot in this report because they allege that the diocese knew about his tendencies.

VANSICKLE: Yes, they did. 2010, he openly admitted his tendencies to Bishop Trautman. As far as me coming forward, I was in turmoil. I was scared. I was in fear. But that fear was overridden by the fact that this kid was alone. I only knew of one of the victims at that time. And I didn't want him to live the life that I lived - the secrecy, the guilt, the blame. So I decided I had to come forward. I don't think I could have lived with myself if I didn't.

CORNISH: But most of the charges in the grand jury report unfortunately are so old that they actually exceed the statute of limitations.


CORNISH: So what measure of justice is there for someone like you?

VANSICKLE: There isn't any. So I had two years to come forward. After that two years, I could not criminally or civilly go after my predator. Representative Mark Rozzi has put forth a bill called the Real Deal. And in it, it abolishes the statute. But it also has a two-year window - a retro-clause that allows us who have been abused outside the statute to see our predator in court and face them.

CORNISH: What's the argument you're hearing from the lawmakers who say it shouldn't be retroactive - that, at a certain point, we have to close the door for some people in order to move forward?

VANSICKLE: Well, I know that there are legislators here - there's a large Catholic lobby that's pouring money into this, stopping this legislation. There's also the insurance lobby that's doing the same thing. For me at 55 years old, I'm not looking for money. I'm looking to be heard. I don't know that I can even prove my own case. Everything was secret and silent. I believe that I have enough information. I believe there is enough information on David Poulson to be able to make a case. But I haven't consulted an attorney yet.

CORNISH: Well, what's your message for the current leader of the Pittsburgh diocese, Bishop David Zubik?

VANSICKLE: If I had an audience with Bishop Zubik, I would commend him for the steps they've taken. I think Cardinal Wuerl has made some amazing steps, coming from the church, to actually take a look at this as a real problem. And I'm talking a few years back.

CORNISH: Right. He's now the head of the Washington diocese.

VANSICKLE: Right. But at the same time, my question is why are we still deflecting the blame? Why are we saying the church is different? You know, Bishop Zubik basically said everything happened before 1990, and all the steps they've taken have improved the church and that there are no new abuses going on in the church. And my response to that is it took me 30-some years to come forward. Why would somebody outside the statute of limitations, here in Pennsylvania, expose themselves about their abuse and speak openly about their abuse when they have no recourse whatsoever to deal with it?

CORNISH: In the meantime, I understand you'll actually be going to mass for the first time since - what? - 1985?

VANSICKLE: Yeah. Give me a second. Yeah, I'm going to go to mass hopefully at a - Bishop Zubik's officiating a mass this weekend. I want him to see me. I want the Catholic Church and Oakland to know that I'm there. I want them to know that I support all Catholics. I'm not after the religion, and I'm not after the faithful. I'm after the predators and those people who covered it up. And I pray for the Catholic church every day.

CORNISH: Well, Jim VanSickle, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

VANSICKLE: Not a problem.

CORNISH: Jim VanSickle is one of more than 1,000 victims of alleged clergy sex abuse documented in a Pennsylvania grand jury report released this week. David Poulson has yet to enter a plea in his criminal case. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.