Catholic Guilt

Victims of sexual abuse fight back

There it is, on page 19 of the grand jury report released last month about sexual abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Back in the spring of 1992, a 29-year-old medical student wrote in a letter to Father Edward Avery, which the student shared with the Archdiocese, that “I will no longer carry this burden for you.” Those words leap out. A cry and a resolve.

The medical student said that he’d been abused by Father Avery starting in the 1970s, when he was an altar boy at Saint Philip Neri Parish in East Greenville. “I’ve been carrying a burden for all these years that is not justly mine to bear,” the medical student, married with a child by ’92, wrote. “It all began when I was a young boy and you came to my church. I thought you were funny, and you let me help you at dances and other functions.  … Then one night after I had helped you at a dance and had quite a lot to drink I awoke to find your hand on my crotch. … ”

The medical student’s letter didn’t change much. Father Avery was transferred by the Archdiocese. He continued to abuse boys.

[SIGNUP]But now the tide is shifting. This past Monday, on the north side of City Hall, near the statue of Civil War General John Reynolds, a 31-year-old man with a shaved head and goatee named Phil Gaughan faced reporters and TV cameras for 30 minutes or so. He seemed on the edge of breaking down, coming forward publicly with something he’d dealt with privately for a long time. He says he was molested by Reverend John Gillespie back in the mid ’90s, when Gaughan was a sacristan at Our Lady of Calvary Church in the Northeast.

“I don’t want anybody to go through what I’ve had to go through,” he said. “No child should have to go through this. I have a 7-year-old son, and I can’t even imagine … ”

Back in 1994, Reverend Gillespie, who died three years ago, informed the Archdiocese himself that he had molested two boys, according to a civil suit Gaughan has brought against the Archdiocese. Cardinal Bevilacqua was informed of the priest’s admission, Gaughan’s suit claims, but did nothing. In fact, the earlier grand jury report on Archdiocese sexual abuse, brought out by D.A. Lynne Abraham in ’05, noted that “The Cardinal asked for Msgr. Gillespie’s resignation as pastor”—in 2000—”only after learning that the priest had admitted victimizing two current parishioners at Our Lady of Calvary and wanted to ‘make amends’ to them. Archdiocesan therapists warned: ‘If he pursues making amends with others, he could bring forth difficulty for himself and legal jeopardy.'”

In other words, an apologizing priest was a very dangerous guy to have around, because the Archdiocese might get sued.

That concern, however, came a little late for Phil Gaughan. He says he was abused until 1997, some three years after Gillespie had gone to the Archdiocese and confessed his problem.

But a new day is coming. Gaughan’s lawyers believe there is a two-year window, based on the latest grand jury report, for some sexually abused parishioners to confront the Archdiocese in court. Marci Hamilton, one of those lawyers, says that more than 30 other victims have contacted her, and more lawsuits against the Archdiocese are in the works.

“I am not responsible for what you did to me,” the medical student wrote, back in 1992, about Father Avery’s abuse of him when he was a child. “All the responsibility in this matter is yours.”

We’re not quite there yet. It was cold and windy outside City Hall on Monday. High above JFK Boulevard, the American flag rippled and snapped. Phil Gaughan and his father, also named Phil, a ruddy-faced man in a pin-striped suit, stepped aside after speaking to grab a smoke. The younger Phil’s wife stood behind him, holding his arm, as reporters approached.