When he closes his eyes, David Cerulli can see the priest pulling up to his house in a big black car. He can remember the country lane where they parked on a warm spring day under towering trees and can almost hear the priest’s gentle voice telling him that he was about to experience something pleasurable.
That was the start of an abusive relationship that spanned the summer of 1964. Cerulli was 14. He was leaving the parish school where he had spent eight years and preparing for high school. He was an altar boy in puppy love with a girl in his Allentown neighborhood. And, he said, he was a victim, being raped and molested by a parish priest.
Cerulli took comfort Friday in sharing his story with others who were abused by priests. Those victims came to Dallas not to confront bishops and cardinals who were drafting a new church policy to address the problem, but to build coalitions. The scandal that has rocked the church since January has jarred the memories of victims such as Cerulli, who has spent 38 years trying to bury the shame.
Cerulli spent Saturday learning how to set up a local chapter of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests in New York City, where he lives and works as an artist and sculptor. On Saturday evening, he was named spokesman for new chapters in New York City and the Allentown area.
On Friday, in each victim’s story he found common threads. In each victim’s story, he heard his own.
One victim spoke of how a priest groomed him for abuse by investing the time needed to gain his trust. That made Cerulli think back to the first time he saw Father John Paul Sabas, who died in 1996.
The priest skidded his tires through the playground of St. Francis of Assisi school where a group of boys was playing.
”I thought, This priest is great. He’s not like the other priests,”’ Cerulli recalled.
Sabas laughed as the boys ran around in the tracks he had made on the asphalt.
In a lawsuit filed against Sabas and the Allentown Catholic Diocese in 1989 and settled out of court in 1991 for $40,000, Cerulli charged that the priest was using the collar to gain access to boys and seduce them.
Cerulli now sees that he was an easy target. The second of four children born to devoutly Catholic parents, he longed to be a priest. Every Sunday he entered the front pew at the 10:15 a.m. Mass with his family. He hasn’t been to Sunday Mass since he left Allentown for the Coast Guard at 18.
The seduction started about six months after Sabas came to the parish, Cerulli said. About six months after he became a regular visitor at the Cerulli house a few doors from the church.
”And my mother and the priest would just sit there and talk and smoke and drink coffee.”
Then the gifts started coming. One was a slot racing set that needed lots of room. The priest suggested he set it up in the basement. Sabas used to come over to race the slot cars with Cerulli. When they were alone in the basement, Sabas would molest him, Cerulli said.
He also did it in a corridor at the school and at church on days when Cerulli served Mass.
There were threats to keep him quiet. ”Don’t tell your parents. They would be very hurt if they knew what you were doing,” Sabas would say.
That threat was a common one, Cerulli found out Friday. He shook his head at the similarities in the victims’ stories.
After episodes of abuse, Sabas would offer Cerulli confession. But he declined it. Now he thinks the offer was more to purge the priest’s conscience than his own. The abuse ended after three months when Sabas was transferred. It would be 10 years before Cerulli would tell his mother and siblings. It would be 25 years before he would tell his father.
Cerulli reported the abuse in 1974 when the late Bishop Joseph McShea headed the diocese. Cerulli started then in therapy, for which he paid, that would continue off and on for 28 years. In that time, he had a nervous breakdown and three marriages. He has no children.
Still, he has become a successful sculptor whose works have been exhibited in New York and Tokyo. He cast metal sculptures that sit at the entrance to Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center and at Air Products and Chemicals headquarters in Trexlertown.
Cerulli had asked the diocese to keep Sabas away from children. When Cerulli found out in 1989 that Sabas was at St. John Baptist de La Salle in Shillington, Berks County, he filed a lawsuit, alleging that the diocese failed to protect him from a pedophile. He asked for $350,000, he recalled.
The statute of limitations had run out but Cerulli was intent on keeping Sabas away from minors. He figured a lawsuit would achieve that goal.
According to Sabas’ obituary, the Shillington church was his last parish assignment. Cerulli said he was told by Monsignor Anthony Muntone, a representative of former Bishop Thomas Welsh, that Sabas was sent for treatment in 1989.
Welsh and Muntone have referred calls about abusive priests to the office of Bishop Edward P. Cullen. Cullen has declined to release to the public the files of abusive priests or discuss specific cases.
Diocesan policy and canon law at the time did not call for removing such priests from their ministry as the policy drafted by bishops now mandates. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed Friday to strip sexually abusive priests of their collars and assignments but allow their diocese to decide if they should remain in the clergy and receive financial support.
Cullen has said that church officials relied on the information of the professional opinions of their day in sending priests back to work after what they presumed was successful psychological treatment.
At the suggestion of a church official, Cerulli met with Sabas in 1989. He remembers the priest shifting uncomfortably in his seat at the chancery as Cerulli read him a list of his abusive acts.
”I don’t recall what you’re talking about, but if I hurt you, I hope you will forgive me,” Sabas said to him.
”I will never forgive you,” Cerulli responded.
After the meeting, Sabas was sent for treatment, Cerulli said he was told.
What’s been hard for Cerulli to shake has been the claim by Church officials that he was Sabas’ only victim. Cerulli said he was told that in 1974 and, by Muntone, in 1989. Cerulli hoped it was true. After being with more than 100 other victims, Cerulli has come to know there are many more Father Sabases and many more children like him.
”I’m not trying to hurt the Church. I actually believe that by talking, I’m making the situation better,” he said. ”I don’t see us as Catholics and former Catholics healing until we have that purging.”
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