John Gulling didn’t get the answer he wanted when he recently asked his father: “Would you have believed me, if I had told you then?”
But he got the one he expected: “I really don’t know. Probably not.”
For Gulling, that answer confirmed what he had always thought — that nobody would have believed him 27 years ago if he had said a parish priest had molested him.
“Many times I wanted to say something,” Gulling said, “but I knew I would be treated like a criminal, that it would be swept under the rug, and I would be called a liar.”
Fear of being labeled and ridiculed kept him quiet about what happened in 1975 when he was an 11-year-old boy going to confession at St. Paul Roman Catholic Church in North Canton.
Finally, last week, he wrote a letter addressed to “Father Burns”:
“You may not remember me, but I will always remember you. It is time you know how much you have destroyed me. I remember one day that I came to you to confess my sins in hopes I would be forgiven. I came in and asked you to bless me. You noticed that my zipper wasn’t all the way up. You asked me to come sit on your lap and I did. While I confessed, you had your hands all over my groin, touching and molesting me. I left as quickly as I could, swearing I would never confess again. How could a man of God violate me, a little boy at the time? I felt dirty and ashamed. I never told a soul, after all who would believe me. Instead, I stopped believing in God.”
Without an address for Robert M. Burns, Gulling, who’s now 38 and living in Canal Fulton, sent his letter to St. Paul Church and to the Diocese of Youngstown. He vowed not to be silent anymore.
Burns — no longer a priest and now on parole in New Hampshire — was ordained in 1975 and assigned to St. Paul as an associate pastor. Two years later, he was reassigned to the faculty of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Louisville, where he stayed until August 1979. He served briefly at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Auroraand then went to St. Rose in Trumbull County as an associate pastor.
After allegations of child sex abuse surfaced at St. Rose, he was sent to the Boston area for treatment in 1981.Eventually, he ended up as a parish priest in the Boston Archdiocese, where he was later accused of molesting more young boys.
In recent weeks, the Youngstown Diocese has received reports that Burns molested boys at both St. Paul parish and St. Thomas Aquinas school.
Diocese officials say Burns’ file contains no reports of abuse before his assignment at St. Rose.
But the Rev. Tom Dyer, former assistant principal at St. Thomas Aquinas, said last week that the late Youngstown Bishop James Malone was aware of an allegation of abuse against Burns at the high school.
Victim thinks of others
Gulling said he feels responsible for all the boys that Burns molested after him.
“Now, I wonder what if I would’ve — could’ve — said something back then. How many other kids wouldn’t have gone through this, and it makes me want to throw up,” he said, trying to fight back tears. “To understand why I didn’t say anything then, you have to understand an 11-year-old. You can try to find logic, but how logical can a little boy be? I tried to process it, but I was processing it as a kid. How does a child talk about an adult situation that is no fun to talk about?
“I was ashamed. I was taught to respect and trust my elders. I was afraid that somebody was going to find out — does it make you a sissy?
“It was amazingly easy to keep it quiet. When you talk about it, you relive it, and you’re not 38, you’re an 11-year-old boy again.”
Turned against church
As a boy, Gulling said he began to hate going to church. He broke his mother’s heart when he announced in eighth grade that he would not be receive the sacrament of confirmation and that there was no such thing as God. He taunted his theology teacher and tried to get kicked out of class by saying he didn’t believe in God. He struggled with his sexuality.
Over the years, Gulling tried to put the memories of what had happened as far back in his mind as possible. But he could never stop feeling violated and angry on the occasions that he went to church — to get married, for the baptism of his three sons, for his oldest son’s Holy Communion and sporadically to appease his mother.
“I tried to go back to the church,” he said, “but it was more of a show than anything else. You want to get back to normal, and sometimes you do things that make you feel normal, but it’s always with you.”
Pent-up anger explodes
About two years ago, the anger inside Gulling erupted when his wife of 10 years, April, mentioned that she wanted to watch a television show about a priest coming to Cleveland.
April Gulling said that as soon as she said the word “priest,” her husband became enraged. He screamed at the TV, calling priests “liars” and “bastards.”
Later that night, he told her why he was so angry.
“It was very emotional,” April Gulling said. “He was very, very angry. It is a real burden for John, and I’m just hoping he will be able to find the strength to recover from this.”
John Gulling cannot explain why he exploded and told his wife about the past that particular night. “It just came out,” he said.
His parents react
Last month, he told his parents. He knew his mother had always wondered why he turned against the church.
Now, James and Chuck Burns, who still live in North Canton, know their son’s secret.
And they admit that they don’t know what they would have said or done if their son had come to them 27 years ago. They would like to think that they would have listened and believed, but they are plagued by doubt and anger. When they discuss it, they can’t hold back their tears.
“I’m not very proud of myself because my son didn’t talk to me,” Chuck Gulling said, “and I’m trying to put myself in his place back then to understand. I’m struggling, but I’m beginning to understand.
“And I’m also very angry about the abuse of my son and the abuse of trust by the bishops and those in charge. I supported Bishop Malone. I liked him, and I served on committees for him. Now I feel like a fool.
“I am really hurt. I’m looking at this organization that is supposed to be ethical and moral, yet there is no acknowledgement that it was wrong to move these priests from place to place so they could keep harming children. It’s deplorable. I don’t know how I can be a Catholic anymore.”
Like his father, John Gulling is furious with the church hierarchy. “They had the power to do something and didn’t,” he said. “It’s just a layer of lies. How many lives did they have to wreck before addressing this? I’m angry at all of the church officials. They are truly above the law. The Catholic Church is their own ministate. I’ve gotten nothing but pain and misery from this. They took everything away that day. They stole something that they can never replace.”