A conflict for abuse victims

Philip DiWilliams was molested by a priest in 1969. “I have no desire to [see Pope Francis],” he says, “and it’s weird — I feel bad about that.” (DAVID MAIALETTI/Staff Photographer)
Philip DiWilliams was molested by a priest in 1969. “I have no desire to [see Pope Francis],” he says, “and it’s weird — I feel bad about that.” (DAVID MAIALETTI/Staff Photographer)

Philip DiWilliams had mostly kept to himself what happened in a Roman Catholic High School counselor's office in 1969. Years later, when he decided to seek therapy, he told his wife, but did not want to upset his children.

Now, as Philadelphia prepares to welcome Pope Francis with all the celebration a papal visit garners, DiWilliams has decided to share his story.

"I don't understand why the mind works like it does. Why I can sit here years later and tell myself, 'It wasn't my fault,' but it still bothers you," says DiWilliams, 59, of Roxborough. "I think because you picture yourself then, a little kid, and it makes you angry still."

For the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, slapped with scathing grand jury reports on clergy sex abuse in 2005 and 2011, followed by the unprecedented suspension of 30 parish priests, the papal visit is not only a celebration, it is in some ways a rebranding opportunity.

But for DiWilliams and others molested by priests, the popular pope's arrival is difficult to celebrate without remembering the abuse suffered and the courtroom battles fought.

Some have marked the occasion by asking the Vatican to reexamine the archdiocese's child protection record. John Salveson, a clergy-abuse victim who created the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, has called on Francis and other church leaders to wear black ribbons during the visit to acknowledge the scandal's victims.

News coverage of the planned visit "seems to be so positive and wonderful," said Salveson, who runs a Main Line executive-search firm. "I don't really object to that. It's just, if you are a clergy sex-abuse victim, the likelihood you are satisfied with what the church has done about this issue is almost nil."

Francis has made notable changes in how the Vatican handles the matter and said no one, not even high-ranking church leaders, would get away with abuse or cover-ups. On his watch, the Vatican has launched a tribunal to hear cases of bishops accused of failing to protect minors and has prosecuted its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic. The pope has met with victims on several trips and is expected to do so on his trip to the United States.

No such meetings are on his public schedule in Philadelphia, an archdiocese that has wrestled publicly and at times messily with its own history of handling pedophile priests.

In 2012, Msgr. William J. Lynn, the archdiocese's former secretary of clergy, became the first senior church official convicted in the United States for covering up abuse by priests, a verdict he continues to appeal from prison.

Since then, the archdiocese has revamped policies on investigating abuse reports and devoted $2.4 million to training its staff, spokesman Kenneth Gavin said. Counseling and other services have also been offered to victims and their families.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput "has said that no lesson from the abuse scandal is more important than the understanding that the people who suffer the most are the victims," Gavin said in a prepared statement. "He has consistently expressed his deepest sadness and offers heartfelt apology on behalf of the Archdiocese to all those impacted by clergy sexual abuse. The Holy Father has done the same. The Church has recognized its mistakes and is dedicated to helping survivors heal, preventing abuse and protecting its people."

Still, many victims and their advocates say those gestures are overshadowed by the church's uncompromising stance in other arenas, from its aggressive push to beat back sex-abuse lawsuits in court, to its lobbying efforts in Harrisburg and other state capitals against bills that would extend the time in which victims can sue.

"The archdiocese has engaged in largely hardball tactics from the beginning," said Marci Hamilton, a Bucks County lawyer who has represented victims. "I don't see any reason to think that's changing whether the pope is coming or not."

DiWilliams, for one, says, "I have no desire to go down and see him, and it's weird - I feel bad about that."

He has not completely turned against his faith - he sent his four children to Catholic school.

It was at Roman Catholic High, an autumn afternoon in 1969, that DiWilliams, then 13 and a freshman, first went to meet with a guidance counselor, the Rev. John P. Schmeer.

"I remember him sitting really close to me and then walking back around me," DiWilliams said. "He put his hand on my shoulder and then wandered, down, down."

He said the priest fondled his genitals - and did it again on several more visits.

DiWilliams went on to play football at Roman, graduated, married, and had four children. He says he did not think much about the abuse until decades later, when the first grand jury report was released.

He recognized Schmeer's name instantly. The report said the priest had molested three boys, two when he worked at Roman.

"All those years, it was there somewhere, but when I saw that - bang," DiWilliams said. "It's a weird thing that you know it but you don't delve into it, so it doesn't affect you. Once you delve into it, that's when it comes out . . . And it's a killer."

He started having trouble at his desk job as a technician for Verizon, experiencing panic attacks and ultimately retiring early. He contacted the archdiocese and told officials what had happened; they gave him a list of counselors and paid for sessions.

In 2013, DiWilliams sued. But the case ended as soon as it began, thanks to the statute of limitations. In Pennsylvania, child sex-abuse victims have until age 30 to sue their abusers.

"We don't have a liberal statute of limitations, which really hamstrings the ability to bring cases," said DiWilliams' lawyer, Daniel Monahan. "Furthermore, [Chaput] has put more fight into the defense of these cases than I've ever seen in 37 years."

Like DiWilliams, more than a dozen accusers sued the archdiocese following the second grand jury report, in 2011, but most of the suits were thrown out or withdrawn because of the statute of limitations.

Of the suits that remain, church officials have settled three in the months since Francis' visit was announced. The terms of those settlements remain undisclosed.

A fourth suit - by a Willow Grove family alleging a priest's sex crimes led to their son's drug use and his 2013 overdose death - is set for trial next year.

Monahan says the plaintiffs with whom he had worked were not the type to raise bullhorns and banners at the pope's visit.

"They're living in the shadows, dealing with depression, alcoholism," he said.

Mark Rozzi is an exception. Abused at age 13 by his parish priest in Muhlenberg Township, he won a state House seat representing Berks County after running in 2012 on a pledge to support bills that would allow child sex-abuse victims more time to sue.

But since arriving in Harrisburg, Rozzi, a Democrat, and lawmakers sympathetic to his cause have met strong resistance. He blames an intense effort that the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference - the church's lobbying arm - has brought to bear against the bills.

"It's a powerful thing when a bishop comes to your office and puts that Catholic guilt on you," Rozzi said.

Since 2011, the conference has spent more than $2 million and registered more than 40 lobbyists to win over legislators on the statute-of-limitations debate and other issues of concern to the church.

Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the conference, said the church only seeks the same protections from fading memories and loss of evidence that the time limits on lawsuits offer everyone else.

"On a daily basis, the Catholic Church fulfills its steadfast commitment to providing abuse victims with counseling and assistance without requiring that allegations be proven," she said in a statement.

Mariana Sorensen, the retired prosecutor who authored both grand jury reports in Philadelphia, said the stalemate on a change to the statute law was most troublesome for parishes far from the city.

"People think it's Philadelphia that's the problem, but because we did have the grand jury we exposed most of the priests," she said. Sorensen said she remained concerned about "anyplace else in the state where an independent body has not had a chance to look at things."

This week, DiWilliams finally talked to his children about what had happened to him when he was 13. It was particularly difficult telling his son - now a senior and a football player at Roman.

But there was also relief, DiWilliams said. He said his son reassured him that in school, "no one's going to question me or give me grief."

On Saturday, when the crowds gather to see the pope, DiWilliams will be flipping channels in Roxborough, and he likely will settle on a college football game, ideally with his family by his side.

jterruso@phillynews.com

215-854-5506 @juliaterruso

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