The sordid tale of how former priest James Brzyski raped and molested more than 100 boys from Philadelphia-area parishes again underscores the long-overdue need for Pennsylvania lawmakers to abolish the statute of limitations for child sex-abuse crimes and expand the legal window for victims to file lawsuits against their abusers.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the insurance industry have long fought efforts to hold abusers accountable for past crimes. But the decades-long sexual-abuse scandal continues to torment victims and their families. Efforts to heal, let alone restore any trust, cannot occur until the crimes are confronted.
Brzyski’s gruesome story was told in vivid detail by staff writer Maria Panaritis, who conducted more than 40 interviews to document the behavior of Brzyski, who during the 1980s is believed to have sexually assaulted dozens of boys, many from St. Cecilia’s School in Fox Chase and St. John the Evangelist School in Lower Makefield.
His trail of heinous destruction has been unshakable for a generation of victims, including Jim Cunningham, who hanged himself in February, and Jimmy Spoerl, raped by Brzyski as an altar boy, who died in March 2016 after battling addiction.
The Rev. James Gigliotti told church officials that Brzyski was molesting boys, some as young as 11. The church’s response was to send Brzyski for treatment in Maryland, where a clinician declared him a pedophile.
Brzyski admitted to “several acts of sexual misconduct,” including with a seventh grader, church records show. Cardinal John Joseph Krol, archbishop of Philadelphia, privately called Brzyski a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But what happened next is not just sad, it’s frightening.
Gigliotti recalled in a 2005 interview with Inquirer reporters that an assistant chancellor warned him: “This comes from the highest authority: You’re to keep your mouth shut.”
Brzyski admitted the abuse, but the archdiocese did not inform law enforcement officials. Instead, one of Krol’s top aides ordered in writing that no effort be made to identify the priest’s victims.
Brzyski left the church in 1985. For a while, he lived in East Falls and ran a children’s birthday party business. In 2002, he was charged with molesting a teenager, but the case was dismissed.
Also in 2002, the clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston exploded after the Globe documented molestation by dozens of priests and a cover-up by top church officials, who often transferred pedophile priests from one parish to another.
Similar patterns of abuse and cover-up have been documented in archdioceses across the country and overseas, as well at some exclusive private schools.
In Philadelphia, a 2005 grand jury report described Brzyski as “one of the Archdiocese’s most brutal abusers.” But by then the time to prosecute him under state law had expired.
Panaritis tried to interview Brzyski in August at his apartment in Dallas. When asked about St. Cecilia’s, Brzyski, 66, said, “Oh, no” and shut the door. In September, Brzyski was found dead in a motel room amid bottles of vodka and pill vials.
Brzyski’s story shows that the trauma from sexual abuse of innocent children never ends for them or their families. It’s a story that cries for Pennsylvania lawmakers to stop sitting on legislation introduced last year that would allow long-ago victims of rape and molestation to have their day in court.