Jim VanSickle entered his junior year at Bradford Central Christian High School in the fall of 1979 to learn that he had a new English teacher: a young priest named David Poulson, who had recently been ordained in the Catholic Church.
It was a turbulent moment in the 16-year-old’s life. His grandmother had died, and his father had fallen ill and couldn’t work. “I was a lost kid,” he said in an interview.
He found a mentor in the teacher, 10 years his senior. Poulson anointed him captain of the chess team, which traveled from their town in northern Pennsylvania across the border into New York for competitions. They enjoyed lively dinners after checkmate had been called.
VanSickle credits the priest with empowering him to finish high school and go to college. “He turned my life around,” VanSickle said. “He was my spiritual leader. He was my friend.”
But VanSickle, now 55, also holds Poulson responsible for ripping a hole in his life — “a hole that’s never going to be filled.” He says the priest physically and emotionally abused him, “grooming” him by exploiting the intensity of their bond. “I gave him information about me that no other person had knowledge of,” VanSickle alleged.
Poulson is one of more than 300 Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania named in a grand jury report released Tuesday that accuses church leaders of covering up rampant child sexual abuse over the course of 70 years. In the most sweeping probe by a government agency of clergy abuse in the United States, the grand jury was able to identify more than 1,000 victims while advising that there were likely to be thousands more.
The report is an index of frightful physical and psychological violence. It recounts how one priest allegedly abused five sisters in a single family; how another confessed to raping 15 boys as young as 7; how a victim was bound and whipped with leather straps; and how a victim died from an overdose of painkillers taken for a back injury suffered during a particularly violent attack. Most of the victims, the court said, will never be able to pursue cases against their alleged attackers, as state law gives victims of child sex abuse until they are 30 to undertake civil suits, 50 to file criminal charges.
VanSickle’s story, which he recounted to The Washington Post, not only exposes the nature of the abuse that, according to the grand jury, was long cloaked by church leaders. His account also testifies to the enduring efforts of victims to make their lives whole again. Although most priests are unlikely to answer new criminal charges, VanSickle’s alleged abuser is one of the two facing prosecution. Poulson was charged earlier this year with abusing two boys between 2002 and 2010. He has yet to enter a plea.
VanSickle, who works as a tutor and life coach in Pittsburgh, is now too old to join the case. But he testified before the grand jury about his alleged mistreatment at the hands of Poulson, and he is campaigning to encourage others to speak out and to change the state’s statute of limitations so they can seek justice.
He called the release of the grand jury report a “victory” in a “war that’s just beginning” against the Catholic hierarchy. He plans to use the list of priests named in the report to track down their alleged victims in a quest to force top cardinals to account for their responsibility. His aim is to ensure that the scandal that exploded in 2002 with revelations in Boston — and has since stretched from Australia to Guam, from Ireland to Honduras and back to the United States, recently with the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington — doesn’t fade away.
But when it comes to his alleged assailant, VanSickle avowed, he remains confused. The very fact that he still feels affectionately toward Poulson, he said, is the reason he believes his mistreatment was so effective.
“He gave me somebody to be able to confide in, which makes the whole thing so confusing to me,” VanSickle said. “Seeing him in shackles and an orange jumpsuit, people asked me, ‘Why don’t you hate him? Why don’t you want to hurt him?’ Well, I do. But at the same time, I have some really strong conflicting feelings. It’s not hard to love the man that he was before he did what he did.”
Gradually, chess team dinners in high school became one-on-one meals. Poulson would take VanSickle to the movies, he recalled, and put his hand on the student’s leg in the car, he said. In the rectory, the priest would try to tickle him, always with VanSickle pulling away, he said. Still, he remained devoted to his teacher. “I looked at the guy — he’s a priest. I trusted him,” he said.
Soon, he said, the priest introduced alcohol to their relationship, and he would take VanSickle on long rides with a six pack of beer. Tickling turned into wrestling in the rectory or in front of the altar and between the pews in church, where his teacher would jump him, VanSickle recalled, and attempt to grope him.
“He constantly wanted physical contact,” he said.
The priest instructed him to dump his girlfriend, telling the teenager that she was “bad news.” If he didn’t comply, VanSickle said, Poulson would become withdrawn, “playing a pouty, jealous role with me, and I would chase that relationship, which only made my grooming that much more powerful.”
Just before VanSickle’s high school graduation, the pair went on a trip to an Our Lady of Fatima shrine in Ohio. In a rundown hotel, VanSickle alleged, “He jumps me, and I realize that he was aroused in his clothing.” When VanSickle pushed his teacher off, Poulson went into the bathroom to change into his pajamas. When he reemerged, VanSickle claimed, “I could see his erect penis out of his clothing.”
“He attacked me at that point, and for the first time, I felt terror and fear from the fact that it almost seemed like he had eight or nine arms versus the two that I’m using to get him off,” he said.
VanSickle was able to fight him off, and from that point, he said, his memory went blank until they were in the car on the way home. “We drove for seven hours and didn’t talk except for him stopping to get a six pack and handing it to me,” he remembered. “He never apologized and we never discussed it.”
VanSickle left for a Benedictine college near Pittsburgh, while Poulson moved to a Catholic university in Erie, Pa. “I thought he maybe got the message,” VanSickle said. But the priest started making unannounced visits to his former student, offering money and, at one point, buying him a car. The last time he showed up, he brought another student with him — “his new toy,” VanSickle alleged.
“Because of the relationship that I had lost with him, I was actually jealous and angry,” he said. “But I shooed him off and made him go away. That was the last time I saw him until his preliminary hearing this year.”
It took VanSickle a year to tell his father what had happened, and 10 years to tell his mother. Otherwise, he mostly fell silent, as Poulson moved from parish to parish across Pennsylvania, eventually winding up back in Erie.
In February, VanSickle’s mother read in a church bulletin that Poulson had been accused of child sexual abuse, prompting a week of turmoil for VanSickle as he pondered, “‘What do I do?’”
“I decided I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t come forward,” he said.
He ended up documenting his trauma on Facebook, which he has since used as a platform to connect with survivors of clergy abuse in all 50 states and 11 countries, he said. Speaking with other victims, he said, helped him understand why he had been living under a cloud of anxiety and anger.
“It’s the emotional trauma and the loss of that relationship that still haunts me and still controls me in some situations,” he said.
For years, he had no respite from fear that his wife of 33 years would leave him. When he entered therapy four years ago, he learned that he had “borderline personality disorder,” VanSickle said. “The only two real feelings I had were anger or fear, and both of those caused me to be violent.” Now, both he and his wife are in counseling, and bouts of rage no longer endanger his relationship with his family.
Religion, too, has helped, despite the painful associations. He hasn’t been an active Catholic since his abuse, but he considers himself a born-again Christian.
“I now have a personal relationship with the Lord,” he said. “Over time, my faith got stronger. The church was no longer an option, so I turned to being a very strong Christian on my own. I needed to, or I would have lost my family.”
Though his own path has become clearer, VanSickle has learned that encouraging others to come forward with their stories will be an arduous course. Over the weekend, a man was so afraid of being recognized that he would only agree to meet behind a mall after hours.
“He was scared to death, like I was,” VanSickle said.
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