Hamilton

Man protests outside Welland church for 1 year on behalf of sex abuse survivors

William O'Sullivan has been protesting in front of a Welland church every Sunday for a year. He wants an apology from the Diocese in St. Catharines for survivors of sexual abuse.

William O'Sullivan has filed a lawsuit against the priest who assaulted him and others

William O'Sullivan has been protesting outside of St. Kevin's Parish every Sunday for a full year. (Colin Côté-Paulette)

Warning: This story contains details of sexual assault.

William O'Sullivan has protested in front of St. Kevin's Parish in Welland every Sunday for a full year, and says he is determined to do so until the Diocese of St. Catharines apologizes to the region's survivors of sexual abuse. 

O'Sullivan is one of these survivors. He was sexually assaulted when he was nine years old by Donald Grecco, who was a priest at St. Kevin's Catholic church.

The assault continued for three years. 

Now 48, O'Sullivan stands in front of the church every Sunday morning holding protest signs. He arrives at 8 a.m. and leaves in the early afternoon. 

The church sits on Niagara Street, which is often busy with heavy traffic. Cars honk their horns as they pass, and people stop by with food, coffee, and words of encouragement to keep O'Sullivan going.

"There's more and more support coming my way because people know this isn't a one off," O'Sullivan said. "I'm here for the long haul."

Justin Larson lives in the area and goes to church every Sunday at St. Kevin's parish. He said he's gotten used to the honking and supports O'Sullivan.

"We all want it to stop. It has no place in our church," he said. "[O'Sullivan] is doing a good thing."

O'Sullivan said that while some people are supportive of his protest, others will gesture with their middle fingers at him. (Colin Côté-Paulette)

O'Sullivan has also filed a $3.1 million civil lawsuit against Grecco, the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Catharines, the Roman Catholic Church, the province of Ontario and the brothers of the Christian Schools of Ontario. 

In a letter obtained by CBC from the Bishop of St. Catharines, Gerard Paul Bergie, to the parishioners of St. Kevin's Parish, Bergie acknowledged that he met O'Sullivan to speak on Sept. 14. This was the first day that O'Sullivan began his protests. 

In the November letter, Bergie said that it was still his "intention" to have a personal conversation with O'Sullivan, but he has been prohibited from meeting with him due to the lawsuit.

The Diocese of St. Catharines declined an interview with CBC because this lawsuit is still before the court.

Lifted publication ban to encourage other survivors 

O'Sullivan told CBC that he wanted people to know his name as a way to help other survivors. In the case with Grecco, he had asked the court to lift the publication ban that kept his identity a secret to encourage survivors to come forward.

Grecco received his first conviction for sexual assault in 2010, when he was sentenced for sexually abusing three youths. O'Sullivan said he remembered reading an article about it, and was inspired by the survivors to share his story. 

In 2017, Grecco was convicted again for sexually assaulting three others, which included O'Sullivan. 

In April 2018, after serving six months of an 18-month sentence, Grecco was released on parole. O'Sullivan said this was a frustrating moment, but that he has since accepted the outcome. 

"[Grecco's release] was a very bitter pill to swallow," he said. "But I understand the correctional system and I understand that he's not a threat to society now."

O'Sullivan wants people to know that there is always hope and said that he is always open to speak with survivors. (Colin Côté-Paulette)

O'Sullivan also told CBC that he wanted people to know about his journey, which included arrests over the years and a struggle with drug addiction. He said the trauma he experienced early in life played a factor in his choices.

He said standing in front of the church each week gives him the chance to do some good.  

But while Sullivan calls the support he gets "unbelievable," he said not everyone agrees with his protest. He told CBC about a man who followed him around, kicked his signs, and called him a liar.

"There's some that go by, you'll see them, they'll do the sign of the cross like people do in front of the church... and then they'll shoot me the finger," he said. "Good, bad, or indifferent — they know I'm here." 

O'Sullivan said he tries not to get angry, and continues to share his story so that others know they are not alone. 

He said that other sexual assault survivors will come by and speak to him in front of the church. He wants them and others to know that he is always available to help. 

"There's always hope. In your darkest time there's always hope," he said. "There's always somebody like me there who will be willing to talk [with you]."

O'Sullivan said that he'll continue the weekly protest until an apology is given. 

"They have my word I'll stop," he said. "My word [is] my bond. It's all I got."

With files from Colin Côté-Paulette