As It Happens

Ex-priest who was called 'lucky' to have 'only' been abused 15 times reacts to Pope's letter

A former priest and sex abuse survivor who testified in front of a Pennsylvania grand jury says Pope Francis' words are useless if they're not matched with concrete actions.

'I would love to stand at the altar again, but I can't represent this organization,' says James Faluszczak

Former priest James Faluszczak, who says he was molested by a priest as a teenager, reacts as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

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A former priest and sex abuse survivor who testified in front of a Pennsylvania grand jury says Pope Francis' words are useless if they're not matched with concrete actions. 

The grand jury report released on Thursday found that hundreds of Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s, and senior church officials systematically covered up the abuse. 

Pope Francis has since issued a letter to Catholics around the world condemning the "crime" of priestly sexual abuse and cover-up and demanding accountability.

James Faluszczak, 48, was one of those who testified for the grand jury, alleging that his childhood pastor Monsignor Daniel J. Martin molested him from age 16 to 19. Martin died in 2006.

Faluszczak spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. Here is part of their conversation. 

What was it like for you to read this letter from Pope Francis today?

It was disappointing. I felt that his language is still very vague, and even more vague is what concrete steps that he intends to take moving forward.

The Pennsylvania attorney general said last week — noted again, as a matter of fact — that a number of senior church officials had actually refused to participate in the grand jury procedures in the investigation. Should the church, should Pope Francis order co-operation at all levels?

Absolutely. There's no other way to put it.

We have to rely on the civil authorities to do the heavy lifting on this. The church can't investigate itself any more than a fox can investigate the loss of a chicken from a hen house.

In his letter, Pope Francis referred to the suffering endured by minors due to sexual abuse at the hands of a 'significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.' (Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo via AP)

You, yourself, were abused by a priest and you brought that information not only to one bishop, but two, as I understand it, and more than one time. What kind of response did you get?

The first bishop, his response was to ask me how many times I was abused, and I said 15.

And his response was, "Oh, thank God."

Dismayed, I asked him what he meant. And he said it's usually many more times than that. That, in fact, I was lucky that it was only 15.

This second bishop, the current bishop of Erie, Bishop Lawrence Persico, did nothing with the material that I brought about the abuse that I experienced. He didn't investigate it. He didn't ask me what happened, where it happened, any of the circumstances that led to it, any of the grooming behaviours that I endured for decades before it happened.

[Editor's Note: Persico apologized to abuse victims in a news conference earlier this month, reports WHYY-FM in Philadelphia.] 

Whatever happened to that information? Did it go anywhere up the hierarchy, as far as you know? 

Not that I'm aware of. I even sent my allegations directly to the Pope. And, ultimately, where I took it was to the grand jury.

Faluszczak, right, pictured here at the age of 16, during which time he says he was repeatedly abused by his pastor, the late Monsignor Daniel J. Martin, left. (Submitted by James Faluszczak)

Do you believe the Catholic Church can change after all these years of denial and cover-up?

I'm not optimistic that it can. I think it's too mired in a medieval sense of hierarchy and its own rights.

It's going take an immediate change in language and an immediate presentation of concrete responses in order to make me think that it can change.

In terms of the kind of concrete action that the church could implement, do you think that if there was a more forceful response, that you and fellow Catholics would feel more confidence?

[Pope Francis] needs to fire people. He needs to remove people.

A pastor fights for the sheep. He fights for his flock. He protects his flock, and goes after the predators.

James Faluszczak, centre, is pictured here during his ordination giving blessing to Bishop Donald Trautman, right. Trautman issued a statement last week saying he neither condoned nor enabled abuse during his tenure as Diocese of Erie. (Submitted by James Faluszczak)

You, yourself, left the priesthood but you've said now repeatedly that you are still a Catholic. I'm going to ask a personal question — you can choose to answer it or not — but has your actual faith been shaken by this?

My faith in the church absolutely has been shaken. My faith in the institution and its leaders.

I don't just consider myself a Catholic. I still consider myself a priest. But I can't live that vocation that I still feel called to and remain healthy around perpetrators and people that covered up these matters.

The church is addicted to money and power and prestige and control and manipulation and coercion and secrecy.

I would love to go back to my pulpit. I would love to stand at the altar again, but I can't represent this organization, and so I don't see a way forward.

I guess what I'm trying to get to, though, is has your own experience as a victim of abuse and your witnessing of how your church reacted to it, ever shaken your faith in God?

I have issues in my relationship with God today because it's hard to trust in an all-powerful God that allows this kind of thing to happen.

The bishops are sinners and we see their sinfulness. Yet the Pope is calling the faithful of the church to engage in penance today. He should be on his knees.

I think every bishop should just sit on the steps of their cathedral and close their mouths for a while and allow people to approach them and just be heard.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.