A Story of Alleged Sexual Assault in the Catholic Church

By Alyssa Weston and John Stran

A Trumbull County man in his 40s said he was driving from a relative’s funeral when his girlfriend received a news alert on her cell phone that said the Youngstown Catholic Diocese released the names of 34 religious figureheads who were removed from the clergy over credible sexual misconduct allegations.

When he realized priest John P. Cunningham’s name was on the list, he “immediately broke down and started crying.”

The man spoke to The Jambar on the condition of anonymity about his experience with sexual abuse at St. Stephen Catholic Church with Father Cunningham, deceased, who was recently listed as a credibly accused perpetrator of sexual assault by the Diocese of Youngstown.

In October, the Diocese released the names of 31 Youngstown priests, two religious clergy members and one non-clergy member from a religious order. The release of this list was met with an uproar of mixed emotions throughout Youngstown. Confusion spread from Catholics and non-Catholics alike — the goal of peace and change within the church and painful memories for the alleged victims.

The Trumbull County man told The Jambar that he has never spoken out because he was taught that society expects people not to say anything negative about the Catholic Church or a priest. He said the releasing of the names was a sign of relief and validation.

He said he first met Father Cunningham in 1983 at the age of seven, and Father Cunningham would take him out of class and drag him by the hair to the church basement, a priest house or another private location.

“He would choke me until I passed out, so I never really was awake when he would do whatever he was doing to me,” he said. “Then, when I would start to [wake up], he would choke me again, so all I would see is him and then black dots. I still have nightmares of it.”

Photos by Tanner Mondok/The Jambar

He described Father Cunningham as a towering tall man with a military-style haircut and dark rimmed glasses.

“I never understood why he wanted to come get me. At first, he would come get me and talk to me, and it would be about different things we were doing in class or whatever,” he said.

The relationship quickly changed from cordial to abusive. He said he can still visualize the pain that he endured.

When he told his parents about the incident, they didn’t believe a priest would hurt him. He also never filed a complaint with the church.

 

“In my generation, you respect your elders … You didn’t say anything that would be negative to anyone, especially a priest,” he said.

The abuse continued intermittently every few months until he was in seventh grade. He eventually told a couple classmates that Father Cunningham was hurting him and to cause a scene if the priest was trying to pull him out of class.

Although no one usually spoke up, one student, who was described as a troublemaker, yelled at the priest, “Get your [expletive] hands off of him,” when Father Cunningham attempted to take the alleged victim out of class.

“[Father Cunningham] let go of me and grabbed [the other student]. I don’t know what [Father Cunningham] did to [the other student], but that was the last time he ever did that to me. It was like there was attention brought to me and that stopped him,” he said.

The alleged victim said the abuse had a long-term effect on his health.

“I couldn’t eat. I was always scared. I had nightmares all the time, and I didn’t have very good bladder control,” he said.

Although he had issues with the church, he said he finished Confirmation and his children attended Catholic school because he said it was a different time and people were more aware of the abuse.

According to the alleged victim, he believes church officials found guilty of sexual abuse should be prosecuted.

“If you have a job and you do something wrong, your company isn’t going to move you somewhere else … They are going to fire you. And if you do something illegal, you going are going to be prosecuted,” he said. “So, why should a person who is supposed to be a leader of the community, trusted and believed, why should they have special treatment.”

Moving forward, he said society has to change as whole.

“In the ’80s, when women would bring forward allegations, they were shunned. If you are a boy and a male was [abusing] you, they would turn the blame on the victim and that’s not the right thing to do. You have to protect the victims and make sure every claim is legit,” he said.

After contacting the Diocese and speaking with Rev. Msgr. John A Zuraw, the Trumbull County man was put in contact with the Youngstown Diocese victim assistance coordinator, Delphine Casey.

Rev. Msgr. Zuraw said it’s important for the Diocese to let students and adults who were abused know that there are resources within the Diocese to help those who were assaulted.

On its website, the Diocese has a link titled, “Reporting Requirements and Procedures Regarding Child Abuse.” This is a five-page document discussing the Diocese of Youngstown Child Protection Policy and section 2151.421 of the Ohio Revised Code.

The Child Protection Policy holds the victim responsible for telling their experience to the Diocese — this is the requirement to report.

Casey said although she is familiar with Trumbull County man and his story, she has yet to meet with him in person to discuss his case. When victims do come to her with a sexual abuse allegation, her job is to report the allegation to law enforcement and urge the victim to follow through with the claim.

She said sometimes the extent of what she can offer is counseling services because the case exceeds the statute of limitations, but counseling and speaking with other victims can make them feel less alone.

Once given the information, the Diocese is then obligated by the Ohio Revised Code to “report immediately any suspected or actual act of child abuse to the County Children’s Services Board or to a police officer.”

The only time a priest is not obligated to contact children services or a police officer when a person says they were abused is if the information was said during Confession.

 

Moving Forward from Institutionalized Sexual Assault

Judy Jones, midwest associate director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, described SNAP as a group that supports victims of clergy sex abuse, as well as any type of institutional abuse.

“[SNAP tries] to get justice for victims and protect kids today,” Jones said.

SNAP is an international group with over 25,000 members, and group leaders of each region hold support meetings and set precedents. Each group leader for SNAP is a volunteer.

Jones first got involved with SNAP in 2002 when she learned that her brother had been sexually abused by their longtime perish priest in southeastern Ohio where she grew up.

“My mother was so Catholic she refused to believe her own son. I don’t understand that,” she said. “I’m a mother and a grandmother and that really upset me, so I got involved with SNAP about 17 years ago.”

Although Jones didn’t personally have an issue speaking up against the injustice, her brother, who became a “staunch” Baptist minister, didn’t want people to know.

Jones said in many areas with small knit towns and close communities, there are still plenty of survivors who are too afraid to speak up.

When a survivor first reaches out to SNAP, Jones said the group always believes them.

“We let them know they are not alone, and they are very brave to speak up. It’s the start of healing once they speak up,” she said. “If anybody is still suffering in silence and shame please come forward, contact law enforcement. You can also contact SNAP.”

Youngstown State University students that have encountered a similar experience can reach out to the Title IX Director Kelly Beers.

Beers said survivors speaking out on their abuse should be their personal choice.

“Victims should choose whatever course of action they feel is best for themselves, but I generally advise that victims document and/or undergo a medical exam as soon as possible following the assault,” Beers said. “I also would generally advise them to make an anonymous police report, as well so they can create a record of the incident, should they then what to move forward on a case at some time later.”

Whether a victim vocalizes their experience or not, Beers said it’s still important to seek resources that help victims cope with the effects of being sexually abused.

“There are many resources available to victims and victims do not need to make formal reports in order to access these resources,” she said. “If anyone is looking for resources they can connect with my office, and I can also put them in touch with community resources, as well.”

When Jones heard the Diocese of Youngstown released the name of priests, clergy and non-clergy members of the church credibly accused of sexual misconduct, she thought list should’ve been released years ago.

“They’re feeling pressured because of the Pennsylvania grand jury report that came out and all of the news that’s come about this summer,” she said.

Jones was referring to the nearly 1,400 page Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August describing alleged abuse by leaders in the Catholic Church.

Jones said she is concerned because she received an email from a survivor who says that Bishop Murry must not have believed him because his perpetrator was not on the list.

“I fear the list is incomplete,” she said. “The church officials are incapable of policing themselves, outside law enforcement needs to get involved that’s why we have been pushing for a grand jury investigation done in Ohio in every diocese.”

The Catholic News Agency reported on Nov. 12 that president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, told U.S. bishops that the conference won’t vote on two key proposals that had been previously expected to form the basis for the Catholic church’s response to the nationwide sexual abuse crisis.

The Catholic News Agency explained as a result of the initial bishops’ meeting, a draft was made regarding the Standards of Conduct for bishops and a proposal to create a new special investigative commission to handle accusations made against bishops.

“These proposals had been considered to be the bishops’ best chance to produce a substantive result during the meeting, and signal to the American faithful that they were taking firm action in the face of a series of scandals which have rocked the Church in the United States over recent months,” The Catholic News Agency said.

DiNardo said that the delay came directly from Holy See who is insisting on discussing the issue in a special meeting in February 2019 with Pope Francis.

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One thought on “A Story of Alleged Sexual Assault in the Catholic Church

  1. This Trumbull County man is very courageous for speaking up and sharing his painful story of abuse. Hopefully anyone who may have knowledge or may have been harmed by John P. Cunningham will find the courage to come forward and contact law enforcement, no matter how long ago it happened.
    Keep in mind that silence only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.

    Judy Jones, SNAP “Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests” 636-433-2511, SNAPjudy@gmail.com

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