John Salveson didn’t give up his obsession with the Catholic Church easily. There were polite letters in the early 1980s, asking that the priest who molested him when he was a teenager be removed.
His bishop wrote back, but the priest remained, transferring parishes through the late ’80s, according to a grand jury report. “Sincerely yours in Christ,” the bishop closed his letters.
Later, Salveson led a group that advocated for church reform. But by the mid-2000s, he had grown discouraged and shifted his focus to pushing for stronger laws and enforcement.
Prompted by Pope Francis’s trip to Philadelphia this fall, Salveson has renewed his activism toward the church, calling for the pontiff and other participants in a global Catholic meeting on family issues to discuss child sex abuse by clergy members and wear black ribbons to represent “the darkness that infects the souls of survivors,” he said.
The official itinerary for Francis’s U.S. trip includes no mention of the topic, although some experts think the pontiff will address it in an impromptu way, as Pope Benedict did during his last trip to the United States, in 2008.
The visit is reason for celebration among those who consider Francis the first pope to begin restoring the Catholic Church’s moral authority after sex abuse scandals, which led many American Catholics to fall away from their faith. But it is painful for many others who think Francis and the church have not done enough to reach out to victims or punish those who oversaw abusers.
Advocates point out that the pope has held no bishop explicitly accountable — allowing a few to instead quietly resign. And church officials continue to spend millions fighting litigation.
Most sex abuse survivors have never received an apology from their church leaders, advocates say. They are unable to seek relief in criminal or civil courts because of statutes of limitation and are left with deep scars that can make it challenging to hold a job or have an intimate relationship. The vast majority of survivors have left the Catholic Church, experts say, and to see it celebrated regularly in the media can be painful.
Arthur Baselice, a retired Philadelphia police detective whose son died of a drug overdose a decade ago after years of clergy abuse, is angry about the pope’s efforts for survivors.
“He’s creating a diversion. All he does is talk. . . . You think this guy ever worked a day in his life? How could he have empathy for people like us?” Baselice said. Then he began to cry.
Others think Francis’s actions demonstrate his intent to make lasting changes.
“I think he’s a rock star,” said Andy Druding, 54, a survivor from Philadelphia who said he is unable to work because of post-traumatic stress and depression. “He really seems to be someone who genuinely seems to want to get to the bottom of this and stop it.”
Victims of sex abuse who praise Francis note that the pontiff has taken concrete steps, including embracing six survivors during a Mass in 2013.
“I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves,” he said. “This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused, and it endangered other minors who were at risk.”
Later that year, Francis created a high-level commission charged with making recommendations on how to prevent abuse, help victims and punish church officials responsible.
Another highly praised move came in June when Francis followed the commission’s recommendation to create a Vatican tribunal that eventually will be able to try and penalize bishops who cover up abuse. A system was in place to punish abusers, but until now, there has been no process for the bishops who oversaw them.
But five days after announcing the tribunal, the Vatican allowed two Minnesota bishops caught up in a criminal sex abuse case to resign without comment. It is unclear whether the two will face the future tribunal. Prosecutors had charged the archdiocese — not the bishops — with mishandling abuse cases.
Members of the papal commission — which includes two survivors and prominent Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley — have been outspoken in their criticism of the church in various cases.
“Pope Francis has brought a little more hope that the church is changing. But on the other hand, there’s an enormous amount of things that are not changing and that survivors see,” said Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor who sits on the commission.
Philadelphia, where the pope will participate in the World Meeting of Families, is home to the only U.S. church official ever charged with covering up abuse. Monsignor William Lynn was convicted in 2012, following two unusual grand jury reports accusing three consecutive archbishops of protecting abusers.
Salveson said he’d like to tune out the news about the upcoming papal visit, but as a prominent executive headhunter who sits on high-level boards, he is in regular contact with those involved with the trip. People often ask him his view of Francis.
Following Salveson’s letter to him about the abuse, John McGann, his bishop on New York’s Long Island, spoke to Salveson’s alleged abuser, the Rev. Robert Huneke, according to letters McGann shared with Salveson. In one such letter to McGann, the priest apologizes, saying, “I deeply regret the incidents and am truly sorry for any harm caused. I have undergone counseling as well as spiritual direction and will continue both and feel there will be no recurrence of such incidents.” Huneke died in 2002.
In 2003, Salveson was among 23 men who alleged in a $100 million lawsuit against the Rockville Centre Diocese that they were abused — they named 15 priests — and that the diocese in Suffolk County covered it up. The lawsuit came a few months after a Suffolk County grand jury report cited abuse cases involving 23 priests whom the report said the diocese transferred around in an effort to bury details of the abuse. Prosecutors told the Associated Press at the time that they were prevented from pursuing criminal charges against the diocese because of statutes of limitation, and civil lawsuits were dismissed for the same reason.
In a story he has recounted many times, Salveson described being a 13-year-old Catholic school student on Long Island when he first encountered Huneke, a young priest who had just arrived at the parish. The priest took to Salveson and invited him on a road trip. One night, Salveson said, the priest crawled into his bed and performed oral sex on him.
After the incident, Salveson became, in effect, two teenagers, he said: one who was a confident and high-functioning student, and a second who lived in terror of Huneke while also seeking his approval. When Salveson tried to stop the involvement, he said, Huneke either lambasted him as ungrateful or cried and begged for it to continue.
Huneke eventually followed Salveson to college to pursue his own academic work, and the relationship continued until Salveson was 20 and broke things off with the priest.
In 1978, Salveson moved to Philadelphia, where he struggled with a serious drinking problem and depression. In the early 1980s, after he realized in therapy that he’d been a victim of sexual abuse, he contacted McGann out of concern that Huneke was abusing others. McGann thanked Salveson for raising “the matter” and said Huneke had “overcome the situation” and was thriving as a priest.
McGann died in 2002, a year before the grand jury report was released. Spokespeople for the Rockville Centre Diocese did not comment after repeated requests.
Huneke was transferred to different parishes, and the grand jury report found that there were other victims, including during the two-year period after Salveson’s initial complaint. Huneke left the priesthood about 1989, according to media reports.
“I really could not believe the bishops wouldn’t do something about this guy, and at a minimum tell people they had this problem in their parish,” Salveson said.
In 2006, Salveson founded the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, which advocates for longer criminal statutes of limitations and expanded civil windows for victims to sue.
“I thought it was my job to change the church. And what I learned from 1980 until today is that it is not a moral issue [for the church], it is a risk-management issue,” he said.
In an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer last month, Salveson said he was again spotlighting the Catholic Church because he doesn’t think the problem has been solved. Today, he wrote, there is a pope “who holds such promise and generates such hope.”
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