16 June 2010
Posted By CATHY PELLETIER , CHRONICLE STAFF WRITER
Father Michael Andrysiak knows how the tide of sexual abuse can overtake victims’ lives; sweeping away trust and innocence; shattering self-esteem. Haunted by shame, they turn deeper inward, where sordid past secrets fester, robbing them of all enjoyment, rendering them “tortured souls,” in the words of the veteran priest.
At age 23, he was sexually accosted by a man.
“I was fast asleep and violated in the middle of the night,” said the pastor of St. Michael’s Parish in Dunnville.
So when a devastated Mike Blum came to him in September of 2005 to confide that he’d been abused as a 14- year-old altar boy, the priest could relate.
“At least I was a man and could defend myself,” said Andrysiak. “What about these poor defenceless kids?”
“He was the first person I ever talked to about it,” said Blum. “I had been going to that church and I trusted him and he was deeply hurt by it when I told him.”
Blum said he served as an altar boy for four or five years at St. Stephen’s Church in Cayuga. The abuse was ongoing for a period of about four months, and while he doesn’t recall the exact number of instances, the court recently convicted former priest Donald Grecco of 12 occurrences of sexual molestation against Blum. The 70-year-old Grecco, now married, lives in Picton, having served as a parish priest in Cayuga, Welland, Niagara-on- the-Lake and Fonthill.
“Growing up in a very strict Catholic family, I was hired by him to paint the church,” Blum told the Chronicle. “My mother was very active in the Catholic Church, and there wasn’t a choice about being an altar boy.”
He spent the last three decades suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, experiencing extreme anxiety, depression, insomnia, recurring nightmares and more recently, the inability to work.
“Even seeing a priest on TV or hearing the word ‘rectory’ gave me panic attacks,” he said. “I smell him on top of me. When you’re absolutely ashamed of what happened to you, you kind of bury it. After 30 years of silence, I came out.”
During his 40 years in the religious life, Andrysiak has worked with Aboriginals and in men’s and women’s prisons in Vancouver, served 10 years as Chaplain at St. Catharines General Hospital and was the parish priest of several Niagara area parishes before arriving at St. Michael’s in 2004. Although deeply saddened by Blum’s story, he was glad he was there at the time, calling it a case of “divine providence” that he was able to support him and steer him toward the proper channels.
“Having kept this within him for so many years, Mike obviously needed to talk to someone and that takes lots of guts,” said Andrysiak. “I told him to call the police of his jurisdiction, which is OPP, and Monsignor Dominic Pizzacalla, so he could tell them his story. They are the proper authorities named by the bishop to collect information. I said, ‘Do you want me to call for you?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ so I called the bishop and told him about Donald Grecco. Mike had a great deal of difficulty bringing this out, and was extremely distraught.”
“It’s really tough for one guy to come out and say that about another guy,” Blum revealed. “I just got so consumed, something had to be done. When I found out he (Grecco) had left the priesthood, then I found out he had become a grief counsellor for children and adults,” Blum felt he had to save others from the same fate he’d suffered. “And thankfully, that put an end to the counselling,” he said.
“When I got totally consumed by it in 2007, I ended up going to the OPP in Cayuga in May, 2008 and they did an investigation and charged him on Sept. 11, 2008.”
Blum endured a three and a half hour interview at the OPP office and “countless interviews after that. It was a real horrible feeling to start it, and the OPP investigation goes on and on, but they’ve been fantastic,” he said.
“A search warrant at the diocese found another victim who had gone to the diocese in 2001 and the OPP did a press release and that’s when the other victim -James Hennessy -came forward.”
Like Blum, Hennessy was 14 when Grecco made him his sexual target. Now living in England, Hennessy served as an altar boy at St. Kevin’s Church in Welland.
“Then the publication ban was imposed by the Crown in October,” said Blum, “and he (Grecco) was arrested again in 2008. He had more than 12 court appearances but never showed up. March 25, 2010 was the first time he pled guilty. That’s a bit disturbing because he knew he was guilty that whole time and he was to be sentenced on June 3 but due to health issues, it will be put over till July 16.”
At their request, the publication bans were lifted on the identity of both Blum and Hennessy. The third victim, whose name is still protected by the ban, was also an altar boy at St. Stephen’s Church. In all, Ontario Court Justice Kathryn Hawke heard seven victim impact statements, describing the devastating effects Grecco had on their lives.
“I help up a picture of me at that time and looked him right in the eyes and I read my impact statement,” said Blum, adding Grecco’s reaction was stoic.
“He sat there, stone-faced. I read one, Gina (Blum’s wife) read one, and the family that can’t be named read three, and the Crown read two for James Hennessy because he lives in England now. My gut tells me that’s the reason I wanted this publication ban lifted, because basically I have lived a lie for the last two years and was this nameless, faceless person in the newspapers. I want to be a survivor, not a victim.
It’s been a nervous time but it’s been empowering for me to have that name lifted.”
In all three cases, Grecco befriended the victims’ families, asking the boys to do odd jobs or accompany him on trips. Once alone with the teens, Grecco initiated play fights that escalated into the abuser performing a “humping motion” on his victims before experiencing an orgasm.
“It was horrifying to have them read out in absolute detail what he did to me and the other victims,” said Blum. “My family and siblings had to sit and listen to this. All three of our victim impact statements read the exact same way and we’d never met each other. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when they were read.”
Gina McIntee, Blum’s wife, said abuse takes its toll on a wide circle of people surrounding the victim.
“The ripple effect that it’s had on Mike’s family, our family and the church and community is huge. There’s only one psychiatrist in all of Haldimand,” she added. “You need niche counselling for post-traumatic stress of this type,” she said, citing, “Eighty per cent of all sexual abuse victims are successful at suicide.”
The couple’s neighbours in the close-knit community have expressed their concern, watching Blum withdraw from his former life. “They watched me lose my career and go on disability in the past couple years,” he said. In time, he hopes to regain his health and return to a career in construction.
Although he is grateful to Andrysiak and St. Michael’s parishioners Sylvia and Don Weaver for their compassionate support and guidance, Blum has severed all religious ties. “I met with the church superiors in St. Catharines and they said they’d pray for me, and that was about it,” explained Blum. “At this point, I really don’t have any use for the Catholic Church. There are good people, like Father Mike and the Weavers, but I find my faith through a different way now, not a structured religion.”
During his lengthy career in the clergy, Andrysiak has heard numerous other victims describe sexual abuse suffered at the hands of priests.
“The clergy have been tarnished with all of this,” he said. “With priests, there’s this unspoken brotherhood, and there should be,” he added, “but when one of our brother priests has been criminally convicted and sentenced, then we priests need to say, ‘Thank God justice has been served.'”
Andrysiak said he has never been reprimanded for speaking out against priest sex offenders but finds that many new priests are reticent to do so. “They feel they don’t have the right or authority” to speak out against allegations, he said.
“Because we are priests, we’re in a position of trust. I say to priests, ‘If this was your niece or nephew, what would you do?’ If someone in my family committed a crime, I would turn them in, and as a priest, I’m put in that position because these priests are also my family.”
He disagrees with the argument some make that celibacy is a contributing factor to sexual abuse within the priesthood.
“If you look at the statistics, you’ll find that less than two per cent of celibates are committing these crimes,” said Andrysiak. “Forty per cent are married, which leads me to believe it doesn’t belong to celibate men but it belongs to sick people. I’ve had more adults coming to me telling me they’ve been abused by their fathers, stepfathers, brothers, uncles, and neighbours.”
Every diocese has had to develop a protocol regarding the proper course of action to follow in the event of sexual misconduct allegations concerning priests, he explained. Priests are advised to redirect any questions to Monsignor Wayne Kirkpatrick, who is the officially appointed Diocesan Administrator for the St. Catharines diocese.
“As soon as there is an allegation, the bishop immediately suspends the priest until they have investigated.”
According to Andrysiak, laicization is the process of reducing one’s status from a clergyman to a layman. “That always comes from the Pope and a bishop can appeal the laicization, but it can take two or three years to come through and you don’t want them to be priests in the meantime. The OPP said, ‘Where there is one victim, there are more.’ Mike was the first to speak and then more came out. Many don’t want to speak, but Mike felt like he has been living in hiding. Now he said he feels a sense of relief.”
“So many bishops have moved these guys around” to various different parishes after hearing allegations, Andrysiak even though they knew something was wrong. This is not a case of protecting the priests. If convicted of these horrible, atrocious crimes, I wish these guys would serve time. Why is our criminal justice system giving these guys such light sentences?”
He said he realizes, however, that church officials must guard against those wishing to extort money without just cause. “Some people have an axe to grind or may want publicity, or are simply angry, envious, or full of hate. The real perpetrators have more rights than you or me.”
Grecco’s sentencing was pushed to July 16 because he’s currently seeing a specialist for assessment of an alleged “bleeding” ailment.
“If Donald Grecco hadn’t been an ex-priest, I don’t think he would have had the consideration of waiting for sentencing,” said Andrysiak. “Despite his bleeding, he would’ve gone to prison. They have doctors there.”
Similarly, Andrysiak said a bishop who was recently arrested for pornography in Antigonish should not receive special treatment. “His pre-trial was supposed to be this past March, but they moved it to 2011 and we’re letting a man like this live free. Bishops need to be accountable. My fellow priests might say, ‘What about forgiveness?’ And I say, they still go on with their lives while others like Mike Blum are decimated and may never get their lives back.”
While many Catholic officials have been reluctant to tackle the abuse issue in public, Andrysiak feels a definite need for open, honest communication.
“The Mass has to focus on the Word of God and bringing people to Jesus, so I don’t like to speak at length about it in church, but I have addressed this from the pulpit and a lot of our Catholic people have been grateful and said to me, ‘I’m so glad you were willing to speak about it,'” he said. According to Andrysiak, St. Michael’s parish has remained intact after hearing the recent news about Blum. “The Catholic population in Dunnville is a good group of people – accepting and loving. The thing about the Catholic Church is that the people say, ‘My faith doesn’t depend on a priest.’ There are over one billion Catholics and only 8,000 bishops. The Pope can’t overlook every diocese.”
However, he said, in an effort to bring Catholics the truth, and help them feel connected to the church and each other, continuous updates about the Catholic faith – including the latest news about priest sex offenders -are available on various websites. A few of these include www.ewtn.com, www.cccb.ca,and www.vatican. va.
Although currently estranged from the church, “With Gina, how can you lose faith?” Blum contends, adding his wife has been a constant source of compassion and strength.
The couple’s blended family includes his three sons from a previous marriage and McIntee’s son and daughter. “On June 21, we’ll be married three years,” he said. “We had probably the best year of our lives and then all this happened. It’s like getting kicked in the stomach when the (court) dates keep getting pushed back.”
“That’s why it was so great volunteering on the murals and hearing the laughter of children,” said McIntee, a talented local artist.
While living “court date to court date,” the community-minded couple spearheaded the colourful children’s mural that now spans the length of the Dunnville Youth Impact Centre’s south wall, as well as the three murals facing Main Street at the Salvation Army.