Living with echo of clergy abuse
St. Catharine’s Standard
Tuesday, September 5, 2017 11:34:05 EDT PM
William O’Sullivan, 48, will face the priest who sexually abused him as a child on Thursday in a St. Catharines courthouse. Bob Tymczyszyn/St. Catharines Standard/Postmedia Network
A note to readers: For a more than a decade, Catholic priest Donald Grecco sexually abused children in Niagara. On Thursday, he will be sentenced for the abuse of three boys in the 1970s and 80s. This three part series is the story of one of his victims. Be advised this story contains language that might upset some readers.
Memory is a precarious construct. Though a storehouse of thoughts and experiences, it can keep secrets from conscious view, locking them behind doors never meant to be opened.
Find the right key, and those doors can be unlocked. Once opened, there is no hiding from what’s inside.
William O’Sullivan found such a key in a Thorold jail cell seven years ago on the front-page of a newspaper. Inside his memory he found a darkness long forgotten. Its rediscovery changed the course of his life.
“One of the guards asked me if I wanted to read the paper. I said yes. I saw it was two days old and I remember saying to him, ‘Oh, come on, this is ancient history,’” says O’Sullivan, known to his friends as Sully.
“Then I saw what was in it.”
It was Dec. 16, 2010, when O’Sullivan read the story on The Standard’s front page from his cell at Niagara Detention Centre.
“Jail for ex-priest Grecco,” the headline read over a Hamilton dateline.
O’Sullivan’s blood ran cold. The world tilted and spun.
“I got sick. Physically sick, vomiting, yeah,” O’Sullivan says. “I got dizzy. I had the sweats. My heart was racing. It was like the worst panic attack you can think of. That was when I remembered what he did.”
O’Sullivan’s life was anything but a storybook. In and out of jail since he was a teenager, a laundry list of poor choices led to five prison sentences — four in a federal penitentiary, one in a provincial prison.
As a young teen, O’Sullivan was sent to St. John’s Training School for Boys in Uxbridge, a factory of horror and abuse run by the De La Salle Brothers of the Christian Schools.
Always bucking authority, forever disregarding the impact he had on others and himself, O’Sullivan was never really at ease in his own skin. If life was looking up, he always found a way to make the worm turn.
But there were parts of his youth that lurked as shadows in his memory, events he could not directly connect with deep feelings of anxiety and dread.
“When my kids were baptized I insisted we go to St. Kevin’s church in Welland because, you know, that was family tradition. But if you look at the photos I look terrified. And I do remember feeling very anxious and afraid while I was there, but I chalked it up to nerves because it was my child’s baptism,” he says. “I didn’t understand it.”
At least he didn’t until that newspaper headline unlocked the door.
The cleric mentioned in the headline was Roman Catholic priest Donald Joseph Grecco. Longtime priest in Niagara. Pillar of the community. Trusted faith leader. Confessor. Manipulator. Sexual predator.
And William O’Sullivan’s tormentor.
From the age of nine until he was 12, O’Sullivan was Grecco’s victim. After church at St. Kevin’s on Sundays. In the basement hall. In a church stairwell. It happened more times than O’Sullivan says he can count.
Fondling. Masturbation. Grecco would ejaculate on O’Sullivan’s backside.
Often after confession — a Catholic rite for which one confesses sins to a priest who offers forgiveness in the form of prayers and penance — Grecco would give O’Sullivan rosary prayers and tell the boy to masturbate him. Sometimes O’Sullivan would be masturbated by the priest.
O’Suvillan told no one. He couldn’t.
Grecco made it clear that O’Sullivan’s mother — a deeply devout Catholic and member of the local Catholic women’s league — would have to leave the church if anyone knew what was happening.
“He told me he’d hate to see my mother’s smile disappear if she had to leave the church because of me,” O’Sullivan says. “And, to be honest, I didn’t want to tell my dad for fear of getting a beating for saying something bad about a priest. Who was going to believe me over a priest, anyway?”
O’Sullivan stayed silent. He also kept quiet about another priest — a man he only knows as “Father John” — who visited his Welland home regularly and abused him in the house. Later, when he was sent by courts to Uxbridge to be reformed by the Christian Brothers, O’Sullivan became one of 1,700 boys physically and sexually abused at St. John’s.
“I always remembered St. John’s and Brother Bernard,” O’Sullivan says. “I think that’s because I was older at that point. But Grecco was something I had put out of my mind.”
But it all began at the Parish Community of St. Kevin in Welland at the hands of Grecco.
On Thursday, O’Sullivan will face Grecco for the first time in nearly 30 years. He will take the witness stand to read a victim’s impact statement to tell the court, and Grecco, what the years of abuse have done to him.
Grecco is to be sentenced for the sexual abuse of O’Sullivan and two other victims who cannot be named under a court-ordered publication ban. It will be Grecco’s second sentencing for sexual crimes and brings the total number of his known victims to six.
“I don’t make excuses for the things I have done in my life,” O’Sullivan says. “Everyone has choices in life, and you have to take responsibility for them. Other people have suffered abuse and not made the choices I did. But did what happened to me affect how I made the choices I did? It absolutely did.”
The church stood at the centre of O’Sullivan’s childhood in Welland. Life in his neighbourhood orbited the local parish, St. Kevin’s, and its resident priest’s collar gave him status and an unquestioned authority by default.
His mother Madonna Joan O’Sullivan was the spiritual heart of the family and insisted her sons were as integrated into church life as she was. The family attended mass every Sunday. O’Suvllivan was sent to confession every week.
“My mother was really devout. The church was really important to her,” says O’Sullivan. “My brothers were altar boys. I never was, but my mom would have me stay after church to help out Father Grecco.”
The priest was overtly kind to O’Sullivan’s mother and initially treated the boy nicely, showing a degree of interest and care his own father didn’t.
“He was always nice, you know, but a bit touchy,” O’Sullivan says. “He’d always pat you on the head, or put his hand on your shoulder. It was always in public.”
But by the age of nine, that paternalistic behaviour morphed into something insidious. O’Sullivan doesn’t remember the first time it happened, but there were few places in that church untouched by the abuse.
According to court documents, O’Sullivan was abused in Grecco’s quarters, on the staircase leading to the choir room, the hall in the basement, the church stage and a storage room.
“On some occasions, (Grecco) would pull down the victim’s pants and fondle his penis and masturbate him,” says the agreed statement of facts presented during Grecco’s plea hearing in May. “On other occasions, the defendant would have the victim fondle his penis and masturbate him to the point of ejaculation.”
Too frightened to tell anyone, O’Sullivan said he found ways to rationalize what was happening to him.
“For me, he was the church, so when you look at it that way, he can’t do anything wrong,” O’Sullivan says. “So if someone asked if something was wrong I would and say no, in the same way I would lie if I broke a window or something so I wouldn’t get in trouble. Breaking a window and being abused by Grecco became the same kind of thing in my head.”
It wasn’t the only abuse a pre-teen O’Suvillan had to absorb.
In the late ’70s, it wasn’t uncommon for clergy to visit the homes of congregants and men in collars were not strangers to the O’Sullivan home. Grecco visited often, but O’Sullivan says he didn’t abuse him there. Only Father John did.
“(Father John) would show up and say he had to bless the house, and I would have to go with him from room to room,” says O’Sullivan.
Out of sight of his parents, O’Sullivan was abused as he was at St. Kevin’s.
Now 48, O’Sullivan says has never learned the identity of Father John. He says his siblings, who say they were not abused by either priest, refuse to discuss the matter.
“Looking back at it, I can’t help but wonder, ‘Why me? Why did they single me out?’”
The abuse at Grecco’s hands didn’t stop until 1982.
“Things just slowed right up, and then he left. I remember going in (to St. Kevin’s) and him not being there anymore and figuring he is not far.”
Grecco’s absence did not mean the dawn of normalcy for O’Sullivan.
He had begun acting out. Breaking the law. He was developing a pattern as a troublemaker. After a petty crime conviction, he was sent to the John Bosco Home for Boys in Guelph, but it did little to set the teen on a better path.
In 1986, a year after his mother died, O’Sullivan was sentenced to 18 months at St. John’s Training School for Boys.
His nightmare was just beginning. This time there would be no forgetting it.
Thursday: The wolf in priest’s clothing part 2.
Friday: Coverage of Donald Grecco’s sentencing in St. Catharines.
Saturday: The wolf in priest’s clothing part 3.
Donald Grecco: The wolf in priest’s clothing
Donald Grecco was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in St. Catharines on June 4, 1966. He worked as a priest until 2008, when the first criminal charges of sex abuse were brought against him.
During his time as a priest Grecco was assigned to several churches including St. Mary in Welland, St. George in Crystal Beach, St. Thomas More in Niagara Falls, St. Stephen’s in Cayuga, St. Vincent de Paul in Niagara-on-the-Lake, St. Alexander in Fonthill and St. Kevin in Welland. He had access to young boys in most, if not all, of these churches.
In 2008, he was charged after a police investigation into the sexual abuse of children in the 1970s and ’80s. In 2010, he pleaded guilty to three counts of gross indecency and was sentenced to 18 months in prison and was placed on the national sex offender registry.
In 2015, he was charged with three more historic sexual crimes. In May 2017, pleaded guilty to three charges of gross indecency.
He is scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday at the St. Catharines courthouse.
His victims have ranged in age from 10 to 18.