After decades of repression, a local man speaks out about the priest he says molested him. His actions may force the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to do right by its many alleged victims.
An early summer sun seeps into the visitors' room at Norristown State Hospital, a sprawling 124-year-old psychiatric institution in Montgomery County. Brian McDonnell and a trio of visitors sit around a long wooden table.
Brian is dressed in jeans and a blue sweatshirt. His thick white hair is disheveled, his blue eyes glazed from medication. Stubble lines his sallow cheeks.
Brian turned 59 in April, but he looks a decade older.
He holds green rosary beads. A Catholic medal hangs from a blue ribbon around his neck.
"My brother Alex said he doesn't know if guardian angels really do their jobs," he says in measured tones. "I still believe in guardian angels, but I believe in them in different ways now, because if my guardian angel had protected me the way he should've, well, then ... "
His voice trails off. His good hand holds his shaky one.
When an awkward silence falls over the room, he tries to inject levity.
"I was a good football player in college," he says through a smile of cracked teeth. "I was versatile, played three positions: guard, tackle and end. I sat on the end of the bench, guarded the water bucket and tackled anyone who came near it."
Brian's older brother John, visiting from California, pats him on the arm and laughs. Only recently has Brian started displaying a sense of humor.
At 60, John McDonnell is barrel-chested with vibrant blue eyes and slicked back white hair, a successful real estate investor who lives by the beach with his second wife. But he too has struggled.
There were years of alcoholism and severe depression, and in 1999 he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to sexual abuse he suffered as a child. There are mornings he still wakes up with thoughts of suicide.
"We were both first-team All-Catholic in football at St. Tommy More," he says, trying to keep his brother's spirits high.
Jimmy McGlone, a childhood buddy of Brian's, is a stout, sweet-tempered man who talks in bursts. He visits Brian once a week. The two take trips into town to get something to eat, or to take in a movie. If it's a Sunday visit, they'll go to church and attend Mass. Sometimes Brian will ask to stop by the dollar store in town. He never buys anything, but he likes to stroll down the aisles and look around.
It was in January, after his sister read about the lawsuit in the newspapers, that Jimmy McGlone learned of his friend's situation. He first visited the hospital in February. Brian was a lot worse then. The two just sat in silence.
Brian shares a small room with another man. His days begin at 6:30 a.m., when he gets up to make his bed. After that it's medication, counseling, television--and on good days, a visitor. He'll often play spades to pass the time. He's usually back in bed by 7:30 at night to sleep.
McGlone is planning a picnic in Brian's honor at his own home near Morgantown, not far off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. A lot of guys from the old neighborhood will be there. McGlone has promised his friend that he can man the grill.
Brian is nervous about the party. There'll be a lot of people, and being away from the hospital looms as a challenge.
"I don't like this place," he says about Norristown State. "But I'd rather be here because I'm very suicidal, and I don't want to do that to my family."
PW's Holiday Guide 2014
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4