Innocence Lost

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.

By Mike Newall
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 14, 2004

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"The biggest tragedy to me is that this all could have been so easily avoided," says Salveson. "First, if the archdiocese initially removed sexual predators from ministry, and second, if they treated victims with any shred of Christian charity."

"Forget about priestly compassion," says John McDonnell. "How about common human decency?"

Soon after the attack, Brian McDonnell says he went to another priest at St. Gregory's and informed him of the abuse. He says the priest chased him away, telling him to keep quiet. He even accused the boy of having tempted Chambers.

After high school Brian attended Villanova, where he started drinking. He became detached and depressed. He says he started feeling shame, confusion, paranoia and anxiety.

He struggled to reconcile Chambers' actions with his faith. He worried that all who met him knew of his secret.

After college he found himself performing poorly in job interviews--he's been on just two his whole life--and lacked the confidence to hold down the jobs he landed through friends and family.

Over the years depression and paranoia took a stronger hold on him. There was a failed marriage--he has four children--and eventually shock treatments.

By 1983 he was back living with his parents. One night he went missing after cleaning out the pills from his now elderly parents' medicine cabinet. He walked down to the Schuylkill River near a spot in Fairmount Park where his father used to take him and his brothers to play ball. He took a razor to his wrist and throat. He cut his left wrist and forearm nearly to the bone. He tried to pluck the jugular vein from his throat.

In the early dawn hours after his suicide attempt, Brian somehow made the five-block walk back to his parents' home. His mother opened the front door to find her son covered in congealed blood. Brian collapsed into his mother's arms.

"It's a miracle he didn't die," says John. "But he has had to live the last 20 years in a very, very dark place."

Brian has been in and out of Norristown State and other psychiatric hospitals since the suicide attempt.

When he's off his medication, he suffers delusions.

At one point he believed that Chambers must have been an Anglican priest implanted by the Queen of England to destroy the Catholic Church.

"A Catholic priest would never do things he did," he would explain.

In a July 8 hearing, lawyers for the archdiocese argued that all the suits charging sex abuse by priests, including the one filed by the McDonnells, should be dismissed because the statutes of limitations had long expired.

In court, lawyers for the archdiocese called the suits "stale cases."

There's never been a successful civil case alleging sexual abuse brought against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, largely due to Pennsylvania's extremely stringent statute of limitations guidelines. Until 2002 a victim had only two years after their 18th birthday to file charges. (After the clergy abuse scandal broke, the statutes were extended to a victim's 30th birthday.)

One of the first cases brought against the archdiocese was in 1993, when a 27-year-old man alleged abuse while he was a student at Archbishop Ryan High School in the Northeast. The priest was a close friend of the man's family. The archdiocese countersued the victim's parents, claiming they were negligent for having trusted the priest with their child. The whole affair was settled out of court.

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