Persico seen as game changer in with clergy abuse stance
PITTSBURGH (AP) — When it snowed, Betty Nemchik always knew the sidewalks outside St. James Roman Catholic Church would be shoveled in time for morning Mass.
The now-retired church secretary said her boss, Monsignor Lawrence Persico, personally cleared a path to the New Alexandria church, where he served from 1998 to 2012.
Those who remember him recall a self-effacing cleric whose serious, gaunt demeanor masked a dry sense of humor that came to the surface when he joined congregants for coffee after morning Mass.
Jeffrey Rouse, an internationally-known art conservator, attended morning services just down the road from his studio. He came to call Persico a friend.
“We just loved him. We had so much fun,” Rouse said.
But Persico, who would become bishop of the Erie Diocese, also played another role in the church — serving as vicar general of the Greensburg Diocese. Responsibilities of that position included investigating claims of horrific clergy sexual abuse.
A searing statewide grand jury report, released in August, detailed rampant claims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse across Pennsylvania. The 900-page document included several cases Persico was a assigned to investigate.
Among them were a middle-aged man who told of being sodomized with a crucifx in the confessional as a young teen; another who said his parish priest raped him when he was seven as a “secret penance” for his mother missing Mass; and a woman who said both she and her sister had been sexually assaulted by their parish priest as young children.
Their tales stunned Persico who had spent a lifetime in the Church, going straight from parochial school in Monessen, a deeply Catholic community in the Mon Valley, to the seminary and later to study canon law at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
“After 2002 and the Boston scandal, we were getting the calls that I found just unbelievable. These (priests) lived two lives,” said Persico, 68. “Some of them were real monsters.”
Persico said the anguish of survivors he spoke with in Greensburg heavily influenced him when he was appointed bishop of the Erie Diocese in 2012, after which he began hearing from abuse survivors there who felt they had received short shrift from church officials.
Last summer, the steelworker’s son, one of three children who grew up in their home in the shadow of Monessen’s massive Wheeling-Pittsburgh mill, broke with his fellow Pennsylvania bishops on clergy sexual abuse. In the process, he carved out a reputation as a game changer in the church.
Persico isn’t claiming the title.
All he ever wanted was to be a priest, he insisted. The 14 years he spent at St. James were among the best in his life.
But faced with the authority to change how his diocese handled sexual abuse claims, Persico acted.
In April, four months before the grand jury report would become public, he published the names of credibly accused clergy and lay workers in his diocese.
The public needed to know these people should not work with children, Persico said.
Days later, he became the only Pennsylvania bishop to appear before the grand jury. Fellow bishops filed written statements instead of appearing in person. Perscio also submitted a written statement. But he also accepted the invitation to go before the panel and answer questions under oath.
“I thought it might be good for two reasons: They had been listening to this heart-wrenching testimony for two years, and they needed to hear someone tell them they are sorry for what happened. And secondly, I needed to experience the temperament and attitude of the grand jury. I wanted to hear from them,” Persico said.
Still reeling from what he heard there, Persico agreed to meet with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro as lawyers for various priests and other church officials fought the release of the grand jury report.
Shapiro flew into the Erie airport, where they met for an hour.
“He wanted support for the release of the report,” Persico said. “I knew the victims were getting anxious and that they needed it.”
Shortly afterwards, the Erie bishop called for the report to be publicly released. Several other bishops quickly followed suit.
Shapiro publicly thanked Persico.
Others were less complimentary.
James Faluszczak, an abuse survivor and a former priest, resigned his post in the Erie Diocese in 2014 and emerged as a whistleblower. He said Persico was not compassionate or interested when he approached him with his story.
“He has been neither progressive nor proactive. He did not do anything until there were going to be admissions with or without him,” Faluszczak said.
Persico conceded his approach to sexual abuse has evolved.
“When I came here, I realized the buck stops with me. It was an evolution in the fact that I wasn’t capable of doing investigations,” he said. “I don’t think any priest is capable of that. We’re not trained to do that. It’s better to have trained investigators outside of the institution.”
That’s what he did when he hired Mark Rush, an attorney with K.L. Gates’ Pittsburgh office, to direct an internal investigation for him.
‘Our deeds will speak’
Persico said he can’t answer for the decisions prior bishops made. He speculated that some may have seen sexual abuse as a moral failure, a mortal sin that could be cured by confession and repentance.
“They wanted to protect the church. But because of how they handled the scandal they wanted to avoid, they created an even bigger scandal,” Perscio said.
Bishop Emeritus Donald Trautman, Persico’s retired predecessor in Erie, stood up last month at the national gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore and cautioned church leaders against believing everything that has been printed. Trautman for a time fought the release of the report, in which his name appears 254 times.
Persico said younger bishops seemed supportive of moves to make the church, including its bishops, more accountable to those they serve.
“We can talk about transparency and being open, but our deeds will speak to what we are,” Persico said.
Some Catholics and abuse survivors are disappointed that Persico failed to endorse the grand jury’s call for a law to create a two-year window for survivors timed out of legal options to be able to file lawsuits. Instead, he endorsed establishing a settlement fund to compensate people with old abuse claims.
“I have victims in my diocese who are 87 years old. For them to have to wait until the statute of limitations goes through the court system, well, I think they have a right to some sort of justice,” Persico said.
Moreover, he worries about maintaining the charitable and educational mission of the church.
‘What we’ve done’
Those explanations do not sit well with Ed Rogers. Rogers, 45, of Bradford, who said he was repeatedly raped by a priest as a student in a Catholic high school in the late 1980s. He said he was ostracized in his small town after he came forward with his allegations nearly three decades ago, only to find the statute of limitations had expired.
He wants his day in court.
“I want their collars gone. I want them stripped of everything,” the slight, soft spoken man said.
“I can understand that anger, because I am angry, too,” Persico said. “We forget there are two victims in all of this: the person who actually has been abused and the men and women who belong to the church and have been abused because they are faithful Catholics. This is their church, and this is what we’ve done to them. They have a right to be angry.”
It may be a smaller church, but Persico said he’s certain it will emerge from what many have called the most serious threat since the Reformation — provided it does not dig in and reject needed changes.
Back in New Alexandria, Persico’s former parishioners weren’t surprised that the pastor who cleared snow from the sidewalks wants to find a path to the future for his church.
“I hate to say what is right or wrong. But the way I see it, he did it the right thing,” Rouse said. “This man really is honest, and he weighs both sides before he makes a decision.”
Information from: Tribune-Review, http://triblive.com