Manayunk parishioners listen, console victim of sexual abuse

By John T. Gillespie
Special to the CS&T

In an unusual and cathartic exchange, members of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Philadelphia’s Manayunk section rallied around a fellow parishioner suffering from abuse by a priest more than 40 years ago.

The victim, Joseph Scharff, was 15 years old and a freshman at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia when he was summoned to the guidance counselor’s office on the pretense that he had cut classes. What happened that day and on a subsequent occasion left him with feelings of shame, betrayal, alienation and, until recently, ambivalence about his faith.

For an hour and a half the evening of Wednesday, June 1 at St. Mary’s, Scharff’s story and the reaction of parishioners became an occasion for mutual healing as the victim and fellow parishioners tried to go beyond what had happened. {{more}}

The event was called “Creating a Space for Healing” and was planned by St. Mary’s and the Archdiocese’s Office of Victim Assistance. There were strict ground rules to help channel the discussion in meaningful ways and avoid confrontation.

Father Charles Zlock, pastor of St. Mary’s, called the event a “significant milestone” in the approach to the sexual abuse crisis and a model for other parishes to follow.

“The Church needs to be seen not just as an abuser but as a healer of abused,” he said.

Participants expressed little resentment toward the priest, who abused Scharff and is no longer in active ministry, or toward archdiocesan officials. The tone was one of forbearance, mixed with hope and optimism.

Asked what he wanted of his abuser, Scharff said simply, “I want him to say he’s sorry.”

Liz Fuller, a St. Mary’s parishioner, called Scharff’s absence of vindictiveness remarkable. “The man is a saint,” she said.

In an exchange with a parishioner who said she “sometimes distrusts” priests, Scharff said he “felt sorry for priests (who have abused) because they have to go before God.”

For the victim and the group of about 30 parishioners, this was not about score-settling but about finding peace and closure and moving on.

“What can we do to give you more peace?” asked parishioner Barbara Hood.

“While I’m in church I feel alone,” replied Scharff, to which Hood responded that she would join him in the pew.

Mary Achilles, the Archdiocese’s consultant for victims’ services who helped guide the discussion, said Scharff would “soon have 20 people in the pew with him.”

Scharff’s journey to disclosure began a year ago when he joined Connections, the parish men’s group. It was there that he was encouraged in his decision to tell his story to a broader audience.

Timothy Gill, a member of Connections, said that Scharff, having decided to speak out, was “changing lives with his courage and openness.”

Last week he spoke softly but unsparingly of his experience and its consequences.

On two occasions he said he attempted suicide. For a time, he admitted, he physically abused his children. He was unable to form normal boy-girl relationships until he met his wife.

For many years, he suppressed what had happened and told no one, not even his wife. In a bizarre twist, his abuser officiated at the wedding of Scharff and his wife at the urging of his family who admired the priest, Father John P. Schmeer.

Scharff didn’t want him to officiate but gave in to family pressure.

Scharff’s parents died not knowing what had happened and “would never have believed me if I told them,” he said. “My mother loved Father Schmeer.”

After living with the repressed memory for so many years, Scharff finally decided to reveal his secret. His opening came with the first Grand Jury report on clergy sex abuse in 2005. The first person he told was the Father James T. McGuinn, former pastor of St. Mary’s, who contacted the Archdiocese, which informed the District Attorney’s Office. Scharff was called to testify by the grand jury.

It was then that he told his wife and mother-in-law who expressed concern about the possible impact on the couple’s five children, the oldest of whom is 26.

Father McGuinn would play a role in restoring Scharff’s faith. After a long absence, he now attends Mass regularly.

“Father Jim had a way of getting me to come back,” he said. “My faith is stronger and I’m more spiritual.”

He also has the support of a therapist suggested by Cardinal Justin Rigali and paid for by the Archdiocese. He has met with Cardinal Rigali twice. He credits the therapist with helping him come to terms with what happened.

In a story filled with unexpected turns, Scharff was surprised in 2005 to find himself hired by his old high school, Roman Catholic, for a job in the maintenance department. He thought his testimony to the grand jury might kill his chances of getting hired, but it did not.

After four years he quit the job for health reasons. Today, at age 59 and awaiting a heart transplant, he collects disability.

The victim of two heart attacks, the first at age 38 in which he claims to have briefly died, Scharff believes the reason he survived is to tell his story.

Despite his experience and its aftermath, he manages a cautious optimism. “Something positive is going to come out of all this,” he said.

[Father Schmeer was removed from priestly ministry in 2004. He subsequently accepted the permanent restriction of his ministry and a life of prayer and penance. Previously he was a member of the faculty at Roman Catholic High School from 1965 to 1977 and Bishop Kenrick High School in Norristown from 1977 to 1990. His last assignment was as pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish in New Hope.]

John Gillespie is a freelance writer and member of St. Bridget Parish.