By Maria Panaritis, The Inquirer
Decades later, the damage from one Philadelphia predator priest still torments a generation of victims.
In the rear of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, the old school friends of the man in the casket were growing agitated. The funeral service for Jim Cunningham was about to begin.
It was a terrible loss: A 45-year-old father, prison counselor, and hostage negotiator — dead by suicide.
Handkerchiefs were out in the other pews. But near the back, fury decades in the making was boiling over.
"No. I can't do it," Kevin Emery told the others. "We can't stay here for this."
Like Cunningham, each had been a student in the same Northeast Philadelphia parish school, St. Cecilia's, in the 1980s when the Rev. James Brzyski turned their community into a stalking ground. Brzyski (BRISH-kee) had sexually assaulted possibly more than 100 boys during stints at St. Cecilia's and a prior parish, St. John the Evangelist in Lower Makefield, a grand jury later asserted, but like so many abusers had eluded prosecution.
As far as any of Cunningham's boyhood friends had known, the scrawny bookworm with a million-dollar smile had been among the lucky altar boys to avoid the predator's reach. He had earned a master's degree, built a career, even won a seat on his local board of supervisors.
Emery had a screenshot of that message on the smartphone in his pocket. He thought about it as three priests hovered near Cunningham's casket.
This was the second funeral in a year for the St. Cecilia's crew. Classmate Jimmy Spoerl, raped by Brzyski as an altar boy, died in March 2016 after his trauma- and addiction-ravaged body gave up on him. Another victim, John Delaney, sobbed in a pew at the Mass for Cunningham. Others, like Gerad Argeros, stayed away from both funerals, afraid of the demons they might stir.
These men and those who loved them were among a lost generation at St. Cecilia's. Casualties of long-hushed childhood horrors that seemed to have no end. Yet since being labeled a pedophile and walking away from the church decades ago, and despite little dispute about the damage he inflicted on children while wearing a collar, Brzyski roamed the country a free man.
His whereabouts had long been a mystery — though one soon to be solved.
Until he began telling friends last year, Cunningham wasn't known to be one of the priest's victims. Even then, he had kept specifics mostly to himself. Experts say as many as one in four girls and one in six boys endure some form of sexual abuse by age 18. Many hide, ignore, or repress the memories for years — until they confront their secret trauma or are destroyed by it.
As Emery and others left the Warrington church in protest, Cunningham's mother, a secretary at another Catholic parish, remained in the front row. A few pews back was Mike Bruzas, another St. Cecilia's alum and Cunningham's best friend. Brzyski had never targeted him, but he, too, felt damaged.