Stolen Childhoods

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.

But in truth, his world had spiraled over a simmering torment: long-ago abuse at the hands of Brzyski. His anguish peaked one February night in Doylestown, surrounded by the same Bucks County SWAT team he had helped with suicide standoffs. His mom had called the police to save her distraught son. Inside, Cunningham had posted a note on Facebook: "This is the face of being raped as a child."

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.

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Showing 7 comments

  • Craig Cheatham
    commented 2019-08-08 12:02:05 -0500
    I’m a reporter with WCPO-TV in Cincinnati. I can be reached at [email protected] and 513-430-9124.

    I would like to talk with you about priests who have served in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Covington, KY
  • True Catholic
    commented 2018-09-23 19:41:54 -0500
    Please contact Tim Lennon @ (415) 312-5820. I will contact him tomorrow with my contact information. We have a lot of information concerning Father Jeff Bacon and look forward to discussing details with you.
  • Whits Oh
    commented 2018-09-23 15:24:26 -0500
    In response to your inquiry about Jeff Bacon, please contact me at [email protected]. Thanks
  • Lynn Fultz
    commented 2018-09-07 00:37:57 -0500
    For Dennis who commented .. can you contact me? I’ve spent years inquiring on Jeff Bacon and been stonewalled at every turn
  • John Nesbella
    commented 2017-10-30 14:17:50 -0500
    People will ask me: “Is this still going on?” My answer: It never stopped, just look at the SNAP website or Bishop accountability. The faithful catholics do not want to believe that it was ever as bad as the many Grand Jury reports state-now they want to believe that it is all over and something in the past.
  • True Catholic
    commented 2017-10-26 22:46:22 -0500
    The Archbishop issued Father Bacon a Penal Precept that he could no longer contact this girl, he went through a third party and contacted her. Bishop Joe Binzer was removed from the case and was no longer allowed to talk to the parents. The Archdiocese cut off communication with the parents on April 17, 2015.

    In November 2015, Father Bacon was suddenly removed from his position at Holy Cross Immaculata and quickly sent out of state for treatment. The parish believed it was for his alcoholism. In truth, a criminal investigation had started from allegations from a young woman who he had known since she was 14. According to the prosecuting attorney, the criminal investigation was delayed due to not having access to interview the priest. In the meantime the church became involved with counselling for the victim while a criminal investigation was ongoing.

    Father Bacon was allowed to “Resign” from Holy Cross Immaculata Church in March of 2016 and has disappeared from the active priest list of the Archdiocese. He is still in the area and still has his old phone number. None of this information has been reported to the parishioners or the community.

    This is just a short version of all that is involved in this situation. When I read this story nothing in it surprised me. We are living it today and nothing has changed in this church. I fear for these young women and all who are still being abused by these predator priests. Those who continue to cover for their actions are worse than the predators themselves. It is time the legislatures step in and pass laws to put these people in jail.
  • True Catholic
    commented 2017-10-26 22:17:21 -0500
    Father Jeff Bacon of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is going to a jury trial on November 1, 2017 for OVI and Refusing the chemical test from a police stop on December 31, 2016. In July 2014 he admitted to the parents of a 16 year old daughter who was having emotional issues, he had been in contact with her on average, once a day for the last three years. When told by the mother he could no longer contact her daughter, he stated “I don’t think I can do that”. He was reported to the Archdiocese on July 31, 2014 for improper conduct with a minor.

    He was not removed by Archbishop Schnurr and in a meeting with Auxiliary Bishop Joe Binzer and the parents in January 2015, he admitted he had violated a letter stating he was to no longer contact this girl. Without their knowledge during this time, Father Bacon started separating other children in the family from the parents, stating their father had a vendetta against him and was lying about him. As the parents investigated on their own, it was discovered Father Bacon had a history of alcohol abuse and a licensed Catholic Psychologist who had sessions with Father Bacon (Payed for by the parents) told them his alcohol addiction was likely fueling his attraction to their girls . This was reported to the Archdiocese.

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