Victims recount trauma as Catholic priest dismissals continue


By Ed Runyan

and JUSTIN DENNIS

YOUNGSTOWN

Former area clergy recently exposed for alleged child-sex crimes continue to sow turmoil in Catholic parishes across the country, as well as in the lives of their accusers.

A member of Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Vienna Township says the announcement that its priest, the Rev. Denis G. Bouchard, is on administrative leave over allegations of inappropriate contact with a minor is causing conflict within the parish.

Also, a Catholic diocese in Phoenix, Ariz., recently dismissed one of its retired priests, Frank Zappitelli, who was previously removed from the Youngstown Diocese after sex-abuse allegations in the mid-1970s, and who then moved to Arizona in 1983.

And, 30 years after 43-year-old Scott Cunningham alleges former Youngstown priest Jose Vazques molested him in the St. Aloysius Parish rectory, he said he and his parents are still learning to cope with the trauma and guilt.

QUEEN OF THE HOLY ROSARY

Joann Knuth of Hubbard says her role in questioning the behavior of Father Bouchard in recent years has led fellow parishioners to blame her for the allegations of inappropriate contact made against the priest.

One parishioner told Knuth: “I hope you didn’t have anything to do with this. He’s a good man.” Some other members of the parish are arguing with each other, Knuth said.

Knuth said her earlier activities put her in a position to help the mother of the alleged victim of Father Bouchard to talk to Delphine Baldwin-Casey, the investigator for the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, but Knuth is neutral on whether Father Bouchard is guilty of inappropriate contact.

Knuth said her reason for speaking out is her hope the diocese will help restore peace within the parish by providing its members with more information.

For one thing, she and Baldwin-Casey have discussed the abuse allegation and its investigation in recent weeks, and Baldwin-Casey has told Knuth she finds the allegations credible, Knuth said.

But that doesn’t mean the investigation is over, Baldwin-Casey said Friday. “There are still more things in that case to be investigated,” she said.

The diocese announced Monday that Father Bouchard is on leave pending an investigation. The announcement came after the Diocesan Review Board heard Baldwin-Casey’s findings and recommended to Bishop George V. Murry that further investigation take place, she said.

But without her parish being given information about the outcome of Baldwin-Casey’s investigation, Knuth says she’s being blamed by fellow parishioners for Father Bouchard being placed on leave.

“I’m as transparent as I can be without revealing too many things that could hurt my investigation,” Baldwin-Casey said.

She said she feels Knuth did the right thing. If Knuth hadn’t initiated contact between Baldwin-Casey and the mother of Father Bouchard’s alleged victim, the diocese may never have learned of the abuse.

“I applaud her for that,” she said. “I always say, ‘The worst abuse of any victim is their silence.’ They should tell somebody.”

Knuth said she first became involved in the matter when the mother of the alleged victim called Knuth in early September crying. The boy was between age 9 and 11 when the alleged abuse occurred but is now an adult, the diocese said.

Knuth said she didn’t know much about Baldwin-Casey, a retired Youngstown police officer, at the time, but spoke with a friend and was convinced Baldwin-Casey could be trusted.

Over a number of weeks, the mother of the alleged victim and her son trusted Baldwin-Casey enough to fully discuss the allegations, Knuth said.

Knuth did give Baldwin-Casey information about the parish and “about problems I was having with [Bouchard] about canon law,” she said. For example, Knuth felt it was a violation of church law when Father Bouchard refused to give communion to individuals on different occasions.

She also had concerns about what she considered inappropriate language the priest allowed to be published in the parish’s weekly church bulletin.

Knuth said all she did was “what any person with a conscience would do,” but she will live with the outcome of the diocesan investigation.

“If the [diocese] says he’s guilty, fine. If the diocese says he’s not guilty, that’s fine,” Knuth said.

ST. ALOYSIUS PARISH

Scott Cunningham, a 43-year-old former Columbiana County resident, told The Vindicator he was one of two altar boys Vazques “hand-picked” to travel and perform Masses while Vazques trained to be a deacon at St. Aloysius Parish in the mid-1980s.

“My mom and dad thought it was fantastic because I was going everywhere. I was doing all these kinds of ceremonies,” he said. “I did too, until this incident happened.”

Cunningham said he was 11 or 12 years old when he spent one summer night in the parish rectory. He said while speaking with Vazques, the man started asking sexual questions, then pushed him down on the bed and molested him.

“I was a very naive young boy, and this guy had a lot of authority, and there was a bit of admiration that I had toward him up until this point,” he said. “This guy knew exactly what he was doing. It was very predatory in what he did.”

Cunningham said he “kept that buried” throughout his childhood, and into his 30s. After he began acting out in his late teens, he spent time at Liberty’s Belmont Pines behavioral health clinic. He said he “self-medicated” with marijuana in his 20s, and later relied on anti-anxiety medication.

“I’ve dealt with anxiety pretty much my whole life because of what I went through – being a pre-teen and having to hide that for so long,” he said.

It wasn’t until the birth of his first child in 2006 that Cunningham felt compelled to seek closure and tell his parents about the abuse, he said. His mother was “stunned” but quickly focused on helping him heal and taking the Youngstown Diocese to task, he said.

“My mom and dad are both pretty devout Catholics and were pretty upset,” he said.

Cunningham’s parents met with Monsignor John Zuraw of the Youngstown Diocese in 2007 about the abuse claim, but Cunningham said the diocese gave little information about him – simply that he was no longer with the diocese.

Cunningham can still hear the guilt in his mother’s voice when they speak about Vazques. “I think it makes her physically ill,” he said.

That encounter lasted minutes but echoed across Cunningham’s lifetime. Today, he is married with children and researches clinical microbiology in Minnesota.

He said the panic crept back into his mannerisms when speaking about it with The Vindicator.

Thirty years later, Cunningham has been working with a behavioral therapist to help him move past “a lot of haunts.”

“The big thing’s embracing it and accepting it for what it is,” he said. “I know it’ll never go away – probably until the day I die. ... Accept it and know it’s going to pass like everything else.”

Frank Zappitelli, an 84-year-old former Youngstown diocese priest also named in the list of diocesan priests facing credible allegations of child-sex abuse, has been removed from public ministry in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix where he most recently served.

The diocese learned Nov. 8 the Youngstown diocese had placed Zappitelli on its list, according to a Wednesday news release.

Zappitelli was ordained in 1962 in the Youngstown Diocese, where the credible allegation took place in the mid-1970s, according to the diocese. Zappitelli moved to Arizona and was placed into the Diocese of Phoenix in 1983, where he served in six parishes and continued assisting after retirement.

“The Diocese of Phoenix is in communication with the Diocese of Youngstown regarding this allegation,” reads the release. “The Diocese of Phoenix has also contacted the authorities regarding the allegations.”

According to diocesan records and Vindicator archives, Zappitelli served in Ohio at St. Rose Church in Girard, Canton’s St. Peter, Salem’s St. Paul parishes, and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Geneva.

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