Catholic Church denies responsibility for priest, saying he was employed as teacher at time of alleged abuse
WARNING: This article contains details of abuse.
It was the late 1960s in Toronto and a young boy was standing on the edge of a subway platform considering something terrible. The torment he says he felt was becoming unbearable.
David Cullen, who was around 10 years old at the time, says he managed to find a nearby payphone to call his mother for help. He went on to spend much of the rest of his life in and out of doctors' offices and hospitals, dealing with chronic pain and severe emotional distress.
He says he had no idea why, until five decades later.
In 2019, Cullen, 59, was reviewing test results with a team of doctors when one asked a pointed question: had he ever been sexually abused as a child?
That's when he says the memories came flooding back.
"I had buried it. I had buried it so deeply and it caught me off guard. I started dealing with shame right away," he told the CBCs The Fifth Estate in his first interview since launching a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto.
"By today's standards, I was a classic childhood sexual abuse victim."
Cullen sued the church in March 2021, after he says he pieced together what had happened to him and after reporting it to the police and directly to the church.
According to his claim, he had been repeatedly sexually abused starting at the age of five by a Roman Catholic priest, who had been invited to his family home in Toronto to perform mass.
That priest, he says, is Father James Sheridan, who died in 1987.
The church defends itself in the lawsuit, saying the abuse never took place.
'Massive institutional betrayal'
Over four years, often while Cullen's mother was cooking dinner in the next room, Cullen says Sheridan groomed him and eventually performed what he describes as "ritualistic" abuse, on a monthly basis.
"He was a returning monster, and there was nothing I could do about it," said Cullen. "That's an awful lot to be putting on a little boy's shoulders."
Cullen went on to have a successful career in advertising, launching his own agency in 1995. His clients included high-profile companies like the Toronto Blue Jays and Sunquest Vacations. However, he says his business virtually ground to a halt in 2019, when the memories of his abuse re-surfaced.
He says the abuse left him with a lifetime of scars and a long list of damaging coping mechanisms, including alcohol and substance use, physical, emotional and mental pain, severe anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts and panic attacks. In his lawsuit, Cullen says he also lost $3.5 million in income and care costs. In total, he is suing for $4.75-million.
He says none of it prepared him for how he would feel about the legal response from the Archdiocese in Toronto, which experts and former clergy members contacted by The Fifth Estate describe as "threatening," "victim blaming" and a "massive institutional betrayal."
Church denies abuse took place
In its statement of defence, filed in April 2021, the church denies the abuse took place altogether, and calls Cullen's claims and their impact "remote, excessive, unforeseeable, vague, exaggerated and over-stated."
The church goes on to say Cullen or his lawyer should be punished for even filing the lawsuit.
"The allegations … have been recklessly made without any foundation whatsoever and the inclusion of such allegations in the statement of claim should be subject to appropriate costs sanctions against the Plaintiff or the Plaintiff's counsel."
"They are just threatening him. They are trying to pull the rug out from under him," Father Ken Lasch said in an interview.
The retired New Jersey-based priest is one of the founding members of the Catholic Whistleblowers, a high profile U.S. group that supports survivors of Catholic Church sexual abuse.
Lasch was shocked to see the legal response from the Archdiocese in Toronto, which he says is out of step with the way the Catholic Church now typically deals with reports of abuse.
"It certainly goes against the norms … the norms that have been promoted by the Bishop's Conference and Rome as well," he said.
"By and large, there is a much greater acceptance and openness towards dealing with it."
Priest was employed at U of T, archdiocese says
In an emailed statement to The Fifth Estate, the Archdiocese of Toronto says it won't comment directly on its legal response because the case is currently before the courts, but it did say it "looks upon any allegation of misconduct as an urgent matter that requires serious attention."
The Archdiocese also says it has a procedure for reporting misconduct to the church and a program to help survivors of abuse.
"We pray for all those who are affected by this situation," the Archdiocese said.
In its statement of defence the church goes on to deny any responsibility for Cullen's alleged abuser, because Sheridan was employed as a teacher with University of Toronto, St. Michael's College at the time.
"That's ridiculous," said Lasch.
He points out that Sheridan was performing priest-like duties when Cullen says the abuse occurred, that the Archdiocese of Toronto still had the power to remove Sheridan's credentials as a priest and would have paid him a retirement salary.
"If he was a priest of the diocese … who happened to be teaching at that school, then the diocese is responsible for him. Absolutely," said Lasch.
The church's statement of defence also attacks Cullen's inability to recall the trauma of his abuse until many years later, calling it a "failure to mitigate in a timely way," saying that he "knew or ought to have known of the alleged nature and impact of any abuse upon him by Fr. Sheridan well before the commencement" of the case, and that "his delay has caused irreparable prejudice and harm" to the church.
Failure to recall trauma 'a real thing'
"They are trying to beat him over the head with the consequences," said Jim Hopper, a psychologist, teaching associate in the Department of Psychiatry of Harvard Medical School and an expert witness for sexual assault, trauma and recovered memories.
Hopper says failing to recall traumatic abuse until years or decades later, is "definitely a real thing."
"I've spoken to literally hundreds of people who have had this experience."
He notes that the phenomenon, referred to as dissociative amnesia, has been listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since 1980.
Hopper says it's a method the brain uses to cope with trauma. And just because the memories aren't conscious doesn't mean the trauma doesn't still have a serious impact on a person's life, he says. They just might not understand why they are experiencing problems.
Hopper calls the church's response "institutional betrayal."
"They do it when they blame the victim in their lawsuits."
For Cullen's part, he says he's not angry with the church as a whole or the religion, just the administration in Toronto. And he says he'll pursue the lawsuit until the very end.
He says that given the church's response, he feels the need to make a point, and that hopefully, the Archdiocese of Toronto will learn from this and approach future cases differently.
Cullen says he's "more upset with the administration's behaviour on this" than he is with what happened to him.
He says if Catholics knew how poorly church administrators in Toronto were treating victims, "they would be incensed."
If you have any information or tips to share about this story, please contact Timothy Sawa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Host, Evil By Design
Timothy Sawa is the host of CBC's podcast series investigating Peter Nygard, Evil By Design. Sawa has been an investigative journalist with CBC for more than two decades. For more than half that time, he's been digging into allegations of sexual misconduct involving the former Canadian fashion mogul. Sawa is also a producer with CBC's The Fifth Estate. He has produced investigations exposing police corruption, sexual abuse in public institutions and offshore tax evasion.
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