Fathom Mag

Published on:
November 12, 2018
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7 min.
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Prophetic Survivors: Jim VanSickle

Here’s the thing about Jim VanSickle: he cannot help but go all-in. He admits as much himself. When Jim decided to share his story of Catholic clergy sex abuse publicly, he told his wife and daughters that he “was going one-hundred percent.” Every day since he has fulfilled that promise.

Jim VanSickle wants survivors to know he's here for them no matter what.

Jim speaks—on his Facebook page, on MSNBC, on the phone to me while he drives to his daughter’s house to teach her how to make his signature meatballs—with convicting invitation. He beckons others to join him in advocating for justice, to discover a place to belong and a role to play. As Jim recounted his high school English teacher, Father David Poulson, grooming and sexually assaulting him and his choice to come forward thirty-seven years later, he simultaneously testified to the utter devastation he has experienced as a victim and the hope he has as a survivor. I can see why his daughter wants to learn from him. 

Jim’s decision to go public with his story began with a phone call from his mother. She told him that David Poulson, a Catholic priest who had been Jim’s high school English teacher, mentor, and abuser, had been accused of child sexual abuse. She read about it in a church news bulletin.  

Here’s the thing about Jim VanSickle: he cannot help but go all-in.

Sleeplessness, traumatic memories, and a near-crushing choice descended upon Jim in the days following his mother’s call. Would he come forward as a victim of Poulson even though his abuse had occurred outside of the statute of limitations? Was it time to end the nearly four decades of isolation he’d lived in, save for the few family members who knew his story? What would happen if he told? He couldn’t know without telling. 

Haunted by the thought of Poulson’s accuser believing he was alone in his abuse, Jim ultimately decided he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t speak up. Nine months later, he hasn’t stopped.

It started with a phone call 

Jim started with dialing the phone number listed in the news bulletin his mother had sent. The number belonged to the Diocese of Erie, where Poulson had served as a priest and abused boys decades after his abuse of Jim at Bradford Central Christian High School in the late 70s and early 80s. From there, Jim emailed the prosecuting attorney’s office. They contacted Jim within minutes. Jim shared more of his story than he ever had before and the prosecutor asked if he would be willing to testify before the Pennsylvania Grand Jury.

“Definitely,” Jim replied. The prosecutor said he would send a subpoena. Jim assured him he didn’t need to—he would be there.

As Jim sat in the courthouse waiting for his time to testify before the grand jury, he met a young man. Jim asked if he was there for David Poulson. He was.

Jim paused for a minute before asking, “So did it start with tickling?” 

“Yeah,” the man replied. 

“Did he ever put his hand on your leg?” 

“Yeah, very early on.”

“Did you wrestle?” 

“Oh my god,” the young man exclaimed, raising his hands to his head, “You know my story.”

Jim paused for a minute before asking, “So did it start with tickling?”

Jim would later learn that this twenty-three-year-old man was “Victim 1,” the first young man to accuse Poulson of sexual abuse. “He’s the reason I was there,” Jim told me. Victim 1 was not alone in his experience, and Jim wanted him to know it.

This carbon copy pattern of grooming and assault extends far beyond the experiences of Poulson’s victims. Jim was one of the few Catholic sex abuse survivors at The Courage Conference in October, which is an “annual gathering of abuse survivors, advocates, and those who love them.” The vast majority of survivors in attendance had suffered at the hands of Protestant pastors and leaders, often in Evangelical churches with no hierarchy anywhere close to resembling that of the Catholic Church. 

“But it’s the same playbook,” Jim said. “The tactics used by predators...it’s like they went to a school to learn these things.” 

Whether abuse occurred within a diocese of the Catholic Church or behind megachurch walls, the stories Jim heard—the patterns of abuse, the silencing of victims, the coverups initiated by those with institutional authority—rehearsed the same tragic script.

Do something about the laws

Jim did notice one difference, though—survivor responses. While the majority Protestant #ChurchToo crowd that gathered at the Courage Conference primarily focused on therapeutic methods for healing, Jim, a strong advocate for therapy and support systems, is primarily focused on legislative change. He shared at The Courage Conference that he is working to change the current statute of limitations laws. He wants survivors to be able to take their abusers to court, whether criminal or civil, and force them to answer for their crimes before a judge. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury recommended, among other legislative changes, elimination of the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children. Jim wants his fellow survivors to believe it’s possible that they could see a measure of justice in their stories, whether they are victims of the 300 Catholic predator priests—only two of whom can currently be charged—or of an evangelical minister. 

The desire for legislative change is laden with complexity for countless survivors, including Jim.

“The tactics used by predators...it’s like they went to a school to learn these things.”
Jim VanSickle

“David Poulson changed my life when I first met him,” Jim said. “He mentored me spiritually; he mentored me educationally. He put me on the path to success. He gave me a belief in me that I didn’t have before. And looking back, he also targeted that opportunity. When I first came forward, I was still conflicted about how I felt,” Jim told me. “I guess I still am.”

In the same breath, Jim said both that without Poulson, he may not have found the mentorship or direction he needed in his formative years and that he recalls wrestling sessions with Poulson turned to groping in front of the rectory altar. Jim also remembers the time he was told to break up with his girlfriend simply to appease the priest’s jealousy. And he will never forget being alone with Poulson in a hotel room, fighting off an attempted rape as Poulson’s erection was outside his pajama pants and he attacked Jim with what felt like “nine arms.”

Recovery by helping others

“Being part of a process [by advocating for the statute of limitations to change] that may put him in jail or keep him there longer is a struggle for a Christian,” Jim said. “But in this lifetime, he has to be held accountable under our laws. I can pray for his eternal life, and I have.”

Jim’s trauma left him with two emotions—fear and anger. Those feelings led Jim to marital problems and general distrust for decades. They also led Jim to see a therapist about two years ago. By the time Poulson was accused, Jim felt ready to advocate after just a few days of considering whether or not to come forward, and not just for Victim 1. He was ready to advocate for himself, too, and for any other victim of sexual abuse who needed support.

Jim draws a substantial measure of responsibility from the fact that he has been on the path toward healing longer than many of his fellow survivors.

Jim spoke of preparing, of God making him ready to advocate, more than once. He draws a substantial measure of responsibility from the fact that he has been on the path toward healing longer than many of his fellow survivors. Jim attended both Poulson’s preliminary hearing and the October 17 hearing when Poulson pled guilty to corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children—third-degree felonies for which he could face up to fourteen years in prison under the current statute of limitations that only allowed two of Poulson’s victims to bring criminal charges against him. 

Jim stood up to make sure Poulson saw him as he walked past. He didn’t know how he’d respond to seeing Poulson in the courtroom, but he said that another weight has now been lifted from his shoulders. He has moved further and further toward healing and now he can move toward those in need of healing all the more.

A helping voice waiting for you

Jim has reduced his professional responsibilities as a life coach and tutor by two-thirds. His interview with me at noon on a Monday was his fourth advocacy-related call of the day. He’s averaged two to three press conferences a week since the Pennsylvania Grand Jury. Through his Facebook page, he has connected with survivors in every state and over thirty countries.

He’s become a spokesman for the nonprofit organization Stop Child Predators, which has led to meetings with senators about changing laws to protect the abused rather than abusers. And he’s vetted and coached therapists and attorneys, helping them understand the deep institutional distrust within victims of clergy sexual abuse. “Go to [a survivor’s] house and sit with them in their kitchen,” Jim tells attorneys who want to represent survivors. “It can’t be a distant relationship.”

And this, perhaps, is what I see most clearly in Jim—that “going one-hundred percent” means he marches undeterred toward the wellbeing of survivors with his all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, as though it is an act of worshipping God. If you’re a survivor, he’ll meet with you under the cover of darkness, behind a mall at 11:30 pm, so you can tell your story for the first time. He’ll give me his email address and ask me to include it in this profile because he wants you to write him and reclaim your voice.

If you want to support a survivor, Jim will tell you how you can do that in meaningful ways. He’ll talk about lobbying for legislative change, or weathering waves of distrust in friendship, or changing your approach to church or practicing law or counseling others so that the vulnerable and abused receive the care they deserve. 

Jim VanSickle is a survivor who is here for the survivors. One-hundred percent.

Abby Perry
Abby Perry is a columnist for Fathom Magazine and a freelancer with work in Christianity Today, Sojourners, and Coffee + Crumbs. Her Prophetic Survivors series features profiles of survivors of #ChurchToo sexual abuse. Abby lives in Texas with her husband and two sons. Find her on Twitter @abbyjperry.

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