“That’s the room,” said a shaken Tim Bendig.
He was pointing at the bedroom on the second floor in the former St. Canice Church rectory where he was first sexually abused 36 years ago by a Catholic priest, Anthony Cipolla.
Mr. Bendig had not expected to be here on a sunny day in September, inside the rectory, and later the crumbling church in Knoxville next door. In both are the places where he was abused at least 15 times in the first of four years of abuse he endured, starting when he was 13 years old.
A request by a reporter to take photographs of Mr. Bendig had led here because he said he wanted to go back to where his story started, to St. Canice. As he was being photographed outside, and speaking matter-of-factly about his memories, the new owner of the properties arrived and allowed Mr. Bendig to go inside.
There, the ripples of memories turned into torrents of emotion that came pouring out of him in raw, vivid detail, between sobs and tears.
“He molested me here, and behind the altar, and in that cloak room, too,” he said while walking through the old church. “That over there was the confessional; you don’t want to know what happened in there.”
Cipolla, who died in 2016, is one of the more than 90 priests from the Pittsburgh diocese, and more than 300 priests statewide, accused in the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s grand jury report on Catholic clergy sexual abuse in August.
But Cipolla’s case may well be one of the best known.
That’s largely because of Mr. Bendig, who came forward to tell his story in 1988 and sued the Pittsburgh diocese, which then engaged in a battle with Cipolla to remove him from the priesthood, a struggle within the Vatican court system that played out in the media off and on for 14 years.
It is also because of the bravery of two brothers, who told police in 1978 of Cipolla’s abuse of them — allegations that led to Cipolla’s arrest and charges being filed, an incredibly rare ray of sunlight on priest abuse at the time.
Even though the 1978 charges were dropped because of egregious conduct by a county assistant district attorney and an attorney for Cipolla or the diocese, the boys’ willingness to tell their story led eventually — with Mr. Bendig’s case — to the church finally removing Cipolla from the priesthood. Dropping the charges, though, also allowed Cipolla to later abuse Mr. Bendig.
In the diocese’s official response to its subpoena by the grand jury, it said that Mr. Bendig’s case, and then-Bishop Donald Wuerl’s removal of Cipolla, was one of three crucial steps in the development of its current Policy for the Protection of Children.
It noted that Mr. Wuerl’s successful appeal in 1995 of the Vatican’s reversal of his order to remove Cipolla from the priesthood “was the first time in history that the Signatura [the Vatican’s highest court] reversed its decision. Some believe that this ruling made it easier for bishops to remove priests from ministry.”
Those changes came too late for Cipolla’s victims.
How Cipolla’s abuse cases were handled by church and government agencies stands as an example of their failures, as well as those of schools and communities that might have served as a safety net and support system for clergy abuse victims.
“I will say what I do remember is not one person stuck up for me and my brother,” said Frank Labiaux, the older of two brothers who Cipolla abused in 1977 and 1978 when Cipolla worked at St. Francis Xavier in Brighton Heights.
Unfortunately, as the grand jury report made all too clear, that was the norm in at least 1,000 documented clergy abuse cases across the state, and probably many more that have never been revealed.