Greensburg, Pittsburgh diocese victims recount abuse, roles in grand jury investigation
Tuesday was a long-awaited day of reckoning for Johnny Hewko.
The 53-year-old Beaver man felt a sense of validation after having told a Pennsylvania grand jury how he endured years of rape and abuse four decades earlier at the hands of Msgr. Raymond T. Schultz.
“When I saw the name of that priest, it was like I was in a dream,” he said. “I never thought the day would come. I still look at the paperwork to see that it’s real.”
Like Hewko, Mt. Pleasant native Terry Zawacki, 67, suffered abuse at the hands of his parish priest as a child.
“It was heartbreaking. It makes me sick,” Zawacki said of the horrors recounted in the nearly 900-page grand jury report publicly released last week.
Though the two men traveled different roads over the years, today they consider themselves members of a fraternity of survivors who journeyed to healing after disclosing their secrets. They are among more than 1,000 victims the grand jury said suffered abuse at the hands of priests in Catholic churches and schools across Pennsylvania over the last seven decades.
At age 11, Zawacki said, the Rev. Francis Lesniak molested him at St. Stanislaus Church in Calumet, Mt. Pleasant Township. He ran from the priest, kept it secret for four decades and always wondered why him.
“I was deathly afraid to tell my parents, my dad especially. He often told me and my sister that if anybody touched his kids he would kill them. I figured he’d go after (Lesniak) and splatter him against the wall. I felt like I was stuck inside a steel ball and couldn’t get out. But I didn’t let it affect me. I went on with my life,” Zawacki said.
The grand jury detailed allegations that Lesniak molested multiple boys in the various parishes in the Greensburg diocese.
Hewko’s sad tale of years of abuse at SS Peter and Paul Catholic Elementary School is chronicled in the report’s section on priests in the Pittsburgh diocese.
Zawacki learned of the grand jury’s findings at his home in Sun City Center, Fla. Hewko watched closely from his Western Pennsylvania home.
”The very moment I heard there was going to be an investigation and subpoenas, I called the attorney general and said, ‘I’ve got to be a part of this,’” Hewko said. “I thank God every day for every opportunity I get to tell my story. There are probably 90 other people in the Pittsburgh diocese who have the same story but who can’t talk about it. My heart aches for those people. I hope they draw strength from me.”
Although Schultz died in 1999, thoughts of the monsignor haunted the former altar boy who always served at the 7:15 a.m. mass.
Hewko went through multiple rounds of rehab and counseling as a troubled young man. He kept his secret until he was 42.
“It almost came out once when my mother was doing the laundry and noticed a pair of balled up underwear with a red stain in my pants pocket. But I did what monsignor told me to do. I told her I’d had an accident,” Hewko said.
“I have to say thank you to the people who supported me. Without my father, Bill Hewko, my wife Susan, my son and daughter, my two brothers-in-law and my sister Lynn ,who took care of me when I was having my nightmares and always had my back, and (WPXI-TV reporter) Rick Earle,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
He gave up his secret when his wife finally demanded that he tell her what was behind the nightmares that had punctuated his sleep for years, eliciting screams of, “No, stop. You’re hurting me.”
Zawacki tells a similar tale of breaking his silence.
A retired teacher who coached football at Mt. Pleasant High School and recruited for his sister’s championship basketball team at Saint Vincent College, Zawacki says he has had a good, full life —“wonderful wife, two beautiful children and two beautiful grandchildren.”
But when Zawacki was about 50, he began screaming in his sleep, haunted by vivid nightmares of his father and Lesniak. He finally opened up when his wife begged him to tell her what was wrong.
“I went into a period of deep depression,” Zawacki said.
It lifted after he sued and the church paid a $5,000 settlement.
“But it wasn’t the money that made a difference — my lawyer got $2,000, I got $3,000,” Zawacki said. “The thing that made my life was after that came out and it wasn’t supposed to come out, there were seven men who contacted me and thanked me because they were abused by the same priest in the 1960s.”
Hewko said when he told his secret, different people reacted differently.
“I had to comfort my wife,” he said.
His father, a lifelong educator, spent three years tracking down documents that supported his story and detailed his troubled youth.
Earle spent years investigating Hewko’s story and finally aired a story about him about two years before the grand jury was assembled.
“I lost a lot of friends after that. I had 1,800 names in my phone that day. Only four of those people have ever called me since then,” he said. “I had seven contractors, three of which I’d worked with for 30 years. And within two weeks of me being on TV, I lost my whole business.”
After counseling, Hewko and his parents approached the Pittsburgh diocese.
Bishop David Zubik was sympathetic, Hewko said. They met several times. There were lawyers, accountants and counselors at some meetings, he said.
“They offered me money, college tuition for my children, the American Dream. All I had to do was sign a statement saying it was over, and I would never talk about it again,” he said. “I just couldn’t do that. If I had done that, I’d become part of the problem.”
The grand jury noted that the Pittsburgh diocese said it was unable to independently corroborate Hewko’s allegations. But the diocese offered no specific rebuttals to Hewko’s statement to the grand jury.
Part of the six-page report on Schultz is blacked out. The state Supreme Court ordered that be done to protect the identities of clergy who are challenging the report. Hewko said he believes a nun whom he says was complicit in his abuse and is still alive may be under investigation.
He hopes state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office led the two-year investigation, follows through with the hundreds of complaints that have been logged on his hotline since the report was released.
“My dad said when you see bad things happening, you need to see if you can stop it. He said, ‘Johnny, you ought to be the voice for people who are too afraid or humiliated to talk,’ ” Hewko said.
John Delaney, a certified recovery coach who lives in the Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee, said there is a growing community of survivors across the country that draw strength from one another.
Delaney, 48, testified about his abuse at the hands of a priest during the 2005 grand jury investigation into the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. At the time, he said he felt very alone. But he’s watched as other survivors came forward over the last 12 years.
“The community of survivors in Pennsylvania is just phenomenal. There’s a great bond,” he said. “A lot of strangers have given me a lot of love. The burden can go away when you talk about it. It opens a floodgate of support.”
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.