It was the summer before 8th grade when Ridgefield Park native Ed Hanratty said the worst sexual abuse he’d endured from a local priest happened – in his own backyard.
Before then, the Rev. Gerald Sudol of St. Francis of Assisi Church had kissed him and other boys on the mouth, Hanratty said. But instead of telling their parents, the boys made jokes about his sexuality.
“None of us ever thought to complain to anyone. Not our parents. Not our teachers….Nobody,” Hanratty, 41, wrote in a reverbpress.news column that has begun attracting widespread attention since it was published on Sunday.
“On Wednesday night we’d be making jokes about him loving men (because we considered ourselves men, not boys) and on Thursday morning he’d be kissing us on the lips after the 7:00 mass,” he added.
Then came the day that Hanratty said he found himself alone with Sudol in the family swimming pool during one of several times the priest came to dinner.
“It was the worst thing that I ever experienced,” Hanratty told Daily Voice.
UPDATE: A no-holds-barred account of sex abuse has gotten a once-popular Ridgefield Park priest removed from his current position.
Hanratty kept quiet for more than 30 years, other than to confide in a chosen few amid the 2002 Catholic sex abuse scandal.
“This summer things changed,” he said. “The news that Father Gerry’s superior – Archbishop Theodore McCarrick -- was himself accused of sexually abusing children sent me into a tailspin. I had a mini breakdown on Facebook about it one Sunday as I sat on a bar stool inhaling IPAs like they were oxygen. I knew it wasn’t healthy, I knew I had to speak up.
“If you asked me a week ago, I would probably give you half-truths, insinuations and vague hints,” Hanratty wrote to Daily Voice in a private-message interview. “But it’s all out in the open now.
“Once Pennsylvania broke, I couldn’t keep it in anymore.”
What broke was a grand jury report revealing that more than 1,000 children had been abused by 300 Catholic "predator priests" and bishops in six Pennsylvania dioceses since the 1940s.
Church leaders covered up the crimes, abruptly shifting priests to other parishes or allowing them to resign or retire, the grand jury report issued last week said.
Only two priests ended up charged with criminal offenses.
Fourteen years ago, the Rev. Gerald Sudol – who was at St. Francis from 1986 to 1994 and also spent some time at Bergen Catholic High School – was accused of sexual abuse. The archdiocese settled out of court, cleared the priest of any wrongdoing within the church and reassigned him to a hospice, records show.
Sudol is now with Our Lady of Czestochowa, a Polish church in Jersey City that referred all questions for this story to Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark.
Daily Voice emailed Goodness.
“Sorry," he responded, "but I’m on vacation this week and don’t have access to anything related to the allegation until next week.”
To Hanratty, the numbers of abused youngsters cited in the grand jury report “popped off of computer screens across the globe like sparks hitting the unprotected eye of a steelworker.”
“I read lines that were almost autobiographical,” he told Daily Voice.
It began when he was an altar boy.
“Father Gerry fostered a trust with St. Francis,” Hanratty said. “He was always very physically affectionate, even in public. He preferred to hug rather than shake hands -- and that goes for everyone -- not just the children. I feel like this gave him cover.
“By the time I was 12 years old, those kisses would be open-mouthed,” he told Daily Voice. “I would fight to keep my lips shut as he tried to force his tongue into my mouth.
“You couldn’t escape. He was a larger-than-life man. A ‘gentle giant,’ so-to-speak,” Hanratty said. “To a 120-pound, lanky, awkward kid, escape was impossible.
“Roughly 3 times a week you had to just take it.
“I knew this wasn’t right. My friends did too. We just never talked about it,” he said. “The consensus in the parish was that he was an excellent man and a great priest.”
Still, Hanratty said, the boys found Sudol’s behavior was “f-----g strange.”
So was the fact that the priest had access to a Jersey Shore home, a cottage in the Poconos and a brand-new van – although Hanratty reckoned these were most likely thanks to “family ties.”
Then came that fateful Sunday in the Hanratty family pool.
Sudol “said something about water being soothing, reminiscent of John the Baptist, and then asked me to float on my back and close my eyes,” Hanratty recalled.
“He put one arm underneath my shoulder, the other underneath my upper thigh,” he said. “It was reminiscent of the pose you often see of the Blessed Mother holding her son’s lifeless body after he was taken down from the cross.
“He was talking about John the Baptist and then segued into our changing bodies” while asking questions about his private parts, Hanratty said.
“That was the first time I ever noticed that he was physically being aroused,” he said. “I felt trapped in my own backyard. 50 feet from my door.”
READ HANRATTY’s COLUMN: I’m a Survivor of Priest Abuse — It’s Time to Break my Silence
There were other boys, two of whom Hanratty said later committed suicide. But in those cases, he said, “it’s certainly not my story to tell.”
Given what happened to them, he reasoned that his experience wasn’t so bad. But that was only denial – one of several stages of grief.
“It was a very long process,” Hanratty told Daily Voice. “I first hinted at the abuse to my wife, family and some close friends about 15 years ago, not long after the Boston scandal broke. I was convinced that would bring healing. But it never did.
“Make no mistake: I’ve had some very, very good times in these last 15 years. They were some of the best years of my life. But this trauma was always there, even if it lay dormant for long periods of time.”
Hanratty was reading through the 1,356-page grand jury report last week when he hit a line that stopped him cold. It referred to the internal policies of the various archdioceses:
“When a priest does have to be removed, don’t say why. Tell his parishioners that he is on ‘sick leave,’ or suffering from ‘nervous exhaustion.’
Hanratty instantly recalled the day when his mother asked whether he’d heard that Sudol had left St. Francis. When he asked why, he said, she told him the pastor cited “nervous exhaustion – whatever that means.”
Hanratty met his wife, Jaime, at St. Francis in 1983. They were later married there. They lived in a Ridgefield Park apartment before buying a home in Passaic County 12 years ago.
She was away on business late last week when Hanratty told her that he was at last ready to share his story.
“It was a blessing in disguise that she was away,” he told Daily Voice. “I had the solitude I needed to stay focused and not project any of my fears or emotions on anybody else….It was just me, my dog and my laptop.”
Response to the column overwhelmed him.
“Almost instantaneously, names I haven’t thought about for decades were sending me message requests, thanking me, telling me it was all too real,” Hanratty said. “The general consensus was that something had to be said.
“People wrote me to tell me they feared something happened to their sons or brothers. Most of all, people told me they had my back.
“The outreach and affection that the community has shown made it feel like we never left,” he said.
Hanratty believes there was “a greater good in coming forward, one much more important than one man’s attempt to put the past behind him.
“The community has always known. When we were kids, we laughed about it. When we were young adults, we ignored it,” he said. “Now that we’re older, we should be coming to grips with it.
“I don’t pretend to be his ‘worst’ victim. I’m still standing, I have an amazing wife who has lived through every second of this and has her own separate, horrible experiences with the aftermath of Gerry Sudol. I have a collection of friends I’ve made since I graduated from RP that have encouraged me every step of the way. I have the unyielding support of my family and my in-laws. My life is damned good.
“But the courage of the St Francis community and Ridgefield Park at large in speaking together in unison against this might be the greatest thing to happen to the village in my lifetime,” Hanratty told Daily Voice.
“I’m in awe of the sheer relentlessness that many faces that I haven’t seen in ages have displayed in trying to right a wrong,” he said. “What that looks like is anybody’s guess. But I know that it’s not a secret anymore.
“And sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
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