Dougherty’s ‘pilgrimage’ to Rome: Johnstown native recounts Vatican summit experience, musical moment of clarity

Shaun Dougherty, a Johnstown resident and victims advocate, gestures during an interview at The Tribune-Democrat on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Dougherty spoke about attending a meeting that brought almost 200 bishops from across the world to the Vatican to discuss the church’s ongoing issues with child sexual abuse and cover-up.

A street musician sat atop an amp, playing a Fender Stratocaster, as people strolled along a cobblestone walkway by the Tiber river.

Shaun Dougherty stopped to listen.

He pulled out his cellphone and recorded the man on a clear, calm February day in Rome.

When the song ended, the local traveler tipped the guitar player and walked away. With the Vatican in view, Dougherty headed toward the National Catholic Register’s office to be interviewed about his own tale of sexual abuse by a priest as a child, his role as a victims’ advocate, and what – at the time – was the ongoing conference of bishops, called by Pope Francis, to discuss the worldwide scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church.

But then, from about 50 yards away, Dougherty heard the musician begin his next song – “Blackbird” by The Beatles.

“I almost fell over,” the Westmont resident said. “It’s my all-time favorite song. It’s the only song I have ever related to this abuse in my life. It’s the shortest Beatles song ever. And it’s ‘Blackbird.’ Right. Unmistakable when you hear it.

“I’m like – all the songs, in all the world that he could have picked to play, when I’m walking in Rome, down the street from the Vatican, on my way to the National Catholic Register to talk about my abuse from a priest ... And it’s ‘Blackbird.’ I have related to that song since I was 10 years old.”

Dougherty walked back, sat down, listened and started to record again.

The man played an instrumental version of the song. But Dougherty’s memory added the lyrics ...

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night

“Take these broken wings and learn to fly

“All your life

“You were only waiting for this moment to arise”


“Blackbird singing in the dead of night

“Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

“All your life

“You were only waiting for this moment to be free”

“I just started to cry,” Dougherty said.

The moment was cathartic. “I just felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing,” Dougherty said.

A short while later, Dougherty, who had talked with countless local, statewide, national and international news organizations, was inside the National Catholic Register, being “probably the most vulnerable I’ve ever been in an interview.”

“I’ve said, a bunch of times, that I don’t necessarily believe in God,” Dougherty said. “And I’m not saying that, as of this day, that I ran out and went into the church either. But something that I can’t explain happened to me that morning.”

‘Be in the room’

Exhausted and dealing with a cold he picked up overseas, Dougherty sat down in The Tribune-Democrat’s office on Tuesday, recalling his weeklong journey that included vigils, interviews, a meeting with members of the Italian Parliament and a stop at the Embassy of the United States to the Holy See.

Dougherty was uncertain how he would react to being in the heart of the Catholic faith. 

In the past, he explained how he “literally wanted to tear my skin off and jump out the window” when he smelled incense during his father’s funeral – back in 2014 – after not attending any type of Catholic service since the late-1980s.

But his trip to the Vatican and Rome felt “almost like a pilgrimage.”

Before “The Protection of Minors in the Church” summit formally started, Dougherty was one of about a dozen victims to meet with organizers of the event, including Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Dougherty was hand-picked to participate by Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of abuse who has brought worldwide attention to the issue.

The experience gave Dougherty a rare insight into how he expects the church to handle the scandal going forward.

Dougherty has worked with state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, in support of a bill that would create a two-year window during which victims of childhood sexual abuse could file civil claims against their alleged abusers even if the commonwealth’s statute of limitations has expired.

He met with government leaders in New York, where he owns a restaurant. That state recently adopted a statute of limitations window for abuse victims.

“You want to be in the room,” Dougherty said. “You want to see when the archbishop of Malta jumps and he gets angry and he says, ‘You follow U.S. law. You’re in the U.S. You have U.S. law. I’m from Malta, and I follow Malta law.’ Well, that spoke volumes to me as far as the legislative push here. That spoke volumes that these guys aren’t ready to come together on one set of accountability.

“And, also, reading between the lines, the U.S. is a young country, man, and they do not like the speed that we’re moving. They don’t like it. That was clear. I’m not saying that it was ugly. It wasn’t. It was just a tell. It was just a tell. Something that I got.”

The conference concluded on Sunday with the pope calling for an “all-out battle” on clergy sexual abuse. The Vatican issued 21 reflection points for dealing with abuse and the cover-up.

Dougherty called the message he heard from the church a “veiled attempt” to address the issues.

“This is a global organization, a huge ship that does not turn on a dime,” Dougherty said. “It really solidified having to really push the legislation.”

‘Most fortunate guy’

Dougherty took with him pictures of four abuse victims, who all died young, and messages from their parents to the meeting with the church hierarchy, who promised to share them with the pope. One of the individuals was Corey Leech, who was abused by Brother Stephen Baker, a former athletic trainer at what was then called Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown.

“The proudest, most happy, satisfied thing that I did was taking those guys’ pictures over,” Dougherty said.

Carrying those messages made Dougherty recall his own experiences.

Dougherty said that, beginning at age 10, he was sexually abused by a priest from St. Clement Church, which led him into depression.

“I tried to kill myself in ‘94,” Dougherty said. “That could have been my picture on the desk. It could have been my mother’s message. And I always wondered why I didn’t die. I didn’t half-ass it. I swallowed 300 pills. I didn’t tell anybody. And even when I woke up in the middle of the night – violently ill – and my brother woke up, I didn’t tell him I tried to kill myself, say ‘get me to the hospital.’ I went right back to sleep, hoping it would finish. So, every time I see those parents, I think about that day.”

Dougherty said: “My dark times are dark.”

“I think about their parents, but, at the same time, sometimes I’m jealous,” he said. “I always wonder. If heaven exists, they’ve got to be there. And if heaven doesn’t exist, they’re just gone and they don’t remember anything anyway, so it’s over.”

But he has also found a mission.

In 2016, Dougherty’s abuse was documented, albeit using a redacted identification, in a Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General grand jury report that provided details about decades of abuse and cover-up in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, stemming from an investigation into the Baker case.

Then, in 2018, Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued a separate report, providing information about similar occurrences in six other dioceses – Greensburg, Erie, Harrisburg, Scranton, Allentown and Pittsburgh. Dougherty and Leech’s mother, Cindy Leech, were seated behind Shapiro when the report was released.

His appearances with the attorney general and at the Vatican have been part of a journey that has taken Dougherty from being a victim living in the darkness to one of the state’s most recognized advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse.

“I am the most fortunate guy in Pennsylvania right now,” he said.

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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