By Maria Panaritis
In the rear of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, the old school friends of the man in the casket were growing agitated. The funeral service for Jim Cunningham was about to begin.
It was a terrible loss: A 45-year-old father, prison counselor, and hostage negotiator — dead by suicide.
Handkerchiefs were out in the other pews. But near the back, fury decades in the making was boiling over.
“No. I can’t do it,” Kevin Emery told the others. “We can’t stay here for this.”
Like Cunningham, each had been a student in the same Northeast Philadelphia parish school, St. Cecilia’s, in the 1980s when the Rev. James Brzyski turned their community into a stalking ground. Brzyski (BRISH-kee) had sexually assaulted possibly more than 100 boys during stints at St. Cecilia’s and a prior parish, St. John the Evangelist in Lower Makefield, a grand jury later asserted, but like so many abusers had eluded prosecution.
As far as any of Cunningham’s boyhood friends had known, the scrawny bookworm with a million-dollar smile had been among the lucky altar boys to avoid the predator’s reach. He had earned a master’s degree, built a career, even won a seat on his local board of supervisors.