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  Allegations Plague Pennsylvania Diocese

By Chuck Colbert
National Catholic Reporter [Johnstown PA]
August 29, 2003

When three new lawsuits were filed in August, it was just the latest sexual abuse-related troubles to hit the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, which has faced an unusually high number of allegations of abuse by priests for a diocese of its size.

Boston-based Survivors First, an advocacy group for victims of clergy sexual abuse, has compiled news of allegations against 19 priests (14 of those cases the subject of lawsuits) and one deacon in Altoona-Johnstown, the highest number in Pennsylvania. By comparison, the group has tracked allegations against 14 clergy members in the Philadelphia archdiocese and six in Pittsburgh, both with substantially larger Catholic populations. Nearby Greensburg, with a population of 189,000, higher than Altoona-Johnstown's 111,000, has only one.

"We've expected the next wave of disclosures may come from smaller dioceses that so far have escaped extensive legal and media attention," said David Clohessy, a national spokesperson for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

On Aug. 12 two complaints were filed in Blair County, naming as defendants the diocese, the current Bishop Joseph Adamec and retired Bishop James Hogan. These civil suits were filed on behalf of two sexual abuse victims who allege they were molested as children by priests assigned to the diocese.

The alleged victims are John T. Arndt and David T. Savelski. Although not named as defendants because of expiration of the state's statute of limitations, the priests identified in the complaints are Fr. Joseph Bender and Fr. John Boyle.

Another lawsuit was filed Aug. 20 against the diocese by a 42-year-old anonymous plaintiff who says that Bender molested him on numerous occasions between 1968 and 1970. Bender left the ministry in 1992 and died in 2000.

The lawsuits come on the heels of six filed this spring, alleging misconduct by more than a half dozen clergy members. Altoona attorney Richard M. Serbin represents the nine plaintiffs in those lawsuits as well as the three filed in August.

Aside from Serbin's cases, a victim's mother has filed an additional lawsuit.

Serbin is the only lawyer to win a civil sex-abuse lawsuit involving charges of pedophilia against a priest in Pennsylvania. In the 1994 case of Hutchinson v. Luddy the court awarded Michael S. Hutchinson Jr. $l.5 million in compensatory damages. The diocese has paid out over $l million in compensatory damages. An additional $l million for punitive damages is before the State Supreme Court.

Many local Catholics have questioned why the diocese has not settled the pending cases out of court, including the Luddy lawsuit. But Adamec said during an interview in his chancery offices early last March, "Sometimes there are things more important than cost -- values that this suit involves and that we hold as church.

"There was an issue of just how responsible a diocese ought to be 24 hours a day, for everyone assigned to it," he said. Adamec said he consulted widely with others, not just legal counsel, before deciding to go to court.

Yet Serbin said he remains puzzled as to why Adamec chose to fight the case. "Back in l987, here's a case with a pedophile. Luddy admitted to molesting the Hutchinson boy's brother. You'd think the diocese would want to do the right thing and settle. Instead, the response was to fight this case tooth and nail, with every kind of hardball legal tactic. They could have settled the case for a small fraction of what they paid their attorneys.

"My first priority is to get all predator priests out of the ministry. My clients also need some financial means so that they can get on with their lives," Serbin explained.

Serbin said he would like to settle the current suits without court trials. "There has been no expression of any interest by the diocese to sit down with me and talk about settling these cases," he said.

Adamec has both his defenders and detractors. Some say that they are put off by the bishop's "arrogance." The mother of a son who alleges sex abuse voiced her frustration over Adamec's handling of her son's allegations. "He's a liar," she said in a telephone interview.

Conservative lay activist George Foster has been particularly critical of Adamec's handling of the sex abuse crisis. "I read the Luddy trial. That's when I would say I was fully scandalized by the diocese," he said. "If anybody reads the Luddy trial, nobody's going to come away believing the diocese told the truth, both our current bishop and the previous bishop."

Foster and a small group of Catholics have a Web site, www.dioceseaj.com, posting their own account of the scandal and dissent in the diocese. A lengthy section suggests a link between sexual abuse and sexually active priests, including a "homosexual establishment."

Adamec's supporters point to the fact that he has convened a lay review board to handle allegations with merit. Laypersons Mary O'Leary Wiley and Russ Miller, who both serve on the board, say that half a dozen victims have come forward to them so far. Also, the diocese has implemented its "Protecting God's Children" training program to help spot warning signs of sexual abuse. The diocese also had a written policy in place as early as 1987.

Mark Pasquerilla, a Johnstown businessman and parishioner at St. Rochus, believes the bishop is addressing local concerns and the allegations, all of which, with the exception of one charge, took place more than 15 years ago, before Adamec became bishop. "Some ultraconservatives seem to have another agenda. Some priests don't like their boss," he told NCR.

"I don't know what gives this group any moral authority. [Foster's] Web site is very destructive when there are many good people in the church working to build it up."

Another critic called the Web site "open hunting season on gay priests."

St. Rochus' pastor, Fr. Charlie Amershek, has also spoken out on Adamec's behalf. In a letter to the editor of The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, Amershek wrote that it is one thing to disagree with "the counsel [the bishop] has received from legal or psychological advisers" or "find fault with his judgment." But it is "unfair to impugn his integrity."

Adamec continues to defend his actions. He has responded in The Catholic Register, the diocese's newspaper. "I have no problem defending the church. It's the inaccuracies that are hard to address," he said.

"We are being judged for our past actions on the basis of what we know today, and I think that is not fair," said Adamec. "What we know today and did not know 30 years ago, nobody else knew either. It wasn't just the church; it was the police, psychologists and society in general -- like with alcoholism and addiction, everyone thought the guy could change. Now we would do things differently."

But Serbin said, "When has it ever been legal or moral to molest a child? To suggest to any reasonable person that there is a learning curve for adult-child sex abuse is wrong, both legally and morally. It cannot be condoned."

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.
 
 
 

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