Clergy Abuse Allegations Met with "Disgust" and Silence in Altoona
By Colin Deppen
March 1, 2016
|Altoona's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is pictured on Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2016, hours after state Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced the findings of a grand jury investigation into decades of sexual abuse and cover-ups by the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese and its clergy. The cathedral was the setting of at least one of those instances of abuse, Kane said.|
Confronted with revelations of widespread child abuse by clergy in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, church members and residents in this community, described as staunchly religious by some, reacted with shock and disgust, as well as silence and disbelief on Tuesday.
One couple, asked by a PennLive reporter for their reaction to a damning grand jury report released on the matter that morning, said, simply, "We don't want to talk about that" before hurrying off toward their car located across a downtown Altoona parking lot.
At the St. John's Catholic School on Lotz Avenue in the city, a man who answered the door declined comment saying, "we're tight lipped about it."
Others were more forthcoming in describing a deep-seated internal conflict involving their affiliation with the church and moral aversion to the acts reportedly committed by some of its leaders. Those acts, according to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General which announced the findings of its grand jury investigation on Tuesday, included hundreds of child victims abused by as many as 50 diocesan priests over a period of 40 years.
Pat Rickabaugh, a practicing Catholic from Altoona, said she was "glad" the abuse had been exposed, adding "Those children suffered enough just to have to talk about it."
Rickabaugh also chided law enforcement for not acting sooner.
Many others in the city asked that their names not be used in print, saying they weren't comfortable speaking out against the church. It's a stark reminder of how large the church looms in communities like this one.
One of them, a woman who identified herself as a practicing Catholic, said she was "disgusted" and would no longer be donating to the church, fearful that her contributions were being used for hush money to cover-up allegations of sexual abuse.
The Attorney General's office said the diocese paid millions of dollars to keep allegations of abuse hidden from public view through the years, keeping track of the cases in a "secret archive" and even creating a pay scale which spelled out the amounts to be paid in response to certain claims. Sodomy represented the highest amount, officials explained.
The revelations were jarring although not entirely unexpected in Altoona, a declining industrial city of about 46,000, where allegations of misconduct by diocesan priests have been slowly filtering out for years.
But the scale of the problem was never really clear, locals say, until now.
Diocese parishioner and Penn State Altoona student, Jesse Ickes, visibly recoiled when informed of the number of offending priests and victims as quoted by the state's Attorney General. Ickes said that while it's important to remember that not every priest or monsignor within the church is committing such acts, "It's a sad situation and not appropriate in any manner," or to any extent.
In the shadow of Altoona's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, the largest cathedral of its kind between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and a place where at least one instance of abuse reportedly occurred, Jean Johnstone, executive director of the Diocese's Catholic Charities branch said, "We're still reeling from it (the news) and as a church we're hurting but we continue to do good things."
Johnstone added, "We're all devastated, but there's still a lot of good the church does."
She said further comment would have to wait for approval from church officials, who were unavailable to hear those requests on Tuesday.
The Cathedral, meanwhile, was empty inside, and no church officials were available in an adjacent office space to talk.
Outside, Courtney Beason, an Altoona native, said she supported attorney general Kathleen Kane's call for the elimination of statutes of limitation for child sex crimes so that offenders might still be prosecuted even years after the abuse takes place.
Kane said for many involved in this case, one spanning nearly half-a-century, the grand jury investigation represented their first-ever contact with law enforcement.
"That's just hard to believe," said a man walking in downtown Altoona on Tuesday afternoon who declined to be identified for this article.
Another who similarly declined to provide his name said the scandal won't stop him from going to church, because he believes the church is working on addressing its issues. He stopped short, however, of endorsing changes that would allow priests to marry or women to wear the cloth.
"The church wanted to cover it up, and you can't blame them (as an organization) but unfortunately a lot of people got hurt," the man said.
In Tuesday's press conference, Kane said the offending priests "desecrated a sacred trust."
Lois Metzger of Altoona went a step further, calling the abuse of children by church officials the greatest betrayal of all.
"We were supposed to be able to look up to the clergy and they took advantage of their position," Metzger said.
To the victims, many of whom are now grown, Metzger said she knows of someone who was similarly abused and who was able to go on to live a happy and fulfilling life. She said victims like them cannot blame themselves or be afraid to come forward adding, "no matter if you're ashamed, just remember it's not your fault."