Pennsylvania Catholic diocese covered up decades worth of child abuse, grand jury report finds
By Steve Esack
March 1, 2016
From Boston to Philadelphia to the United Nations, the Catholic Church has been accused of covering up and protecting priests and other religious leaders who sexually abused children.
Now add a slice of western Pennsylvania to the list.
A grand jury report released Tuesday accuses two bishops who ran the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown of allowing at least 50 priests and other religious leaders to sexually abuse hundreds of children for decades.
“These predators desecrated a sacred trust and preyed upon their victims … where they should have felt most safe,” state Attorney General Kathleen Kane said.
The report says the late Bishop James Hogan and former Bishop Joseph Adamec kept filing cabinets with 115,042 secret documents detailing victims’ abuse claims. It tells how church officials ordered priests to undergo treatment while transferring them to other parishes, or intervened when local and state police made inquiries starting in the mid-1960s.
The report also outlines a diocesan “payout chart” of $10,000 for victims fondled over their clothes, and up to $175,000 for victims of forced sodomy or intercourse.
The grand jury report uses those documents to explain in extraordinary detail how one priest “hypnotized” children by rubbing his genitals on their feet, another priest choked boys if they refused his advances at his cabin in the woods, and another priest plied a child with alcohol and then raped him until he bled.
“Being a small child I was helpless to resist this man,” a victim’s 1991 letter to Adamec says in describing abuse at the Rev. Joseph Bender’s cabin in the 1970s. “I would estimate I was abused approximately 100 times.”
The 80-year-old Adamec refused to testify before the grand jury but denied wrongdoing through his lawyer. Hogan died in 2005.
The Cambria County district attorney referred the case to the attorney general’s office after investigating a priest at a diocesan high school who committed suicide in January 2013 after abuse settlements with an Ohio diocese where he had worked were publicized.
No criminal charges can be filed, Kane said. The statute of limitations has run out, abusers such as Bender have died, and some victims are fearful of testifying, she said. Kane said the grand jury report recommends that the state Legislature allow the prosecution of older cases.
Under a 2007 law, child sex-abuse victims born before Aug. 27, 2002, have until their 30th birthday to file criminal charges. Victims born after Aug. 27, 2002, have until their 50th birthday.
The Altoona-Johnstown allegations are strikingly similar to the real-life plot line of the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.” The film details the story behind Boston Globe reporters’ groundbreaking investigative stories of the Boston Archdiocese sex-abuse cover-ups that occurred in plain sight of parents, police, prosecutors and the media — and led to a worldwide push to force the Vatican to acknowledge its secrets.
Every Catholic community — including the Allentown Diocese — has its hidden information.
Such secrets go back centuries to the mid-1600s or early 1700s, when the Vatican created Canon Law 489. It is a legal mechanism that allows Catholic religious orders to keep from public view a trove of documents, including personnel and financial files, that only the local bishop and his trusted few could access, according to testimony from sex-abuse prosecutions and lawsuits that rocked the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 2013.
In 2014, the United Nations accused the Vatican of “systematically” protecting predator priests from being brought to justice for the sexual “torture” of tens of thousands of children around the globe.
In 2012, some of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s secrets came to light when a 1994 memo was uncovered that showed the archdiocese’s top clergy — including Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and Bishop Edward Cullen, who later headed the Allentown Diocese — ordered the shredding of a list of 35 priests suspected of sexually abusing children.
Monsignor William J. Lynn, the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s secretary for clergy, became the first diocesan official in America to be convicted of endangering children — by ignoring credible warnings about a priest who later sexually assaulted an altar boy. Lynn’s conviction was later overturned and is on appeal.
Prosecutors in the Lehigh Valley have not used a grand jury to pry open secret files held by the Allentown Diocese, which serves 270,000 Catholics in Lehigh, Northampton, Carbon, Berks and Schuylkill counties. Rather, prosecutors asked the diocese for its priest-abuse files after Cullen announced in February 2002 that he was removing priests from active duty.
After a review of three months, Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin said in 2002 that eight abuse claims occurred in Lehigh County but could not be prosecuted because of deaths or the cases were too old.
“At this point, I am satisfied that the Diocese of Allentown has fully cooperated with my request for information pertaining to allegations of sexual misconduct by priests, which allegedly occurred in Lehigh County,” Martin said then. “I see no necessity to invoke the powers of an investigating grand jury. In my view, there is no need to seek by subpoena that which has already been provided voluntarily.”
About three years later, Martin was asked to conduct a grand jury by Juliann Bortz of Lower Macungie Township, local coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP.
“Other cities were doing it and we felt that something was there, that they didn’t see everything,” Bortz said.
She said Martin listened to her and the other SNAP members for about 30 minutes but told them that he would not be going on a “fishing expedition.”
In an interview Tuesday, Martin said people should not assume the Allentown Diocese had the same practices as Altoona-Johnstown.
Since 2002, the Allentown Diocese has forwarded to his office every complaint against a priest or other employer, Martin said. None has been prosecutable, he said.
“I think the Catholic Diocese of Allentown has been acting responsibly by sending me reports about virtually anything that smacks of abuse of any nature, and where appropriate we investigate that,” Martin said.
After his own 2002 investigation, Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli was critical of the way the church handled abuse claims before Cullen was installed as bishop in 1998.
Before that, he said, the diocese was focused more on the priest than on the alleged victims.
“Even when priests admitted sexual abuse with minors, they were often sent to treatment centers and continued to function as priests,” Morganelli said in a 2002 report. “A number of the priests had multiple incidents involving more than one victim.”
Like Martin, Morganelli found no basis for criminal charges against church officials who oversaw priests. Also like Martin, he noted the diocese has created a policy requiring the immediate review of allegations against priests and the instant removal of those priests if the allegations are deemed credible.
On Tuesday, Morganelli recounted the 2002 review.
“We went through boxes and boxes of files,” he said. “We identified a number of priests who might have been prosecuted back in the day, but by that time, too many years had gone by for there to be anything we could prosecute.”
Berks County District Attorney John Adams, who was not in the office when the 2002 investigation took place, said the diocese keeps his office informed of any new complaints and none has warranted an arrest.
“Our Catholic schools have also been very responsive about reports of abuse,” Adams said. “The diocese has a good track record in Berks County.”
District attorneys of Carbon and Schuylkill counties did not return calls for comment.
In 2002, the Allentown Diocese turned over every file it had involving any abuse claim, diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said. At that time, he said, the diocese also promised to report to law enforcement every sex-abuse claim, no matter how old.
“It’s a promise we made in 2002,” he said.
The diocese also has worked to train thousands of children and adults on how to spot and report sex abuse, Kerr said.
The Allentown Diocese allowed the five district attorneys to review the personnel files of 23 accused priests, at least two of whom had been charged criminally in the late 1980s and ’90s. A few weeks later, the diocese opened the file of a 24th priest. In addition, the prosecutors asked for the files of more than a dozen other priests. The diocese had more than 300 priests at that time.
David Clohessy, a St. Louis resident who serves as the national director of SNAP, said that number — two dozen — seems low. Seven grand jury reports made public nationwide show about 10 percent of priests have been accused of abusing children, he said.
“That, to many Catholics, seems like a staggering figure,” Clohessy said. “But that’s what the math indicates.”
The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese is home to nearly 100,000 Catholics.