"It Hits Close to Home': Priest Sex Abuse Scandal Affecting Communities, Lawmakers, Advocates
By Christian Alexandersen
March 4, 2016
Communities are still reeling after a report detailed the rape of hundreds of children by more than 50 priests from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
State Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced this week that a statewide grand jury had found sexual abuse taking place within the diocese for the last 40 years. The report included graphic descriptions of children being abused by priests and religious leaders.
The grand jury, which had been investigating the issue for two years, gathered evidence that revealed a history of diocesan officials taking action to conceal child abuse as part of an effort to protect the institution's image. Through its investigation, more than 115,000 documents were uncovered.
Also uncovered was the existence of a "secret archive," with documents showing that Diocese bishops James Hogan and Joseph Adamec were at the forefront of a child-abuse cover-up.
The evidence shows several instances in which law enforcement officers and prosecutors failed to pursue allegations of child sexual abuse occurring within the diocese.
In response to the allegations, Adamec, who served as bishop for more than 20 years, responded that the he had protected the children of the diocese and looked out for their best interests. In no way, Adamec said, did he cover up abuses.
Altoona -Johnstown Bishop Mark Bartchak apologized and promised reforms, including publishing a list of all priests who are the subject of credible abuse allegations.
"I acknowledge there are a number of recommendations made in this report involving how we respond to allegations of abuse. I take them seriously," Bartchak said.
The attorney general's office is taking the claims of abuse seriously as well. Aside from continuing to investigate the issue, it has set up a hotline to learn about the sexual abuses performed by priests and religious leaders within the diocese.
About 24 hours after the hotline went live, the attorney general's office had received 85 tips and leads.
Altoona-Johnstown lawmakers are calling on their fellow legislators to support the passage of bills that would remove the civil and criminal statute of limitations entirely in child sex abuse cases.
A graduate of Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, State Rep. Frank Burns, D- Cambria, said legislators have to do everything they can to create a strong disincentive for this type of behavior.
"These victims are my friends, they're my fellow classmates," Burns said. "When this report came out it hit close to home for me."
Confronted with revelations of widespread child abuse, church members and residents in this community reacted with shock and disgust, as well as silence and disbelief.
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.
John Salveson, the founder of the Pennsylvania-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, doubted if the latest clergy-abuse report will effect change.
"This is what the Catholic church has been doing for decades," Salveson said."I would say it's unbelievable, but I've been doing this for a long time."
Salveson said the news caused an outcry with every report and every case that made headlines over the years, from clergy abuse cases coming to light to the Jerry Sandusky case.
And every time, talk of the statute of limitations for civil cases and criminal prosecution came up with little or no change, he said.
"I don't know what it's going to take for Pennsylvania's legislators to do something about this," Salveson said. "What the hell is wrong with these people?"