If Altoona-johnstown Diocese Officials Covered up Crimes, Why Has No One Been Charged?
By Charles Thompson
March 4, 2016
reporter.jpg A reporter looks at a chart of the results of a Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation into the child sexual abuse by over 50 priests in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese over the past 40 years. March 1, 2016 at the Blair County Convention Center in Altoona, Pa. Mark Pynes | firstname.lastname@example.org
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams was hailed five years ago for bringing criminal charges against a Roman Catholic Church official whom, a grand jury report stated, had ignored credible warning signs about a priest who later sexually assaulted a 10-year-old altar boy.
That official, Msgr. William Lynn, was convicted in 2012 of one count of child endangerment for his actions in permitting that priest to live in a parish rectory where he could continue to prey on kids.
Lynn's conviction was overturned once, reinstated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and then overturned a second time for evidentiary issues that are still being fought in state appellate courts.
There are some striking similarities between Lynn's role and that of officials who supervised rogue priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese that were highlighted in a state grand jury report released this week.
An allegation is reported. An internal investigation is begun. A priest gets treatment or counseling, and then is quietly reassigned.
And there's one big difference: No charges have been brought by the state Attorney General's office in the Altoona / Johnstown investigation that proclaims a church-led cover-up that persisted for decades.
That's confounding to one Philadelphia-area attorney who specializes in child sex abuse cases and was consulted by then-District Attorney Lynn Abraham during the first major grand jury probe into clergy abuses there.
The latest report from Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office, Marci Hamilton said Thursday, identifies "a reckless failure of the protection of children... and it's important to get those facts out."
But, Hamilton added, without any criminal charges "it doesn't go far enough because it doesn't hold the church hierarchy accountable for the harm that was done to children."
Kane and her staffers, however, argue there are some key differences that, so far at least, have prevented them from filing charges against former priests or leaders in the Altoona / Johnstown Diocese.
Here's a few:
* First off, there is the still-uncertain status of the Lynn prosecution itself.
A Superior Court panel ruled in December that Lynn's 2012 trial was unfair because evidence of other abuses by priests was presented to the jury to show a historical course of conduct by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, even though the charges against Lynn were centered on the actions of two specific priests.
That evidence - much of it predating by decades Lynn's tenure as the archdiocesan official in charge of handling sex-abuse complaints - was "unfairly prejudicial" and effectively turned Lynn into a scapegoat for the wider sins of the church, the panel's majority held last December.
Williams' office has not yet decided whether to seek an appeal of that ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
* In Lynn's case there were two victims whose assaults - by priests that had been reassigned by the monsigneur - were within the applicable statute of limitations on criminal cases.
Similarly, in the Jerry Sandusky-related child endangerment case against the three former Penn State administrators, there were clear allegations of abuse by Sandusky against boys that took place after the officials had been notified of potential problems with the former coach.
Here, so far at least, there is a paucity of assault cases that fall within the statute, Kane reiterated Thursday in a telephone interview with PennLive.
Retired Bishop Joseph Adamec, in his response to the grand jury report, asserts that none of the five priests whom he reassigned to a public ministry after fielding allegations of sexual misconduct prior to church-wide changes in 2002 were ever cited for follow-up incidents.
Adamec's response also notes that he did ultimately suspend or otherwise have nine other priests removed from the ministry in that period.
Of course, in many ways the Altoona-Johnstown investigation - which serves about 100,000 church members in central and western Pennsylvania - is just entering a new phase.
Kane said Thursday an OAG hotline set up to handle potential abuse claims took approximately 80 follow-up calls within the first 24 hours, potentially giving investigators lots of new leads to chase.
For now, however, the Attorney General said she is confident in the determinations of Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye and others who worked on the case.
"They made the determination based upon the law, the evidence that they uncovered, the evidence that they heard, the documents - that there were no viable criminal charges" to bring, Kane said.
"But again, the investigation is ongoing."