State Grand Jury Investigation of Altoona-johnstown Catholic Diocese Priests Blocked in 2013
By Brad Bumsted
March 8, 2016
A deputy attorney general requested a grand jury investigation of child sexual abuse allegations against Altoona-Johnstown area Catholic priests in January 2013, but superiors turned him down, the Attorney General's Office said Tuesday.
It was rejected about a year before a grand jury investigation was initiated based on a stronger case referred by Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan, said Chuck Ardo, spokesman for Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
Ardo confirmed that Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye requested a grand jury investigation the month Kane was sworn into office based on a referral late the previous year from Callihan on a case involving child abuse allegations against the Rev. George Koharchik.
He was later called a “child predator” in a grand jury report released last week that found hundreds of victims had been abused by as many as 50 priests over 40 years in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. No one was charged as a result of expired statutes of limitations, deaths and reluctant witnesses. The grand jury investigation began in April 2014.
“There's no question” the Attorney General's Office could have used the 2013 referral from Callihan to launch a grand jury investigation, said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. Why it did not do so remains unclear, she said.
The Tribune-Review reported last week that Kane was told about priest abuse allegations in the Altoona-Johnstown area shortly after she took office in 2013. She was elected in November 2012. Officials acknowledged to the Trib this week the specific request for a grand jury investigation and the rejection.
Grand juries are a tool that helps prosecutors tackle complex cases with the power to issue sealed search warrants and compel testimony of reluctant witnesses. Kane opposed using grand juries in sexual assault cases, believing they move too slowly.
“Senior lawyers in the office did not believe there was enough evidence (in 2013) to be gained at that time to pursue that course,” of a broader investigation, Ardo said.
They did not think Callihan's first request gave the Attorney General's Office jurisdiction, which is required for such an investigation, Ardo said.
The second referral from Callihan in 2014 regarding Brother Stephen Baker was “broader in scope, and the office moved quickly to present evidence to a grand jury,” Ardo said. The agency's lawyers “kept wondering why a broader referral was not received from the local DA,” Ardo said.
Baker died of self-inflicted knife wounds in January 2013 after a financial settlement was announced by the Youngstown diocese, where he had worked. Baker allegedly assaulted dozens of victims at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown.
“It wasn't an intentional delay,” Callihan said. The legal question she had to wrestle with is what she was referring after Baker died. It wasn't until October 2013 that the scope of the problem at Bishop McCort became clearer, she said.
In neither the Koharchik nor the Baker cases did she request a state grand jury investigation, Callihan said.
“Law enforcement could and should have acted sooner,” said David Clohessy, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “We wish they had. Still, there's no denying that only eight prosecutors (nationwide) — out of potentially hundreds and hundreds — have convened grand juries to investigate heinous child sex crimes and cover-ups in Catholic dioceses.
“So could the AG have been more aggressive? Sure. Is she more aggressive than 99 percent of her peers? Yes,” Clohessy said.
Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review's state Capitol reporter.