Worshippers at Altoona Church Hold on to Faith in Wake of Child Sex Abuse Scandal

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
March 17, 2016

Bishop Mark Bartchak told worshipers, “Playing hide and seek with God really doesn't work.” He urged penitents to “seek the Lord while he may be found.”

The large purple banners, in the symbolic color of penitence, and the subdued music fit the tone of the service Wednesday night at Altoona’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

Before scores of worshippers got up to make confessions to one of numerous priests who fanned out across the cavernous cathedral, Bishop Mark Bartchak offered a short homily, reflecting on how often people compound their sins by trying to hide them rather than confess them. “Playing hide and seek with God really doesn’t work,” he said, urging penitents to “seek the Lord while he may be found.”

There was no mention at the communal penance service, an annual Lenten observance, of the news roiling the diocese in recent weeks. But it was very much on worshippers’ minds.

The service came a day after the state announced charges against three priests from a Hollidaysburg-based Franciscan province for endangering the welfare of children for assigning a known sex offender to work with youth at Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown and other settings over nearly two decades. That offender, Brother Stephen Baker, committed suicide in 2013 as the enormity of his crimes became known.

The charges, including criminal conspiracy against each man, were recommended by the same grand jury that two weeks ago issued a report denouncing what it called a decades-long coverup of abusive priests by previous bishops of the eight-county Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

“It’s very difficult,” said cathedral parishioner Mary Ann Bell. “You hear about it from other dioceses. You don’t think it’s going to be in your own. I’m just thankful I have my faith.”

One Altoona man said after leaving the service that he agreed on that point but said he had a “lot of mistrust” of church officials now, adding that while he respects the response of Bishop Bartchak, some priests are still downplaying it.

“They didn’t do enough,” he said, then alluded to another major sexual-abuse scandal not far from here. “I work at Penn State, so this is the second time I’ve been through this.”

Still, he came to the midweek service. “It’s hard, but it hasn’t shaken my faith in God. It’s shaken my faith in the church.”

Bishop Bartchak said he has not yet read in depth the second grand jury report issued Tuesday that accompanied the charges against the three Franciscans — all former superiors of the Province of the Immaculate Conception, which has long provided priests and brothers for ministry in the diocese, including some who participated in Wednesday night’s service.

But he reiterated such pledges as to review the diocese’s entire procedures for child protection and to post the names of known offenders on the diocese website.

One sign of the crisis was the absence of large banners, bearing the name of current and former bishops including those named in the report, which had until recently been displayed in the cathedral. Bishop Bartchak had them removed, saying it was a time for humility in the church.

The three Franciscans being charged are the first Catholic religious-order superiors ever to be called to account in criminal court for abuse under their watch. Only a Missouri bishop and a Philadelphia monsignor have faced such charges before.

Those charged are the Very Revs. Giles A. Schinelli, Robert J. D’Aversa and Anthony M. Criscitelli.

One of the cathedral parishioners, Kathy Civils, said the grand jury revelations were shocking but necessary.

“A lot of people are reeling from it,” she said. “When they named the priests, they named people I knew growing up, and I never would have thought.”

In the spirit of Wednesday night’s service, she said forgiving is “something we all need to do,” although she readily acknowledged that will be more difficult for abuse survivors than for others who feel betrayed by the news.

“Keeping it secret for so long, that makes it hard to heal,” she said. “It’s good they’re addressing it and getting it out.”

The Rev. Carl Spishak, a retired priest based at St. Rose of Lima Church in Altoona, said just seeing the worshipers at Wednesday night’s service was encouraging.

“What helps me keep my head up is good people like this, the flock who came here and are practicing their faith in spite of everything,” he said. “And we are not alone. God is with us.”

Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith








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