Lawmaker Seeks Federal Investigation of Bishops in Pennsylvania Child-sex Cover-ups
By Brad Bumsted
March 18, 2016
A state legislator and former law enforcement officer is asking the Justice Department and the FBI to start an investigation of child sexual abuse by priests under a federal law designed to prosecute corrupt organizations.
State Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County, said such an investigation should focus on cover-ups by bishops, as outlined this month in a statewide grand jury report.
Vereb wants federal investigators to use the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, which was established by Congress in 1970 to target organized crime. It has since been used against abusive police departments, gangs and corrupt judges. The law allows leaders of an organization to be targeted for telling others to commit crimes or for assisting subordinates' efforts.
U.S. Attorney David Hickton declined to comment.
The statewide grand jury alleged that nearly two dozen priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown molested hundreds of victims during a 40-year period. None was charged because some people had died, statutes of limitation had expired or victims were reluctant to testify.
“RICO is one of those incredibly broad statutes,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at St. Vincent College.
It would be rare to use RICO for criminal prosecutions against a diocese, Antkowiak said. He questioned whether child sexual abuse would qualify as underlying crime.
There have been efforts to use RICO for civil litigation in some dioceses, according to officials and attorneys following priest abuse cases.
Vereb said he's aware that the federal government might have considered it before, but he can't take that for granted.
“I'm looking for an opportunity for justice to be brought,” he said.
He attended a recent rally by advocates who want to eliminate the statute of limitations on criminal and civil actions regarding child sexual abuse cases.
Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who represents victims of sexual abuse, filed an unsuccessful civil lawsuit attempting to use RICO on a national basis.
As for criminal use of the statute against a diocese, Anderson said, “No rigorous investigation has ever been done. I have long believed it should be done.”
Amy B. Hill, spokesperson for the Catholic Conference of Pennsylvania, said the church is aggressively dealing with complaints.
“Since 2002, the Catholic Church has been committed to the goal of ending child sexual abuse by aggressively responding to allegations and educating adults and children about the signs of abuse,” she said. “Today, the dioceses have zero-tolerance policies for clergy and employees accused of misconduct with children. Any allegation of child sexual abuse must be immediately reported to the proper law enforcement agency.”
The state has a law similar to the federal RICO statute, but it cannot be used in cases of child sex abuse, said Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
In a separate case this week, Kane's office accused three Franciscan friars in Johnstown of allowing a suspected sexual predator to hold jobs where he molested more than 100 children.
Robert D'Aversa, 69, Anthony Criscitelli, 62, and Giles Schinelli, 73, surrendered Friday in Hollidaysburg, where they were arraigned. They are free on unsecured bond until an April 14 preliminary hearing on child endangerment and conspiracy charges. Each is a third-degree felony carrying a penalty of up to seven years in prison.
The friars served successively as ministers provincial who headed a Franciscan religious order in Western Pennsylvania from 1986 to 2010. In that role, each assigned and supervised the order's members, including Brother Stephen Baker, who authorities say molested scores of children, most of them at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, where he was assigned from 1992 to 2000.
Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represented dozens of McCort's victims who settled with church officials for millions of dollars, called on other states to charge Baker's former superiors, too.
“In order to try to heal, dozens of Brother Stephen Baker clergy abuse victims want other states where Baker sexually abused children to follow the lead of Pennsylvania and indict Baker's supervisors,” Garabedian said. “Evil is not having a good day.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org