Hotline Staff Haunted by Clergy Child Sex Abuse Calls
March 19, 2016
Throughout the 1990s, priests across Philadelphia and Altoona were molesting hundreds of children.
Grand jury investigation reports have detailed the horrific crimes of sodomy, rape, and countless other acts of depravity carried out in confessionals, sacristies, rectory bedrooms, locker rooms and cars on altar boys, members of choirs and legions of other children across parishes.
Across Catholic communities, few parents suspected such an unthinkable travesty, investigators concluded, but there were some who did.
Scores — if not hundreds — of parents and individuals in the state's Catholic Church communities called Pennsylvania's ChildLine hotline throughout those years to report that they suspected a priest of molesting a child, according to former Childline staffers.
Restricted by weak laws, the clerks and counselors who staffed the hotline could do little to help the callers or the possible victims. All they could do was to alert local law enforcement officials — the very people who, according to a recent state grand jury report, often ignored or colluded with church officials to hide the abuse.
Some 20 years later, with any records long destroyed, the men and women who staffed the hotline can only speculate about the number of calls. They do, however, vividly remember some of those conversations.
"I definitely remember the report on a priest who was sexually abusing at least 10 kids," said Jayne Ripton, who was a caseworker for ChildLine for 10 years until 1995. "It was a long report. It had all these kids. I think it was Westmoreland County or somewhere out west."
Ripton, like all other caseworkers, would have told the parent on the other line that she would report the concern to local police. She could do nothing more.
Under the laws in place in the 1990s, priests were not among the people who could be investigated by children and youth services for allegations of child sexual abuse. The law confined the definition of a perpetrator as someone who was in a caretaker role, such as a parent, babysitter, teacher or daycare provider — anyone obligated to look after a child and be responsible for their welfare.
Some 20 years later, in light of the highly publicized clergy sex abuse cover-up scandals out of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, it is reasonable to doubt whether notifying local law enforcement about the calls yielded any investigations.
But grand jury investigations into sexual abuse of children by clergy in Philadelphia and Altoona concluded that in many cases, local law enforcement officials were in collusion with diocesan officials.
Hotline staffers couldn't even find out whether any action was taken by local police.
"We would not talk to them individually. We would just send a report," Ripton said. "We never knew what happened."
In a recent 147-page report on abuses in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese,a grand jury concluded that local law enforcement officials from police to district attorneys were reluctant - or flat out unwilling - to pursue criminal allegations of sex abuse against local parish priests.
"It bothered me but there was nothing I could do about it," says Chuck Whitesell, who worked as a ChildLine hotline supervisor for 26 years. "It's not a perfect world. You help one child at a time."
The investigation into the Altoona-Johnstown diocese is ongoing, in hopes new information will yield the opportunity for prosecution. But no prosecution is expected on the allegations against dozens of priests that are detailed in the report, largely because the statute of limitations for most cases has expired.
Whitesell, whose job it was to randomly monitor calls to ChildLine, said the emotional toll on the staff was great. They would often be troubled by the calls about a suspected abusive priest, and upset that they could do little with it.
At time, the emotional toll was great. His staff, he recalls, would often be troubled by the calls regarding a suspected abusive priest, and upset because they could do little with it.
"These caseworkers were dedicated child advocates," Whitesell says. "You can't stay year after year in that job if you don't care for children. There are plenty of other jobs out there."
Even now, more than 20 years later, Whitesell's eyes fill with tears recalling some of the calls he fielded during his time at ChildLine. His exchange with parents calling about priests were gut-wrenching.
"All I could do was say, 'I understand. You might want to call your state legislator to change the law,'" he says.
To this day, both Whitesell and Ripton remain ambivalent as to the extent to which the police departments and district attorneys offices contacted by caseworkers followed through on the reports of abusive priests.
"You have to wonder how well they did that," Whitesell says.
Ripton recalls questioning Pennsylvania's laws regarding sexual predators, which in general fell under local jurisdictions. At the time, other states, including Missouri, where Ripton had worked for some time, put oversight of these cases at the state level. That meant that social workers and counselors, including those employed at hotlines, had at their fingertips information regarding families where abuse was suspected, regardless of their place of residence.
"I would say to my supervisor all the time, 'Why isn't this a state system?'" she remembers.
Ripton is convinced that, too often, reports made to police "fell through the cracks."
"I knew they weren't going to do anything," she said. "Most of them were so overwhelmed ... that wasn't something they were going to take seriously."
One of the most shocking aspects of the grand jury report out of the Altoona-Johnstown diocese was the finding that law enforcement had been complicit in the coverup of sexual abuse against children. Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who released the findings two weeks ago, said that at times law enforcement looked the other way and even worked with the diocese to allow priests to retire or enter a psychiatric facility in lieu of criminal charges.
In testimony before grand jury investigators, Monsignor Philip Saylor spoke of the power the Altoona-Johnstown diocese wielded in the community. Police and civil authorities, he said, would often defer to the diocese with regards to incidents involving sexual abuse allegations.
Caseworkers say that one of the most troubling and nagging aspects of their job was having to explain to the parent at the other end of the phone that their parish priest was not technically a caregiver under the law, and therefore, they could not register a report about him and refer it to county children and youth officials.
Ripton recalls peppering callers with questions in the hopes of ascertaining whether a priest had ever been in a caretaker role, and therefore, subject to the reporting protocol.
"Let's say he drives the child to the house after church, that is considered a caretaking position," she said. "Did parents know that their child was going to stay after Mass and the priest would make sure the child got home? It's so nebulous... Sometimes you just have to ... I wouldn't say fudge it because it doesn't help in court, but there were times when, yes he was caretaker for 20 minutes and that's when he took them into the closet."
Said Eileen West, a social worker with ChildLine from 1987 to 1996: "That's how priests slipped through the cracks."
Adelaide Steely, a union steward for the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, recalls troubling memories of union members distraught by the calls and their inability to do much to help.
"They were really torn ... we would go into the bathroom to talk in private where no one would hear," said Steely, who was a clerk typist in the computer department at ChildLine from 1992 until 1997.
Steely took her concerns to union officials and others.
"I was constantly trying to bring this to the attention of people," Steely said.
Whitesell said that if his memory served him, ChildLine records were destroyed after five years. It is likely that the number of parents or individuals calling the hotline to report abusive priests will never be known with certainty. Only anecdotal recollections hint at what should have been alarming calls to action to save children.
By 2006, in the wake of a second grand jury investigation into a clergy sex abuse scandal and cover-up in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, victims advocates were able to get the Legislature to change the law.
Beginning that year, mandated reporters — that is teachers, social workers, healthcare workers — were required to report suspected child abuse regardless of who the suspected perpetrator was. Suddenly, priests met the criteria.
In 2014, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case, the law opened the parameters of reporting to anyone, regardless of their relationship to the child.
"You don't need to figure out who did it. That's not your job," said Cathy Utz, deputy secretary for the Office of Children and Youth Services.
"Call us if you suspect abuse and we'll make sure it gets to the right people. We'll figure out where it needs to go."
The new provision in the law, Utz explained, has removed what at times were barriers in reporting suspected abuse. Child welfare officials, she explained, had over the years heard complaints from mandated reporters who had filed reports, but whose information never got anywhere and were often squashed by their very supervisors.
"It cut out the middle man," Utz said. "It put the onus back on the mandated reporter. I think it's been a positive one to make sure reports are made."
Ted Dallas, secretary of Department of Human Services said that while it is difficult to verify allegations of something that occurred at ChildLine more than 20 years ago, his department is unaware of any record of those allegations.
"I can only speak in my role as the current Secretary of the Department of Human Services, and I can assure you that as ChildLine operates today, every call alleging abuse that comes in is either referred to a county children and youth agency, law enforcement official, or both," he said. "We are committed to working diligently to examine policies that will further the ability of victims to come forward without fear and hold their abusers accountable."