Diocese Still Closing Ranks on Child Sexual Abuse
August 31, 2016
Victims advocate Robert Hoatson said he sees a “dome” of secrecy over the region of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown – a phenomenon that allowed priests to sexually abuse children for decades without fear of legal retribution.
The diocese’s ongoing actions show that it remains intent on controlling the message surrounding the mistreatment of children – despite a March 1 report from the state attorney general’s office that accused 50 priests and other clergy members of abusing children in their care, protected by bishops who moved the offenders from parish to parish rather than exposing them to criminal charges.
In a story Sunday in The Tribune-Democrat and at www.tribdem.com, diocese spokesman Tony DeGol said the church organization was reaching out “through our Diocesan media – our Proclaim! television ministry, The Catholic Register, and our website” concerning the issue of child sexual abuse.
He said messages were developed in “collaboration with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and agencies throughout our eight-county Diocese that offer support to survivors of sexual abuse.”
Despite what might appear to be best intentions, the mechanism of communication – “Diocesan media” – allows the organization to both control the message and the manner and scope of its expression.
This is a message that should be communicated to individuals inside and outside the church – and especially those who have left the church due to their victimization or feelings of anger and disillusionment with the institution over this criminal case.
More broadly, we are troubled that the lessons of this tragic situation remain unheeded.
The abuse in the church reached unimaginable levels exactly because the scourge of pedophilia was kept hidden. Whether the motivation was adherence to canon law or institutional preservation, the result was that generations of young people fell victim to predators through the very places – churches and schools – where they should have felt most safe.
Authorities say Brother Stephen Baker was responsible for the abuse of more than 100 students at the former Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown. The diocese has sold off property to pay settlements with Baker’s victims.
Three priests – Revs. Giles A. Schinelli, Robert J. D’Aversa and Anthony M. Criscitelli – face trial, charged with conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children by placing Baker in the vicinity of potential victims despite their knowledge that he was a child predator. The priests oversaw Baker’s assignments as ministers provincial of the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception.
The church’s continued opposition to legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse further illustrates its determination to both control the process and limit its own culpability for the crimes of its clergy.
The Tribune-Democrat reached out to Bishop Mark Bartchak after allegations were leveled against the diocese and former bishops Joseph Adamec and James Hogan. The attorney general’s investigators accused the diocese of covering up abuse, maintaining confidential records of the crimes and operating a secret fund to pay off victims’ families to keep the numerous incidents quiet.
To date, we have not been granted an opportunity to sit across from Bartchak to hear directly his thoughts on the case and the diocese’s response.
DeGol, in an email statement to reporter Dave Sutor, called the diocese’s messaging plan “a good way to educate everyone in our community about sexual abuse, which is an enormous problem in society and by no means limited to the Catholic Church.”
Yes, the sexual abuse of children occurs across our society.
That is a strong argument for taking this critical message outside the walls of the church.
Speaking through “Diocesan media” will not educate the entire community – only those sitting in the pews, and paying attention, or reading the institution’s website regularly.
We urge the diocese to become part of a broader effort to eradicate child sexual abuse from our culture, and to stop its strategy of circling the wagons to avoid scrutiny and accountability.
Hoatson’s “dome” of faith may have allowed the crisis of abuse to flourish out of sight.
A dome of secrecy is keeping us from making real change in this critical area.