Allentown Bishop Schlert Helped Cover up Child Sex Abuse
By Tim Darragh
September 25, 2018
A ttorney General Josh Shapiro, in Allentown Tuesday for the first time since the release of the grand jury report on child sex abuse in six Catholic dioceses, said it is “unconscionable” that Allentown Bishop Alfred Schlert is leading the diocese after handling the cases of predator priests.
The Allentown Diocese, he said, is “exhibit A” to support the allegation that the church covered up for sexually abusive priests and promoted those who enabled it.
“Catholic church leaders were rewarded for their role in the cover-up and Father Schlert is one example of that,” he said during a 45-minute interview at The Morning Call.
In a statement, the diocese said Shapiro’s comments are false, adding, “Bishop Schlert has never moved a perpetrator. He has never participated in a cover-up. He has never investigated or discredited a victim or instructed anyone to do so.” The diocese said Schlert has “taken strong and decisive action to deal with abusers and to keep children safe” and noted that as bishop, “he had acted quickly on new allegations.”
Three Allentown priests have been removed from ministry since the grand jury wrapped up its investigation, with one being reinstated when the allegation was determined to be unfounded.
Citing testimony and records from the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses, the grand jury found that 301 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children over a period of decades. Shapiro led the unveiling of the report after fighting efforts by some unknown church officials who sought to suppress it. The Allentown Diocese has said it did not fight the report’s release and cooperated with investigators.
The grand jury report does not suggest Schlert abused anyone but declared he had an “important role” in how the diocese handled sex abuse cases. Citing church records, the report identified Schlert in the 1990s and early 2000s, when he was a top church administrator, playing a role in how the diocese dealt with seven priests who had been accused of abuse.
In the case of Juliann Bortz, who brought an allegation to the diocese after The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” stories fired up the issue nationally, the report said Schlert received letters in 2002 from a diocesan lawyer presenting information meant to “discredit” Bortz.
“You had someone in the church leadership in Bishop Schlert who moved predators around, who helped enable the cover-up,” Shapiro said. The diocese’s investigation of Bortz, and not her alleged abuser, the Rev. Frank Fromholzer, would “re-victimize” her, he said.
According to the report, Fromholzer, who denied the allegation, was not moved but allowed to retire after Bortz alleged to diocesan officials in 2002 that he sexually assaulted her in the 1960s when she was a student at Central Catholic High School in Allentown. In 2004, she filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed for being too late.
Bortz this month again sued the diocese, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation over efforts to get discrediting information on her.
In another case, involving former priest James Gaffney, Schlert learned of a credible allegation as early as 2002, the report says and, along with Monsignor John McCann, confronted Gaffney, who denied the allegation. Schlert and McCann suggested Gaffney take a leave of absence, the report said, and Gaffney did. He would later abandon his ministry but he was allowed to receive diocesan benefits for nine more years and found a teaching job at Albright College — which was not told of the child abuse allegations against him, it said.
Schlert was installed as bishop of the Allentown Diocese in 2017.
To Shapiro, that was payback for handling the cases of abusive priests. “The conduct of some of these church leaders including your local bishop, is abhorrent,” Shapiro said. “And the fact that he and others were rewarded for that conduct is unconscionable to me.”
Shapiro’s Allentown visit comes on the eve of a showdown before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court over redacted names in the report. More than a dozen unnamed petitioners are asking the court to leave the redactions in place, while Shapiro wants every word in the report public. Arguments will be in Philadelphia Wednesday.
The report has reverberated beyond the state border, spurring numerous state attorneys general to consider their own investigations. In Harrisburg, it has renewed debate about how child sex abuse survivors are compensated for their suffering. All eight of the state’s dioceses have said they are willing to create or participate in a compensation fund for victims, but Shapiro dismissed that idea, pointing out that the grand jury called for more — a two-year period for survivors to file lawsuits.
He also dismissed the notion that a compensation fund would provide speedier justice than civil complaints. “The court process can work in an expeditious way,” Shapiro said, “if the Catholic Church doesn’t put up roadblocks.”
The church and the insurance industry have lobbied for years to block statute of limitation reform legislation, arguing that lawsuits would bankrupt dioceses.
But survivors are not driven by money and want their complaints heard, Shapiro said.
“It’s about having their day in court and being able to confront abusers … and holding them accountable,” he said.
The statute of limitation bill is awaiting action by the state Senate, where it has died in the past. Shapiro said he has spoken to more than 20 senators on both sides of the aisle, including some unnamed senators who have flipped to support the bill. If Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, allows a vote on the bill, Shapiro said, it likely will pass.
“The only thing that will prevent this from becoming law is if lawmakers don’t get a chance to vote on it,” Shapiro said.
And while those wheels are in motion, the hotline set up to field complaints of abuse by clergy hit 1,168 calls in the roughly five weeks since the grand jury report was released on Aug. 14, he said. Shapiro declined to say if any of the callers have complaints that fall within the current statute, saying only, “This hotline has proved to be very, very fruitful.”
The hotline number is 888-538-8541.
The Allentown Diocese's complete response to Attorney General Josh Shapiro's remarks about Bishop Schlert:
“These statements are not accurate. Bishop Schlert has never moved a perpetrator. He has never participated in a cover-up. He has never investigated or discredited a victim or instructed anyone to do so.
“His record, while serving as vicar general, and for the past year as bishop, clearly shows that he has taken strong and decisive action to deal with abusers and to keep children safe. In 2002, then-Monsignor Schlert played a key role in turning over all files on abusers to the five district attorneys of the diocese, the first diocese in Pennsylvania to do so.
“His recent actions on new allegations demonstrate his approach as bishop: He immediately notifies law enforcement, he immediately removes priests from ministry, and the diocese acts with transparency.
“As the attorney general has noted in the past, Bishop Schlert did nothing to oppose the grand jury report. This past May 23, Attorney General Shapiro said,
“The position of Bishop Alfred Schlert of Allentown … to not mount any legal challenge that would silence the voices of victims of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is the right decision.”