Abuse Claims Recur

By Kathy Mellott
The Tribune-Democrat
September 1, 2012

JOHNSTOWN It has been nearly 25 years since the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and the Rev. Francis Luddy were named in a civil lawsuit by a man who said the priest sexually molested him for seven or eight years.

A Blair County jury eventually determined the diocese attempted to hide the abuse by moving Luddy from one parish to another.

Last week, the diocese again had to address abuse allegations.

On Aug. 24, the diocese announced that the Rev. George D. Koharchik had been placed on leave following allegations of what it termed "sexual misconduct" involving minors in Cambria County dating back more than 30 years.

Koharchik served in a number of parishes including St. Clement Roman Catholic Church in Upper Yoder Township and St. Joseph's parish in Portage, and most recently was pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Mount Union.

The fight continues

Pedophilia and child sex abuse in general by the clergy and others has been pushed to the forefront in recent years.

Many religious organizations have implemented reporting policies and tougher penalties for failure to report. In reality, little has changed, some outside the Catholic church are saying.

"I've seen some improvement, but the fight continues to weed out these pedophiles. Full transparency is needed," said Richard Serbin, the Altoona attorney who represented Michael Hutchison, the boy Luddy molested beginning when Hutchison was 10.

Although it is known the the alleged victims are boys, church leaders are not revealing in which parish or parishes Koharchik allegedly abused the boys nor how many have come forward.

It is the vagueness of the information provided by the diocese that disturbs Judy Jones, an associate director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.)

She is especially disturbed by the refusal of the diocese to reveal where the abuse allegedly occurred.

"That bishop should be going out there and meeting with every parish every single one where this guy was and begging the victims to contact the police, not the diocese," she said.

"This should not go to the diocese. That's what created the problem."

More details sought

Cambria County Assistant District Attorney Beth Bolton Penna said Friday some information was provided to her, but names of the alleged victims were not included by the diocese.

"It's not mandatory reporting because they are (now) adults," she said. "They've specifically asked the diocese to not release their names."

Unless victims step forward, it remains doubtful the case against Koharchik will go far.

"We would need a lot more detail," Bolton Penna said.

Diocese director of communications Tony DeGol said it is up to the victims to go to the district attorney.

The victims need to step forward for their own good, said Jones, of St. Louis.

"Anyone who has been harmed by this guy, they need to report it to the police, not the church officials," she said.

Even if the statute of limitations has expired and no criminal prosecution is possible, speaking out to authorities can be healing for the victims, Jones said.

"It helps victims to gain their power back," she said. "This was not the fault of these kids."

Questions of trust

Koharchik, 63, a native of Windber who was raised in Johnstown, has been removed from any priest duties, said DeGol, who offered no other specifics.

The priest has no contact with children and is not serving as a chaplain or in some similar capacity, he said.

The problem, Serbin said, is that too often priests under investigation are permitted to be counselors or chaplains, giving the public the impression they are trustworthy.

Not taken lightly

Abuse claims against a priest are not taken lightly, DeGol said. They are taken before an allegations review board at the diocesan level. The board determines whether the allegations seem credible.

Along with contacting Cambria County officials, the diocese reported the allegations to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Following canon law (church regulations), the committee will look into the allegations against Koharchik.

If nothing is filed at the criminal level or the committee at the Vatican finds nothing concrete, he may be restored to clerical duty.

"It's possible he could come back as a priest," DeGol said.

"The church has a legal process if it becomes clear the charges are not valid or not true. But we're a long way from determining that."

The diocese said it is in compliance with 2002 guidelines established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in its handling of the most recent allegations.

Those guidelines, updated in 2011 to include child pornography, set a zero-tolerance level for abuse of children. Guidelines require that law enforcement be contacted the first time an allegation surfaces.

The problem with the guidelines is that the bishops answer to no one if they fail to follow the guidelines, Jones said.

"There is no accountability for the bishop, who is answerable to the pope only. They are not even answerable to one another," she said. "Not one bishop has even been fired for covering up child sex crimes."

Landmark case

Hutchison v. Luddy was a landmark case filed in 1988. A jury, six years later, found Luddy and the diocese civilly liable and initially awarded Hutchison more than $1 million. The diocese tied the case up in court appeals for several years and, by 2008, with interest added, the Hutchison award ultimately turned into $2.7 million.

Luddy maintained he never molested his accuser. He did admit to molesting five boys, including Michael's older brother, Mark.

Michael Hutchison, who was once an altar boy at St. Theresa's Parish in Altoona, died earlier this year at 44.

The case set a standard, placing responsibility for removing molesting priests on bishops and diocese leaders.

Case law established through appeals from the three-month trial in Blair County has set standards that continue to be cited nationwide, Serbin said.

Serbin said he had threats made on his life when he took up the Hutchison case and, while he continues to represent victims, especially those abused by priests, threats are a thing of the past.

"People are now aware that priests can and do molest children," he said. "The public is more aware that they do commit these heinous acts."



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