Three decades later, Altoona–Johnstown diocese doesn’t object to the release of information in abuse cases

By Dave Sutor
December 11, 2016

Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office announced Tuesday, March 1, 2016, during a press conference at the Blair County Convention Center in Altoona that a grand jury has determined that hundreds of children were sexually abused over a period of at least 40 years by priests or religious leaders in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
Photo by Todd Berkey

After the passage of three decades – and the release of a scathing report by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General that provided details about an alleged cover-up of rampant child sexual abuse within its ranks – the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown changed positions as to whether information in a civil litigation against Msgr. Francis McCaa should be made public.

In 1986, counsel for the monsignor, diocese, former Bishop James Hogan, and Holy Name Catholic Church in Ebensburg argued that pretrial documents – in a case brought by four plaintiffs – should be sealed in order to “prevent serious and irreparable harm to the defendants through the disclosure of information which may not be relevant or admissible at the trial of the case,” as described in the papers.

But, when The Tribune-Democrat sought to have the documents unsealed this year, the diocese did not resist, so long as the accusers’ names were redacted.

“Their policy now is to be as transparent as possible without hurting someone else,” Eric Anderson, an attorney for the diocese, said.

Michael Sahlaney, a lawyer who handled the action for the newspaper, complimented the diocese for not fighting the legal action.

“The diocese, I want to give them credit,” he said. “They were very open. They had no objection to the file being open at this time. It is what it is.”

But he added: “They have a terrible history, but we’ve got to give them credit where credit is due.”

‘Right to know’

The diocese points to this action as evidence of an ongoing effort to become more open in dealing with accusations of abuse.

The McCaa case decision came after the release of the AG’s report, which outlined its findings that the diocese had protected at least 50 priests and other religious leaders under the direction of Hogan and Bishop Joseph Adamec.

However, the McCaa documents were not released until The Tribune-Democrat pursued the matter.

“Given the scope and severity of findings in the attorney general’s report, we believed the McCaa files would contain information that the community had a right to know, and also information that might shed further light on events connected with the issue of child sexual abuse within the diocese,” Chip Minemyer, the newspaper’s editor, said. 

“The courts clearly agreed, and approved our request to have the case unsealed.

“As we noted in our petition to open these records, the issue of clerical abuse of minors and the processes by which those situations were handled constitute a matter of significant public concern.”

Since the report was released in March, the Altoona-Johnstown diocese has publicized a list of priests who have had credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors made against them. There are 22 priests on the current list: 16 deceased, three laicized, two removed from public ministry, one incarcerated.

Bishop Mark Bartchak publicly apologized to the victims and held prayer services. 

‘Children in our church’

The diocese, though, has often been hesitant to discuss the abuse scandal, since there are ongoing legal matters, including a case against three former minister provincials from the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception.

The Franciscans are accused of putting the late Brother Stephen Baker in positions – including at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown – where he had access to children, even though, as the state contends, they knew he was an alleged pedophile.

The attorney general’s office still considers the investigation to be open. The three Franciscans are expected to face trial in 2017.

“The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown continues to be the subject of an ongoing investigation, and we cannot discuss matters related to that investigation,” Tony DeGol, a spokesman for the diocese, said. “As always, our thoughts and prayers are with all victims of sexual abuse. Bishop Bartchak remains committed to helping those who were harmed and ensuring the safety of all children in our church.”

Critics claim not enough is being done.

Less than two weeks ago, Road to Recovery, a nonprofit support group for victims, held a press conference outside Bishop McCort, where Baker allegedly abused dozens of boys when he served there as an athletic trainer and in other roles.

The organization’s co-founder, Robert Hoatson, accused the diocese and Franciscan order of refusing to, in his opinion, justly and fairly settle the claim of an unnamed victim, who was allegedly abused by Baker from approximately 1996 to 1998 when a student at Bishop McCort.

“When the spotlight is on the diocese – for example, when the attorney general was doing her investigation, and when they started to indict priests, and then when they came out with the report of the 50 or so priests who had abused in the diocese – oh, then Bishop Bartchak was so welcoming and so hospitable,” Hoatson said. 

“And, as soon as the spotlight is turned off, they seem to go right back into their usual modus operandi, which is secrecy, which is cover up, which is then to ignore the victims. 

“That’s what we’re experiencing again. So we’re going to keep coming. We’re going to keep coming and shedding the light on this because this can’t continue.” 

‘Spin control’?

Boston-based attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents the alleged victim, said his client is being re-victimized by the diocese and Franciscan order.

“These cases are never really about money,” Garabedian said. “They’re about validation.”

Garabedian, one of the nation’s leading legal representatives for victims of child sexual abuse, who played a major role in exposing a cover-up within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, describes the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese’s willingness to not fight release of the McCaa documents as “spin control.”

“The diocese is concerned about its public image,” Garabedian said.



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