What the Allentown Diocese Has Done in the Year since Clergy Sex Abuse Allegations Surfaced

By Julia Owens
Times Express
August 6, 2019

Last August, the public finally got to see the chilling findings of a grand jury investigation into decades of sexual abuse within six of Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses, including the Diocese of Allentown.

According to a grand jury report, 301 priests, 35 of whom had ties to the Allentown Diocese, were accused of sexually abusing at least 1,000 children going back to the 1940s. It alleged church officials had been involved in covering up the abuse cases.

Fast forward a year: investigations remain underway and 1,862 calls have been made to a clergy-abuse hotline. About 90% of those calls concerned allegations of abuse or cover-ups within the Catholic church, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said.

In conjunction with the one-year anniversary of the report’s release, the Allentown Diocese issued a statement about programs it has implemented to prevent abuse and keep children safe.

“The diocese uses vigilance, education, and prevention, coupled with swift and decisive action in the event of an accusation, to address abuse,” the statement said.

Among these are the following measures the diocese has taken so far, according to its statement:

Published names of accused priests. Priests with a credible allegation of abuse are listed on the diocese website, including some who were not mentioned in the grand jury report. All priests on the list have been removed from ministry.

Created a new leadership position to improve prevention and safety. Ms. Pamela Russo, an experienced executive and licensed social worker, was named Secretary for Youth Protection and Catholic Human Services. She has overall responsibility for abuse prevention and child safety programs.

Provided millions of dollars for victim compensation. Under the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, victims of clergy sexual abuse are applying to an independent arbitrator for compensation as one aspect of their healing. The program is overseen by an independent board not affiliated with the diocese that is chaired by a retired federal judge, and the program is administered by Washington, D.C.-based Attorney Kenneth Feinberg and his colleague, Camille Biros.

Improved transparency and accountability. Bishop (Alfred) Schlert held meetings with parishioners, answered questions publicly in many forums, and pledged publicly to hold himself accountable long before the nation’s bishops voted on formal personal accountability measures.

Enhanced its partnership with law enforcement. Bishop Schlert convened a meeting with district attorneys of all five counties of the diocese in November 2018 to pledge continued cooperation and partnership, and to discuss the shared goal of eliminating abuse wherever it may occur in society. In 2002, the diocese was the first in Pennsylvania to meet with its district attorneys and turn over personnel records of credibly accused priests.

Involved lay men and women. Bishop Schlert has appointed lay people to key posts in the leadership and operation of the diocese, in advisory roles, and in the oversight of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program for victims.

Offered a healing program in parishes. Healing Our Church was a series of small-group discussions, led by fellow parishioners, intended to encourage reflection and conversation about the clergy sexual abuse. They were planned in response to requests from the faithful for such a forum.

The statement also reiterated long-standing policies and procedures bent on reducing instances of abuse and keeping children safe. These include a zero-tolerance approach to accusations. When such accusations are made, the accused priest is immediately removed from ministry and law enforcement is immediately notified. Other long-standing policies include psychological screenings for aspiring priests and care programs for victims.

Shapiro, the attorney general, said he has been stopped daily by people who are grateful for the investigation or want to tell him their own stories of victimization.

"That has been just a profoundly impactful experience," Shapiro said. "It has happened to me at big, formal events with public figures, and it has happened to me walking through the supermarket, buying food for my family."

Shapiro, a Democrat, blamed Senate Republicans for blocking a vote on four reforms the grand jury recommended — to allow a period for victims to sue over claims that would otherwise be too old to pursue, to eliminate any age limit for child sexual abuse victims in criminal cases, to toughen rules for people in certain positions to report suspected abuse and to end nondisclosure agreements that keep victims from cooperating with criminal investigations.

The state House voted in April for two of those recommendations: the tougher reporting standards and to make it explicit that nondisclosure terms in contracts cannot prevent people from talking to police in child molestation investigations. Neither bill has moved out of Senate committees.








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