Shaun Dougherty, victim advocate and survivor of clergy sex abuse, makes a bid for the state Senate
By Ivey Dejesus
January 31, 2020
|Long an advocate for victims of child sex abuse, Shaun Dougherty is taking her advocacy work up a next step and making a bid to represent the Pennsylvania 35th Senatorial District. Dougherty also is a survivor of clergy sex abuse. |
Photo by Sean Simmers
One of the most outspoken and recognizable faces in the clergy sex abuse survivor community is taking his public advocacy up another notch: Shaun Dougherty is making a bid to represent the state’s 35th Senatorial District.
Doughtery, a Democrat from Johnstown, on Friday officially filed his candidacy with the state, and by Monday expects to launch his campaign.
The 35th District represents Cambria and Bedford counties, along with parts of Clearfield County.
Dougherty’s candidacy brings him full circle to a pivotal moment that changed his life and, he said, marked the beginning of his healing.
Four years ago, Dougherty had not ever been to the state Capitol when he agreed to meet there with PennLive to finally come out and share his story of sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a priest.
The visit and the revelations he shared propelled Dougherty to become a public figure within clergy sex abuse survivor community, and one of its most ardent advocates.
Since that time, Dougherty has advocated on behalf of victims and has pushed for legislative reforms that would address justice for victims. He has appeared on dozens of major TV networks, including CNN,MSNBC and NBC; and has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and such overseas outlets as News 24 France.
Time and again over the past four years, Dougherty was a fixture under the Capitol Rotunda, where he could be found pacing the marble hallways as lawmakers in the two chambers deliberated critical proposals poised to impact the lives of thousands of child sex abuse victims.
The irony is not lost on him.
“What’s the historic value for me personally?,” said Dougherty, 50. “Everybody asks what’s healing. Everyone heals in different ways and healing is different to everyone. That’s powerful healing for me. The separation of church and state is important. If I get to cast a vote along with all the other votes that I would cast over a four-year term, it would be an honor. A true, true honor.”
The district is currently represented by Sen. Wayne Langerholc, a Republican.
Doughterty said the clergy sex abuse issue is far from the only issue that concerns the district, although, he said, he would be honored to vote on some of the statute of limitations reform proposals that have been recently defeated under powerful lobbying efforts.
Dougherty, who up until recently, ran the Crescent Grill in Long Island City, said he felt close connection with some of the other major issues that resonate across his home district, including agriculture and the opioid crisis.
“I have a unique perspective to offer to Republicans and to agricultural workers,” he said. “I‘m a chef. My last restaurant was a farm-to-table restaurant. We bought quartered animals, whole pigs, whole chickens. We went to the farms. We drove tractors. I made a living off the labor of agriculture my whole life through my restaurant. Agriculture is near and dear to me.”
As with many survivors of child sex abuse, Dougherty turned to drugs to deal with the trauma, but has been cleaned for years. That hard-fought battle has positioned him to approach the complexities of the opioid crisis with a special perspective.
“I‘m a sex abuse survivor and I‘ve been open about drug abuse,” Dougherty said. “I have a unique perspective on addiction and recovery. Not just addiction. I got through it. I got to the other side of the tunnel. Many people I know did not.”
He recently had to close his business. He said he spent so much time on the public forum advocating for statute of limitations that he ignored his business obligations.
Dougherty’s sexual abuse by a priest was detailed on page 66 of the 2016 grand jury report into widespread child sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
Dougherty, the second youngest of nine kids, was 10 and a fifth-grader at St. Clement School when his priest, George Koharchick, began to molest him. Koharchik sexually molested him for three and a half years.
Koharchik on March 17, 2015, testified before grand jury investigators that he had sexually molested boys while at St. Clement.
The statute of limitations had long expired for Dougherty. The now-defrocked Koharchick lives in Johnstown as a private citizen. His home is less than a 5-minute walk from Johnstown Public Middle School on Garfield Street.
Like countless other victims, Dougherty re-lived his torment and pain in 2018 when Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a more expansive grand jury investigation into clergy sex abuse.
The 40th Statewide Grand Jury Investigation uncovered widespread and systemic sexual abuse of thousands of minors at the hands of priests for decades across Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses.
Dougherty joined a cadre of outspoken victims to lobby the Legislature to reform the statute of limitations.
Dougherty has long blamed the Catholic Church for the fate of failed measures in the Legislature. He blames the church, and its powerful legislative arm, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.
He said he has long been one of the marginalized people waiting under Rotunda for the chambers to vote on reform proposals.
“I know what that feels like,” Dougherty said.
The issue has fostered a friendship bond with Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, also a survivor of clergy sex abuse. Rozzi parlayed his advocacy on the public forum into public office and has for years shepherded various legislative efforts to reform Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations.
Dougherty said his perspective as a survivor of child sex abuse and substance, and his service in the U.S. Navy, have positioned him to continue to serve out of a sense of duty.
“After I came out publicly, l felt a sense of duty to go and advocate,” he said.
The 35th Senatorial District is largely considered Republican leaning, although just a few years ago, it was a Democratic stronghold and long represented in Congress by the late John “Jack” Murtha.” He died in 2010.
“I got a tough race but I‘m going to work hard,” Doughterty said.
In November, after years of fierce opposition and constitutional hurdles, state lawmakers ratified measures ease up restrictive child sex crime laws and give victims of sexual assault more time to file lawsuits against their abusers. Gov. Tom Wolf signed them into law.
One measure - an amendment to the state Constitution - would give victims long barred from taking legal action against predators the opportunity to file civil lawsuits. Voters must ultimately approve the constitutional amendment.