ALTOONA – Hundreds of children were molested, raped and suffered psychological trauma by abusive Catholic priests in western Pennsylvania over a half-century, but none of them can be prosecuted. Not even two bishops, enabled by police, who covered up the sexual misconduct.

That’s the “staggering and sobering” conclusion of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury that conducted a two-year investigation into sexual abuse by priests and others associated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown since the 1950s.

The grand jury’s 147-page report, which contained disturbing details, was released Tuesday at a press conference in Altoona.  It identified two former bishops who headed the diocese – Rev. James Hogan and Rev. Joseph Adamec  -- as hiding the abuse and, thereby, “further endangered children as they placed their desire to avoid public scandal over the well-being of innocent children. Priests were returned to ministry with full knowledge they were child predators.”

Hogan served the diocese from 1966 to 1986, and died in 2005. Adamec served as bishop from 1987 to 2011, and is now retired at age 80.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said at least 35 priests and a dozen or so religious leaders of the diocese participated in the abuse or cover-up of misconduct that she described as “absolutely unconscionable.”

But, Kane said, those named priests or religious officials still living cannot be charged because of the statue of limitations on child sexual abuse for criminal or civil cases. The grand jury recommended the state Legislature remove the restriction on sexual offenses.

“These findings are both staggering and sobering,” the grand jury report said. “Over many years hundreds of children have fallen victim to child predators wrapped in the authority and integrity of an honorable faith. As wolves disguised as the shepherds themselves, these men stole the innocence of children by sexually preying upon the most innocent and vulnerable.”

The grand jury findings were the latest chapter in the Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse scandal that was first exposed on a widespread scale by the Boston Globe in 2002 in the archdiocese of Boston. That led to similar disclosures in other dioceses across the country and beyond, and to the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight.”  Billions of dollars have been paid to settle claims with victims, according to the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

The Pennsylvania report said Bishop Adamec established a “pay-out chart” to quietly settle victim complaints before they turned into lawsuits or went public. Victims fondled over their clothes were to be paid $10,000 to $25,000. If they were fondled under their clothes or subject to masturbation, the payout ranged from $15,000 to $40,000. Forced oral sex had a price tag of $25,000 to $75,000, and sodomy or intercourse, $50,000 to $175,000.

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown covers eight Pennsylvania counties. More than 94,000 Catholics are members of 86 parishes.

Rev. Mark Bartchak, current bishop of the diocese, said the church fully cooperated with the grand jury investigation. He expressed remorse for the clergy misconduct.

“This is a painful and difficult time,” said Bartchak. “I deeply regret any harm that has come to children, and I urge the faithful to join me in praying for all victims of abuse.”

Attorney General Kane said she was shocked and disturbed by the years of abuse, noting the grand jury report urged the diocese to speed up its review process for current complaints about pedophile priests.

“These predators desecrated a sacred trust and preyed upon their victims in the very places where they should have felt most safe,” said Kane. “They failed in our society’s most important task of protecting our children.”

The grand jury investigation detailed instances where law enforcement officials left the pursuit of sexual abuse complaints to the bishops of the diocese and their top aides. One of those assistants, Monsignor Philip Saylor, was particularly friendly with public officials. The jury’s report said the “politicians of Blair County were afraid” of him because he was the editor of the diocesan newspaper.

The report also noted that some cases occurred after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2014 required the removal of priests who committed abuse. It said a 15-year-old boy who reported a priest groped his genitals was sent for a psychological test and the priest was allowed to continue his ministry. The priest later admitted to the grand jury he had molested the boy. He was only then relieved of his priestly duties.

Instances of priests threatening alleged victims or focusing their inquiries on the victims rather than on the accused clergy were listed in the report. One victim, who is now a priest, said he was told the church would excommunicate him if he filed a lawsuit.

Investigators discovered much of the evidence documenting abuse and the cover-up from filing cabinets and boxes of documents found in a safe in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese bishop’s office.  It was described as a “secret archive” of victim statements and how they were handled by Bishops Adamec  and Hogan.

Well-known cases of abuse were contained in the 115,000 pages of documents, including that of Rev. James Bunn, who was accused of engaging in sexual intercourse with a child multiple times as a parish priest at St. Andrew Church in Johnstown. He later became principal of Bishop McCort High School.

The grand jury investigation was initiated by a complaint from the Cambria County District Attorney’s office about alleged abuse at the high school.

Details for this story were contributed by the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Tribune-Democrat.

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