For decades, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown allegedly perpetrated a coverup to protect priests accused of sexually assaulting children.
Accusations against a few reported abusers, including Rev. Francis Luddy and Msgr. Francis McCaa, became publicly known during those years. But, for the most part, they were treated as isolated incidents by the community, instead of indications of a systemic problem.
That changed one year ago – on March 1, 2016 – when the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General released a grand jury report, accusing the diocese of sheltering at least 50 priests and other religious leaders, allegedly under the direct supervision of former Bishops Joseph Adamec and James Hogan.
The 147-page document provided information about “secret archives” kept by the diocese, a payout chart for different types of abuse, testimony from at least four priests who admitted to inappropriately touching children, and detailed biographies of the accused.
Tony DeGol, the diocese's secretary for communications, called the report “heartbreaking for all Catholics” and “especially painful for the survivors of sexual abuse and their loved ones.”
Even though the report has been released, the investigation is still considered to be ongoing.
“Through our grand jury report issued one year ago, we shined a light on clergy members' sexual abuse of children,” said Joe Grace, communications director for new Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “The Office of Attorney General will do everything in its power to uncover and prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent of the law.”
'Present' and 'future'
The diocese, in response to the report, held prayer services for victims and released a list of priests who had credible allegations of child sexual abuse made against them.
“Over the past year, Bishop Bartchak has devoted much of his time to collaborating with a diverse group of stakeholders to develop a new comprehensive approach that will help to make the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown a leader in the field of youth protection,” DeGol said. “We will be announcing the product of these efforts in the near future.
"We cannot change the past, but we have certainly learned from it. In that spirit, Bishop Bartchak is focused on the present and the future. He remains committed to the safety and protection of all children and youth in the Diocese, and he pledges continued support to those who have been harmed.”
But George Foster, who was personally called a “hero” by former Attorney General Kathleen Kane for collecting information about pedophile priests for years, does not think the diocese has done enough to address the issue.
“No, my personal observation is, I don't see anything that has substantially changed in the way the diocese monitors itself that makes me think they're not going to repeat some of the mistakes from the past,” said Foster, who is working on a book about abuse in the diocese.
Foster said Bartchak “didn't respond to this as a shepherd” but rather “responded to this as an attorney.”
'Old guard is still up'
Releasing the report brought national and international attention to the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian and other well-known news outlets covered the story.
Child abuse advocacy groups, including Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and Road to Recovery, have supported alleged victims.
“People are accepting that this happened here, and it's not good,” Judy Jones, SNAP's Midwest associate director, said. “They're upset with the bishop, and the bishops before.”
SNAP recently set up a local chapter.
The organization has also frequently commented on local message boards and held events in order to draw attention to the allegations. The group plans to hold a press conference on Wednesday, beginning at 11 a.m. near the diocese's headquarters, to mark the one-year anniversary of the report's release.
“The truth needs to be coming out even if it's ugly,” Jones said.
Mitchell Garabedian, a Massachusetts attorney, has been an outspoken critic of the diocese over the past few years when he has represented dozens of victims.
“The report has raised awareness so adults realize they have to protect children who are in the presence of clergy,” said Garabedian, who achieved national prominence when he helped expose a coverup of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and was portrayed in the film "Spotlight."
“I don't believe the report has changed the attitude of the Catholic Church inside of Pennsylvania or outside of Pennsylvania," Garabedian said. "The old guard is still up. The attitude of protecting priests at all costs still exists. Children are still at risk.”
Brother Baker case
In 2014, Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan was investigating allegations against Brother Stephen Baker, who is believed to have abused upward of 100 children when he served at what was then called Bishop McCort High School from 1992 into 2001.
She soon realized the case stretched beyond her jurisdiction into other parts of the diocese. Callihan believed the county lacked the manpower and money to conduct the necessary investigation. Plus, a conflict of interest existed because an individual who reported his alleged abuse to the diocese and Johnstown Police Department previously worked for the district attorney's office.
So Callihan referred the case to Kane, whose investigation into Baker quickly expanded to include the entire diocese.
A separate grand jury report on Baker was released later in March 2016. It included indictments against Revs. Giles A. Schinelli, Robert J. D'Aversa and Anthony M. Criscitelli on charges of endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy.
The three defendants – in their roles as ministers provincial of the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception – are accused of giving Baker assignments that provided him access to children.
Oral arguments in their cases are scheduled to begin on April 27 in the Blair County Courthouse.
The attorney general's office has established a tip line for victims to call: 888-538-8541. Hundreds of calls have been received.
Diocese officials have encouraged victims or their loved ones to call the number.
“As always, we urge anyone with any information concerning the sexual abuse of minors to report it to authorities immediately,” DeGol said.