The Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown this past week pledged to tighten guidelines for dealing with priests accused of sexual abuse, and to have an outside committee provide oversight for the welfare of children.
How tragic that the church – any church – must take steps to protect innocent children from the clutches of pedophiles disguised as men of God.
However, we concur with child victim and now advocate and businessman Shaun Dougherty of Johnstown: This is “a great first step” in the push to protect children.
But the effort announced by Bishop Mark Bartchak must be just the beginning in a parade of actions that will not only embrace potential victims in a net of safety, but also will provide comfort and justice for those who have been victimized through the years.
A crucial step will be the elimination of the statute of limitations for reporting child sexual abuse. That decision is in the hands of the Pennsylvania Senate, which is under pressure from the church to remove the concept of retroactivity – meaning allegations and lawsuits can go back in time – from the proposed law.
Justice for victims – of all ages – will only be achieved if the statute is lifted, meaning there is no age or time limit for filing charges or seeking damages, and if those victims can seek damages for crimes committed years or even decades ago.
Bartchak stood with Acting U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song a year removed from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s report that accused 50 priests and other church leaders of sexually assaulting children in their parishes over several decades.
The bishop pledged to:
• Immediately remove any suspected abusers from all contact with children and report those allegations to law enforcement within 12 hours of when he is first notified.
• Establish an independent oversight board for youth protection. The five-member group will include individuals outside the diocese and church leadership.
• Track computer usage and internet activity within the diocese.
• Pay for mental health counseling and other support services from professionals the victims or their families choose.
“This memorandum of understanding represents a clear, definitive break from the past,” Song said.
Bartchak said: “As we look to the future, I believe these comprehensive and unprecedented reforms will make the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown a leader in the safety and protection of young people.”
Like Thomas Venditti and former priest John Nesbella, co-founders of the new local Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) chapter, we will credit the diocese with finally “actually doing something” on the issue of child sexual abuse.
While we welcome the bishop’s promise of openness, only time will prove the earnestness of that statement.
Any progress we achieve will be measured against the backdrop of the relentless sexual abuse of hundreds of local children and teens, actions concealed in shame and secrecy and carried out under the banner of faith.
That scathing March 2016 attorney general’s report was based on a grand jury investigation launched after the Brother Stephen Baker case broke at Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown.
The report accused Bartchak’s two immediate predecessors, Bishops Joseph Adamec and James Hogan, of shielding pedophile priests from prosecution and moving them from parish to parish.
The report also showed that the diocese maintained a slush fund for anonymous payouts to families to avoid having allegations become public, while the courts and law enforcement agencies in Cambria County and elsewhere shared in the cover-up by shielding accused priests from criminal prosecution.
Yes, Bartchak’s plan is a good first step – perhaps an unprecedented show of transparency given the church’s history of secrecy.
But we are just getting started.