Robert Hoatson March 15, 2016

Robert Hoatson of the nonprofit Road to Recovery advocacy group for sexual abuse victims, holds two signs outside the Pitt-Johnstown Living Learning Center on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, during state Attorney General Kathleen Kane's press conference.

The Catholic Church is deeply ingrained in the Johnstown region's identity.

Worshipers have celebrated and mourned together, lived lives of virtue, served their communities, and raised their children in the faith – all within the framework of the institution. But, that same structure allowed countless acts of alleged child sexual abuse to take place – and be covered up – in the opinion of Robert Hoatson, founder of Road to Recovery, a New Jersey-based advocacy group.

Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General released a report that accused the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown of perpetrating a decades-long conspiracy to shield priests and other religious leaders who preyed upon children.

The investigation started after the office learned Brother Stephen Baker allegedly abused students when he served at what was then Bishop McCort High School in the 1990s.

Hoatson is a former Irish Christian Brother and Roman Catholic priest who was laicized – had his privileges withdrawn – in 2011 after challenging the church for allowing abuse and coverups to occur.

“In 40 years of being inside the church, and then obviously now five years outside the organization of the church, I have never seen a phenomenon quite like Stephen Baker and the affect he's had on a geographic section or area of our country,” Hoatson said in a meeting with The Tribune-Democrat. “Having been here so long now on different occasions, it's almost as if these beautiful hills around here – or mountains, whatever you call them – a dome was put over it, and the secret was kept in here for so many decades that, even today, it's the hardest place I've experienced to get people to talk about it.”

He added: “The Catholic Church must have had such a stranglehold on this region that you just paid, prayed and obeyed.”

'Culture of clericalism'

The attorney general's office issued a report in which it accused at least 50 religious figures of sexually assaulting children, while alleging that former Bishop Joseph Adamec and the late Bishop James Hogan helped conceal the abuse over several decades.

Adamec, through an attorney, defended his actions, saying he took the proper steps when – between 1987 and 2002 – he learned about allegations made against 14 living diocesan priests and one living member of a religious order.

Since the AG's report was released, three priests – Revs. Giles A. Schinelli, Robert J. D’Aversa, and Anthony M. Criscitelli – have been charged with conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children. They are accused of – in their roles as ministers provincial of the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception – giving Baker assignments where he had access to children, even though, the prosecution asserts, they should have known he was a dangerous predator.

It is a claim their attorneys deny.

Hoatson, who has attended several of the priests' court appearances, said he believes Baker was able to carry out his alleged heinous acts because of being protected by the province and church.

“It's a culture that said, 'Whatever I do I can do and not be held accountable for,' basically,” Hoatson said. “ 'I can say and pretty well do whatever I want because the people think I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread. Whenever I walk down the street people step aside so I can walk on the sidewalk and they get on the grass because I'm wearing a brown robe.' It's the whole culture of clericalism that then becomes something that's really dangerous.”

Baker – a man Hoatson described as “one of the most prolific pedophiles I've experienced or have come across” – died in 2013 by reportedly stabbing himself in the heart at St. Bernardine Monastery in Blair County.

“It's very symbolic to me that he would cut his heart because religious people are supposed to be giving their hearts away to people,” Hoatson said. “Their heart is full of love and their heart is full of service. And here, he put a knife in his heart.”

An attorney for the monastery did not respond to a request for an interview.

Outreach to victims

The diocese recently posted names online of clergy members who had credible allegations of child sexual abuse made against them. Bishop Mark Bartchak also presided over three prayer services for victims in May.

“Bishop Bartchak has repeatedly apologized to all those who have been harmed in the Church. Our hearts ache for them, and we pray that they find peace,” Tony DeGol, the diocese's secretary for communications, said in an email statement. “The Bishop is working to make sure that all survivors of sexual abuse receive the support they need.

"In recent weeks, the Diocese launched a collaboration with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and agencies throughout our eight-county Diocese that offer support to survivors of sexual abuse. Representatives from those groups are sharing important information through our Diocesan media – our Proclaim! television ministry, The Catholic Register, and our website – about the valuable services they offer.

"No survivor of sexual abuse should suffer alone, and we hope this collaboration will encourage survivors to reach out for support, hope, and healing. It is also a good way to educate everyone in our community about sexual abuse, which is an enormous problem in society and by no means limited to the Catholic Church.”

Hoatson said no prayer service should have been held until the diocese, in his opinion, did much more to help the victims.

“This is one of the reasons why survivors and the church may never, ever come to a tête-à-tête is because the thinking is so radically different,” Hoatson said. “The bishop thinks that he was doing a good thing by bringing – and inviting – victims, their families, parishioners, members of diocesan clergy, whomever, to churches to pray for victims.”

Speaking about what he thinks the diocese and entire Catholic Church should do, Hoatson said, “I keep saying if the church would only listen to me once – just once – if I had a meeting with them, I would say this: Get all of the victims together and give them whatever resources they need to recover, no limits. If you do that, you will be seen as the most caring, altruistic organization in history.”

'Murder of the soul'

Hoatson, who has worked with more than 4,000 victims in numerous communities since 2003, the The Tribune-Democrat he was abused by multiple people himself, starting with family members when he was about 3 years old.

Then, shortly after joining the Irish Catholic Brothers, a superior called him a “cold person” who needed to be warmed up. In retrospect, Hoatson now understands he was being groomed. Hoatson said he was then abused when serving in the brotherhood, which led to depression and anxiety.

After a few years, when working at a school in New York City, Hoatson confided in a superior, who then met with his family to assure them their son would be OK.

“They invited him to spend the night that night because he would have had to go back to New York City,” Hoatson said. “And, halfway through that night, I feel somebody crawling into my bed. It's the same guy I had just told my story to several hours before that. So, this trusted superior, I thought, turned out to be an abuser.”

Hoatson has been working through his issues in therapy for more than three decades.

He said: “When people first call me and say, 'Listen, I'm a victim of sexual abuse. What do I need to do?' I say, 'Well, there are three things: therapy, therapy and more therapy.' That's the way we recover. The only reason I can tell you that is because I'm a living example.”

However, Hoatson was not able to disclose publicly his abuse experiences until he was almost 50, which is why he thinks statutes of limitations should be eliminated in child sexual abuse cases.

Currently in Pennsylvania, victims who were under the age of 18 when the abuse occurred can file civil charges until age 30. Criminal charges can be brought until age 30 for individuals born before Aug. 27, 2002 with the limit moving to age 50 for alleged victims born after Aug. 27, 2002.

Legislation that would remove the statute of limitations has been before the General Assembly. The measure passed the House in April and is now with the Senate.

“To me, it's very simple,” Hoatson said. “There are no statutes of limitations on murder of the body. If you murder somebody – in most jurisdictions – that case never closes. 

"Why would we have a statute of limitations on murder of the soul when we know that most people can't even begin to deal with the issue until they're well into their adulthood, if ever?”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.