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Statewide abuse report sparked by Altoona-Johnstown cases

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By the time the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General released a grand jury report, on Aug. 14, 2018, that provided details about child sexual abuse and cover-up within six Roman Catholic dioceses throughout the state, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had already been going through the pain, suffering, anger, confusion and legal complications of such a scandal for years.

And that continues today.

In late 2012 and early 2013, news became public that Brother Stephen Baker – a friar from the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception – had sexually abused children when serving as a trainer at what was formerly known as Bishop McCort High School. Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan soon realized the case stretched beyond her jurisdiction, so the matter was passed along to then-Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Her investigation grew to include the entire diocese.

In early 2016, Kane released two grand jury reports. One provided details about Baker's years of abuse. The other exposed an alleged coverup in which the diocese, under the leadership of Bishops James Hogan and Joseph Adamec, worked to keep quiet the abusive acts of at least 50 religious leaders. Those findings led to the investigation into Allentown, Erie, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Greensburg and Harrisburg.

Altoona-Johnstown has taken steps in recent years that it hopes will provide more open information to parishioners and the public.

“Our thoughts are with all victims and survivors of sexual abuse and their loved ones. It is our continued prayer that they find healing and peace,” Tony DeGol, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown's secretary for communications, said. “We remain committed to supporting those who have been harmed, and we remain focused on protecting all children and vulnerable individuals.

"As I have said many times, our resolve on these matters will never end. We will never reach a point when we can say our work is done, and that is how it should be. The faithful can be assured that this diocese – under the leadership of Bishop (Mark) Bartchak – will continue to take the appropriate steps to help our brothers and sisters who are hurting, to create the safest possible environment for all, and to restore trust in the Church.”

The diocese has:

• posted an online list of priests who were the subject of credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors or placed on leave pending investigation;

• provided information that the scandal cost the diocese $21,491,052 combined in settlements/awards, legal fees, survivor counseling and clergy compensation, from July 1, 1999, until Dec. 1, 2018;

• started the Office of Children and Youth Protection, an organization with a goal “to educate and train clergy, religious, staff, and volunteers with regard to recognizing, responding to, and reporting suspected child sexual abuse,” as DeGol explained;

• put a Review Board in place, with new membership, including individuals from outside the Catholic faith, to evaluate claims;

• set up a hotline for victims to report abuse;

• updated its code of conduct;

• brought in consultants to help the diocese navigate the process;

• established the Independent Oversight Board for Youth Protection of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown after entering a memorandum of understanding with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania in 2017.

'What they're doing'

Overall, James Brown, the board’s chairman, thinks a “current state of the art of best practices” is in place.

“But you can put a million of these polices and procedures in place, and if they're not followed, then it doesn't matter,” Brown said. “My sense is they've got the polices and procedures in place, they've got the people in place that should be able to prevent these issues in the future. You always say that and then some bad guy figures out a way. You never know for sure.”

But Brown pointed out how harmful the delay in implementing the policies have been.

“I'm happy that they're doing what they're doing now,” Brown said. “But you can't help but think if someone had insisted on this 25 years ago we wouldn't be in this spot.”

The board issued its first of what is expected to be annual reports in November 2018, noting that Altoona-Johnstown “has made significant and measurable progress towards developing a comprehensive program,” but stressed that “full implementation and enforcement of the policies and procedures” going forward is key.

Among its recommendations, the board called for the diocese to conduct a physical inventory of its properties, including looking for “places of entrapment” where abuse could occur, such as a closet. He said work is being done on the matter.

The members also recommended establishing safety committees at each parish.

“I think in some situations, in small towns, people know stuff,” Brown said. “They have to be vigilant. It's a way of shifting more responsibility and more authority over to the parishioners. We recommended that. I know it's taken place in a few parishes. We'd like to see more of it.”

Statewide connections

Two connections to Altoona-Johnstown were mentioned in the 2018 report.

Adamec, in 1994, sent a confidential letter to all Pennsylvania bishops, concerning an ongoing legal case involving Rev. Francis Luddy, who was accused of sexual abuse while serving at St. Therese Roman Catholic Church in Altoona.

He told his colleagues: “It would appear to me, given the facts of this case and the procedures allowed the attorney for the plaintiff, that this is another effort to discredit the Church. We have been viewing our situation within the context of our faith journey and are putting forth every effort to approach the matter in a positive way.”

Also, the grand jury cited an incident from 2005 when Bartchak – then a monsignor with the Erie Diocese – led an investigation into Rev. William Presley, a former priest, during which he reinterviewed a male who previously disclosed his alleged abuse to the diocese in 1982, 1987 and 2002.

Bartchak, according to a memo sent to then-Erie Bishop Donald Walter Trautman, “was not surprised to learn from other witnesses from the Elk County area, that there are likely to be other victims,” and asked “but to what end is it necessary to follow every lead?”

He continued: “Is it worth the further harm and scandal that might occur if this is all brought up again? I am asking you how you want me to proceed. With due regard for the potential for more harm to individuals and for more scandal, should I continue to follow up on potential leads?”

Bartchak immediately responded to being mentioned in the report with a statement released on the same day.

“The grand jury report discusses communications between myself and Bishop Trautman as part of the laicization of a priest (William Presley) in the Diocese of Erie in 2005,” Bartchak said. “As reported, I was assigned to conduct the process.

“I sought guidance from the bishop on whether it would be necessary to interview additional witnesses despite my firm belief that we had more than sufficient information to successfully and promptly proceed with the laicization of this priest. That priest was in fact laicized by the Vatican in 2006.

“Any inference that I was seeking to cover up any misconduct by a priest who had been removed from ministry is simply not accurate.”

No public action by the Pennsylvania legal system or church has been taken against Bartchak.

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

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