Back in 2014, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown announced plans to sell the bishop's residence in Blair County.

An acknowledgment was made that some undefined amount of money was needed because of costs associated with legal matters involving clergy sexual abuse. The decision was also presented as a choice by Bishop Mark Bartchak to live in simpler accommodations at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament's rectory.

At the time, the extent of the financial impact of Altoona-Johnstown's scandal was not really known outside of the diocese's inner-most circle, excluding a few instances, such as a settlement in the Michael Hutchinson v. Rev. Francis Luddy case.

But now, a half-decade later, the sale of the property might have been a foreshadowing of the fate that awaits the state's seven other dioceses – Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton – as they attempt to deal with compensating victims.

All of those dioceses started funds that run during different time periods in 2019.

The programs were established after Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a grand jury report in August that provided details about decades of sexual abuse and coverup in six of the commonwealth's dioceses.

Many unknowns remain, though, concerning what will be the total financial impact to the dioceses, including whether any will need to sell off assets.

“The question is who they're going to pay and how much,” said Richard Serbin, a Blair County attorney who has represented hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse in the state. “And what is the limit and what is the minimum. We don't know any of that. None of that is transparent.

"So, who knows? It could be a very small sum of money despite the fact there are hundreds – and maybe even thousands – of victims in Pennsylvania alone.” 

Altoona-Johnstown system

Detailed information about the financial toll on Altoona-Johnstown finally came to light in late 2018 – when Bartchak revealed that the total cost of settlements/awards, legal fees, survivor counseling and clergy compensation during investigations totaled $21,491,052 from July 1, 1999, until Dec. 1, 2018.

Altoona-Johnstown was directly responsible for $17,011,626.50, following insurance recoveries.

More than 300 victims have received assistance through the diocese's Victim Assistance Program, since 2004. Funding has come from savings, property and casualty insurance, and proceeds from the sale of the Diocesan Administration Center and the bishop’s residence. Tony DeGol, the diocese's secretary for communications, said no money from parish savings or funds designated for specific needs were touched.

Because of those losses, the diocese does not believe it possesses the money necessary to open a victims' compensation fund, making it the only diocese in Pennsylvania without one.

“Other dioceses in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have announced the creation of compensation funds that will involve tens of millions of dollars in settlements to victims,” DeGol said. “The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown simply does not have enough money in savings to establish such a fund. The diocese remains committed to helping survivors and their loved ones with counseling opportunities. The diocese continues to offer support to individuals regardless of when the abuse occurred.”

DeGol added: “For many years, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has recognized the importance of having a program in place to support survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Realizing the pain and struggles that sexual abuse victims and their loved ones endure throughout their lives, the diocese was committed to helping them – even if their case fell outside of the statute of limitations. “

Borrowing and selling

Some payments had been made in other dioceses prior to this year.

Philadelphia, which had abuse exposed in its archdiocese by separate grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011, reached a settlement with a sixth known sex-abuse victim last June.

A similar report about Altoona-Johnstown was issued in 2016. Then, last year, Shapiro released details about how at least 300 priests allegedly abused thousands of children throughout the state's six other dioceses, leading to the creation of their funds.

All dioceses are making their own decisions about how to fund the programs.

But a common theme is that the dioceses say they do not intend to use donations from the faithful – whether for day-to-day operations or special appeals – to cover costs. Reserves and borrowed money are expected to be used in most dioceses.

Allentown, Scranton and Philadelphia, an archdiocese, have publicly stated plans to liquidate assets if necessary – although, as critics of the church point out, those buildings and other items were likely originally purchased and maintained, at least in some part, with charitable contributions.

When announcing its Independent Reconciliation and Reparations Program in November, Philadelphia stated: “Initial funding for this program will be provided by existing Archdiocesan assets. While the number of potential claims is unknown at this time, the Archdiocese expects that the resources ultimately required by the IRRP will be significantly greater than the initial funding. Additional program funding will need to come from borrowing and the sale of archdiocesan properties. Which properties will be sold has not yet been determined.”

Philadelphia has pledged $25 million to $30 million for initial funding.

'I'd like my life back'

Meanwhile, in Altoona-Johnstown, alleged victims can still approach the diocese for compensation through the Victim Assistance Program, but not much money is available, according to Shaun Dougherty, an internationally known victims advocate from Westmont.

“They're broke,” Dougherty said. “They have to sell off assets now. Nobody is paying money. Nobody is coming to church. They can't afford it. With the Luddy trials and all the past things that they've done through those years, that money did it.”

Serbin called Altoona-Johnstown “unique” in not having money to start a fund.

In his opinion, though, the diocese has been reluctant to pay victims for years. Serbin cited a Jan. 31, 1994, confidential letter in which then-Bishop Joseph Adamec informed other bishops during the Luddy case that “no offer of settlement should even be considered” because “the diocese and its bishop acted appropriately and thoroughly in each case of alleged pedophilia.”

That letter came to light in the 2018 grand jury report.

“And what I have done, as a result of that, is to notify the Vatican and send them a copy of Bishop Adamec's letter to all the bishops in Pennsylvania, as well as the representative of the Vatican, saying that they would offer no money in the Michael Hutchinson case or any of the other cases that I exposed during that 11-week trial because neither the bishops nor the diocese did anything wrong,” Serbin said. “Well, of course, we know – from the grand jury reports and now their own admissions – that was untrue. Nevertheless, the Vatican was placed on notice of it and apparently were fine with not offering Michael Hutchinson a dime.”

But Dougherty, who has accused a diocesan priest of abusing him as a child, said “they can't give me what I want” anyhow.

“I'd like my life back,” Dougherty said. “I'd like my childhood back. I'd like to go biblical. I'd rather have biblical times. Give me an eye for an eye. Let me have a whipping post and a cat o' nine tails. You don't have to give me a dime. Line them up.

"But, in today's society, you're not allowed to do that, so what you accept is money. And they're getting off on the cheap. There isn't a person out there alive – there isn't a person out there alive – that would offer up, in their right mind, their grandchild and their child to anyone to have what it would take to get the maximum payout of that compensation fund.”

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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