Robert Hoatson

Robert Hoatson, founder of Road to Recovery, an organization that offers counseling services to victims of sexual abuse, protests outside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown in Hollidaysburg on July 23, 2014.

The Tribune-Democrat is counting down the top stories of 2016, as determined by the newsroom staff who covered them. One story appeared each day in print and e-editions through the end of the year.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown allegedly covered up the sexual abuse of children for decades.

Victims were violated by at least 50 priests and other religious leaders, while the church, led by former Bishops James Hogan and Joseph Adamec, reportedly took steps to protect the accused from facing justice, according to a grand jury report released by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General in March.

The report, culled from “secret archives” and interviews, rocked the diocese and local Catholic community.

“As wolves disguised as the shepherds themselves – these men stole the innocence of children by sexually preying upon the most innocent and vulnerable members of our society and of the Catholic faith,” the document states.

However, due to Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations laws, many of the living accused priests might never face criminal charges or civil complaints. Victims in Pennsylvania who were under the age of 18 when abuse occurred can file civil charges until age 30. Criminal charges can be brought until age 30 for individuals born before Aug. 27, 2002. The age limit extends to 50 for alleged victims born after Aug. 27, 2002.

An attempt to extend the statutes – with a retroactivity clause added – failed to get through the General Assembly in 2016.

Former Attorney General Kathleen Kane used the announcement of the grand jury report as a platform to call for eliminating the statute of limitations.

“Today is not the day that I stand up here and announce that there have been charges filed against individuals who commit the worst sins against children,” Kane said when speaking at the Blair County Convention Center.

“Today is not the day we get to step out onto the steps of the courthouse, announce that there was a trial and the guilty were held accountable for their crimes. Today is not the day that the victims get to go into a courtroom – a public courtroom – and tell the story of horrific sexual abuse. Today is not that day. Today is a day of reckoning though. Today is the day that we get to tell their story. Today is the day that the Office of Attorney General stepped in and now comes forward to tell the stories that the victims of abuse could not tell themselves. And, just as importantly, today is the day that we get to tell you why they aren’t able to tell their stories. Today is the day we get to tell you why they are not inside of a courtroom. Today is the day we get to tell you why we cannot present this to a jury.”

The two former bishops were accused of orchestrating the cover-up.

Hogan is deceased. Adamec defended himself in a document released through the Pittsburgh-based law firm of DeForest, Koscelnik, Yokitis & Berardinelli.

“Bishop Adamec’s forthright practice of addressing allegations of abuse, which often included barring a priest from public ministry, is directly demonstrated by historical records that were available to the Grand Jury,” according to the statement.

Current Bishop Mark Bartchak publicly apologized to the victims.

“As bishop of the diocese, I extend my heartfelt and sincere apology,” Bartchak said during a press conference a few days after the report was released. “I apologize to the victims, to their families, to the faithful people of our diocese, to the good priests of our diocese and to the public.”

The investigation into the diocese grew out of a case involving Brother Stephen Baker that was brought to the attention of the AG’s office by Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan.

Baker, a member of the Blair County-based Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception, was accused of abusing more than 90 children when – from 1992 through 2001 – he served as a trainer and in other roles when at what was then called Bishop McCort High School.

Kane issued a separate report into the Baker case on March 15.

The grand jury determined the Johnstown Police Department displayed “unprofessional conduct” in the handling of allegations against Baker, but also determined no “conclusive evidence” existed of any legal wrongdoing. It was also determined Bishop McCort administrators were not aware of the Franciscan friar’s “sexually assaultive conduct.”

However, the investigation led to the indictments of the Revs. Robert J. D’Aversa, Giles A. Schinelli and Anthony M. Criscitelli, three ministers provincial at the Province of the Immaculate Conception. The AG’s office asserted the three priests gave Baker assignments where he had access to children even though they were aware of allegations of sexual abuse made against him.

“These men knew there was a child predator in their organization,” Kane said when releasing the Baker report during a press conference at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. “Yet they continued to put him in positions where he had countless opportunities to prey upon children. Their silence resulted in immeasurable pain and suffering for so many victims. These men turned a blind eye to the innocent children they were trusted to protect.”

All three priests maintain their innocence.

Their trials are expected to occur in 2017. 

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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