HOLLIDAYSBURG – On a drizzly Ash Wednesday, about a half-dozen Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests supporters congregated outside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown's headquarters, calling upon the local institution to provide more help and justice for victims of child sexual abuse.
The event occurred one year to the day after the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General released a grand jury report that provided details about an alleged decades-long coverup of abuse by at least 50 priests and other religious leaders, all reportedly orchestrated by former Bishops James Hogan and Joseph Adamec.
The attorney general's office accused the diocese of maintaining a “secret archive” with information about predators, using a specific system to determine payout levels based on the type of abuse, and exploiting connections within the legal and law enforcement systems to keep accusations quiet.
Diocese officials, over the past year, have responded by holding prayer services for victims and releasing the names of priests who have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse.
Bishop Mark Bartchak has also been working on “a new comprehensive approach that will help to make the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown a leader in the field of youth protection,” according to a previous statement released by Tony DeGol, the diocese's secretary for communications.
But, in the opinion of Judy Jones, SNAP's Midwest associate director, “I can't see that anything has been (accomplished).”
Jones added: “We want the truth to be exposed, and this (event) is one really good way for the truth to be exposed and for kids to be protected.”
The diocese declined to comment on the SNAP event, only referring to a statement it sent out on Tuesday in advance of the one-year anniversary.
'So many victims'
John Nesbella said he was molested when attending Bishop Carroll High School in Ebensburg and later removed from the priesthood after coming forward with his allegation.
Thomas Venditti previously worked as a youth director at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Bellwood, a role in which he was told to send students to a confirmation retreat overseen by Brother Stephen Baker.
Two weeks after the initial report on March 1, 2016, the attorney general's office issued a separate finding about Baker, who allegedly abused upwards of 100 children when he served at Bishop McCort High School from 1992 through 2001. In that report, leaders of Baker's Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception, were accused of knowing the friar had allegations made against him before being assigned to the Johnstown school.
None of that information was known to Venditti when he was at St. Joseph. Venditti said he was “just devastated” when the Baker report was released.
“I took those children to that monastery, and it was a dark and dingy experience,” Venditti said. “And he wanted to be alone with these children. I have no idea, to this day, whether any of them were abused.”
Recently, Nesbella and Venditti have united to form a local SNAP chapter.
“These guys came to SNAP wanting to help,” Jones said. “We feel that there's a big need for a support group here. There are so many victims.”
Nesbella described the group's goal as “cleansing the church of pedophilia.”
'This is my church'
Reading the Altoona-Johnstown diocese report prompted Shaun Dougherty to come forth with his own allegation of abuse.
The Westmont resident said he was molested, as a child, when attending St. Clement Church on Lindberg Avenue.
Over the past year, Dougherty has been a vocal critic of the diocese and supporter of eliminating Pennsylvania's statutes of limitations for child sexual predators.
“This is my diocese,” Dougherty said. “This is my church. This is the church that baptized me. This is the church that performed my first holy communion, my first confession. Today is Ash Wednesday. This is the diocese that put ashes on my forehead for the first time.
"This is also the diocese that sexually abused me and covered it up. And – is today – covering it up. Today, I am supposed to observe the beginning of Lent. I've been lost for the last 40 years.”
Rosalind Merritts, of Hollidaysburg, stands outside the diocese headquarters on the first day of every month to bring attention to the issue of child sexual abuse.
On Wednesday, she carried a sign with the message: “Diocese / Vatican hides pedophiles.”
“I want people to remember what happened to these young children,” Merritts said. “They were innocent children that had their childhood robbed by these predators and the hierarchy.”
Merritts described herself as being “appalled when I saw that report.”