Thursday, March 03, 2016

"We Know More, and We Will Do More" – In Altoona-Johnstown, Prayers for "Mercy"... and A "Flood" for Prosecutors

(Updated with subsequent response from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

Two days after a haunting state grand jury report leveled his south-central Pennsylvania diocese with allegations of abuse and coverup over five decades, Bishop Mark Bartchak of Altoona-Johnstown faced the local press this afternoon at his Chancery to make the following statement:

As Bishop of the diocese, I extend my most heartfelt and sincere apology. 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.

I acknowledge there are a number of recommendations made in this report involving how we respond to allegations of abuse. I take them seriously.

I appreciate the grand jury’s recognition of the progress we have made. I have been bishop for five years. During this time, we have re-examined allegations, removed clergy from ministry, reported allegations to civil authorities, and strengthened our training program. I am committed to doing even more to protect children.

In addition to reporting allegations, I have met with victim-survivors. Their words and their pain have deeply affected me. I pledge to them and to all families to do all that I can to ensure children are safe.

Someone recently shared the expression, “when you know more, you can do more.” With the grand jury report, we know more, and we will do more. Let me start with a significant commitment to transparency, past and future.

I will publish a list of all priests who have been the subject of credible allegations, along with each priest’s current status. The list will be posted on our website.

This Diocese will continue to report to law enforcement, in writing, all allegations it receives of any type of sexual misconduct involving a minor by any clergy or religious (living or deceased), regardless of when the conduct occurred, whether or not the victim is now a minor and whether or not the victim or another person already has made the report.

In addition, I will undertake a full review of our diocesan policies and procedures regarding child protection and will make all changes that should be made. This review will be comprehensive and will include our training and background check programs, the diocesan review board, and communication on reporting requirements.

I urge anyone who has information about suspected abuse to call the Attorney General’s hotline, 888-538-8541. In addition, the diocesan victim assistance coordinator, Jean Johnstone, may be contacted at 814-944-9388, for additional support.

We are people of faith. I will share a message with the people of our Diocese this weekend through their pastors, and plans are being made for special Prayer Services for Mercy in the coming weeks.

Finally, I ask that we turn to our Lord for comfort and healing from these wounds as we pray for those who have been harmed, for all who have been affected, and for the many priests in our Diocese who have been faithful to their vocation and to the people they serve.
In a reflection of the pained significance with which the Altoona report is being viewed in the wider church, shortly after Bartchak's appearance the US bishops' chair for child and youth protection, Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau, released a statement terming the emergence of the grand jury's findings "heart wrenching and shocking." 

In a pointed swipe given the panel's implication of lapses on the part of Altoona-Johnstown officials as recently as last year, Burns said the two-year state probe presents "a reminder why" the zero-tolerance protocol of the Dallas Charter and its Essential Norms "exists and must be followed."

Initially passed by the bishops and confirmed by the Vatican amid the abuse crisis' national outbreak in 2002 and last revised in 2011, the Dallas Norms are particular (national) law in the US church for the handling of allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy. Global norms echoing the American rules and expanding the responsibility of bishops to report all allegations relating to minors or other vulnerable people to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for definitive judgment were last strengthened by then-Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, nine years after now-St John Paul II removed the final determination on cases from the hands of diocesan bishops.

Himself a Pennsylvania native, following is Burns' complete text, published by the conference as "A Statement on the Protection of Children":

This week brought painful, but important, reminders that we must remain vigilant in our efforts to protect children from the scourge of abuse. The movie "Spotlight" won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It chronicles the courage of the victims and the journalists who told their story. In statements from Cardinal O'Malley in Boston and the Vatican newspaper in Rome, the Catholic Church renewed our determined and firm resolve to protect children and felt deep sorrow for the tremendous pain.

On Tuesday, we received news of a grand jury report out of Altoona, Pennsylvania. Although I can't speak to the specifics in Altoona and would defer to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference as to any statewide impact, like everyone, I read the news with great pain.

It is heart wrenching and shocking to hear of this grand jury report or of any incidents of abuse, and it is even more disturbing when we learn that innocent children were abused by priests within the Church. Once again, the wounds inflicted through these heinous crimes have caused great pain and further mistrust in the Church. We must never lose sight of the fact that every victim/survivor has personally experienced profound injury, suffering, and betrayal.

These moments are a reminder why the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002, exists and must be followed. This highlights all the more the importance that we never grow complacent. As stated in the Charter, we are to cooperate with law-enforcement agencies, permanently remove those who have offended, and effectively create a safe environment for our children. Only with vigilance can we ensure that children are kept safe and so allow the Church to help our people in a process of healing and address the mistrust that rises from these cases.
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In another fresh local development, but one separate from the grand jury, yesterday saw a priest of the Altoona-Johnstown church sentenced to 17 years in prison following his conviction on Federal charges of abusing children in a Honduran orphanage while on visits there over a 10-year period in connection with a charity intended to aid Honduran youth.

While Bartchak suspended Fr Joseph Maurizio at the time of his arrest and indictment on "sex tourism" and child pornography counts in late 2014 – and, according to the diocese, the cleric's laicization by Rome is currently pending – a former head of the nonprofit with which Maurizio worked told a Johnstown TV station that now-retired Bishop Joseph Adamec had been "well aware" of the claims against the priest, now 71, since 2009.

Maurizio was sentenced to far less than the 30 years sought by prosecutors after a concerted push by his supporters, whose testimonies at yesterday's hearing convinced the judge overseeing the case of the value of the convicted cleric's "good works."

On yet another front, meanwhile, a Midstate report says the dedicated tipline established by Attorney General Kathleen Kane to receive further information on cases related to the Altoona-Johnstown church logged some 85 calls within the first 24 hours following the report's release.

As none of the extensive claims against 34 priests cited by the panel were legally actionable due to Pennsylvania's statute of limitations, a flood of new information presents the potential of cases that could end up in criminal or civil court. Recently extended by the General Assembly, the criminal statute of limitations now allows for charges against an alleged abuser filed before the claimant's 50th birthday (but only when the latter was born after 2002); the civil statute halts attempts at lawsuits made after a victim turns 30.

While a recent movement among plaintiffs' attorneys has seen attempts in Pennsylvania courts for civil cases against dioceses to be admitted for trial despite the filing period's expiration on the grounds of the "fraudulent concealment" of abusive priests, the commonwealth's civil statute has proven among the US' most ironclad provisions of its kind – to date, in each disputed case filed past the deadline, no motion to supersede it has passed a judge's scrutiny.