Tuesday, March 01, 2016

"The Purge Is Taking Too Long" – In Altoona, A Grand Jury Indicts The Charter

All of 36 hours after the breaking of abuse and coverup in Boston won the Oscar for Best Picture – and as the Vatican's all-powerful CFO, Cardinal George Pell, testifies from Rome to a national inquiry probing the church's response in his native Australia – Catholicism's long, horrid road of scandal has erupted anew in the US, in a development likely to invite fresh scrutiny across the map.

In a blistering 147-page report released this morning, a two-year long Pennsylvania grand jury detailed a sweeping investigation of allegations and neglect over four decades in the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which covers eight counties in the state's central-southern tier. Among other findings, the panel disclosed evidence of the abuse of "hundreds" of minors by "at least 50 priests" during the cited period, alleging that, even into recent times, multiple clerics with known allegations remained in some form of public ministry for years after the Dallas Charter's zero-tolerance provisions became church law – including one as recently as October 2015 – while the largely rural, 95,000-member diocese's previous two bishops "wrote their legacy in the tears of children" over years of willingness to squelch public knowledge or consequences on the reported crimes.

Citing the deaths of alleged abusers, expired statutes of limitations on the living and instances of "deeply traumatized victims being unable to testify in a court of law," no charges could be filed, but Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane stressed that the investigation remains ongoing. Even now, however, today's filing asserts that "the grand jury is concerned the purge of predators is taking too long," likewise seeing fit to blast the diocese's "Allegation Review Board" – normally known as a "Lay Review Board," the diocesan body mandated by the Charter – as ineffective, terming its mandate only "as real as any bishop may want it to be" and adding that the group's practices reflect a mission of "fact-finding for litigation, not a victim-service function." (Emphasis original.)

Built upon a catalogue of the allegations against 34 diocesan priests – a trove collected from testimony and a 2015 state raid of the diocese's personnel files – beyond the graphic accounts of assaults committed by men the report repeatedly terms "monsters," the grand jury depicts the late Bishop James Hogan (who led the diocese from 1966-86) and his now-retired successor, Bishop Joseph Adamec (1986-2010), as brazenly driven to avert civil accountability when reports of clerical misconduct would arise.

Under Hogan (who died in 2005), one of the diocese's senior priests testified that "[he] would pick" appointees for leading posts in local government – including the principal judge and a police chief in the diocese's twin hubs – who, in turn, would discreetly refer any allegations they received to the Chancery for its handling, including one case where diocesan officials intercepted knowledge of a recording device intended to collect evidence on an accused priest. In every cited case, the allegations were left for the church to quietly resolve through its own means. (Said by another witness to have been so influential as to make local politicians "afraid" in his dual roles as cathedral rector and editor of the diocesan newspaper, said testifying cleric, Msgr Phillip Saylor, was reportedly the target of an attempt by the diocese to block his appearance on the stand in a 2002 case.)

For Adamec's part, meanwhile, an anonymous victim – himself a priest – recounted to the grand jury that, when he moved to file his own abuse suit dating to his high school days during the crisis' national outbreak, he was summoned to a meeting with the bishop, at which an official read out "the penalties for suing the diocese... up to and including excommunication."

"I think [Adamec] just did it to scare the crap out of me," the witness said, "so that I would drop it all. But I was under the impression that I was excommunicated and I was sitting in the chair in shock."

According to the findings, that priest-witness "was accused in 2003 of improper contact with a child himself and" – a year after the promulgation of the Dallas Norms as particular law in the United States – "transferred to another parish." While the cited misconduct went unspecified, "he is currently suspended."

Upon Adamec's own appearance before the grand jury last November, he was initially asked if he was "now or ever have been a bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown?"

As the bishop began to respond, "Yes, I –", the report says Adamec's lawyer intervened, at which point the prelate "exercised his right to refuse to answer questions on the grounds of incriminating himself."

No further testimony is recorded. In conclusion, the report states the grand jury's finding that "both Bishops Hogan and Adamec endangered the public."

(Albeit from behind, Adamec is seen above in an undated photo with Altoona-Johnstown's most prominent Catholic since Gallitzin: the legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, whose own pristine reputation irrevocably collapsed after a 2011 state grand jury uncovered gross negligence by the university's academic and athletic brass in response to the serial abuse of young boys by Paterno's defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, who went on to be jailed for a minimum 60 years after his 2012 conviction on 45 of 48 counts. Located in the diocese's largest population center, Penn State's Catholic ministry center bears the Paterno name given the coach's generosity to it over his 45-year tenure.)

As of press time, a response has yet to emerge from the diocese's current head, Bishop Mark Bartchak – a former president of the Canon Law Society of America, who was named to Altoona-Johnstown on Adamec's 2010 retirement.

Amid a narrative that prosecutors sometimes needlessly sought to dramatize at the expense of its shattering content, while today's report sought to "commend" Bartchak for his "positive steps" in suspending four priests with allegations that turned up in the probe, the panel starkly noted that only in September 2015 did the bishop replace the vicar-general he inherited from his predecessor, Msgr Michael Servinsky, who held the diocese's second-in-command post since 1992.

"Given the opportunity to explain his role to the grand jury" in December as today's report put it, like his longtime boss, Servinsky "elected to exercise his right against providing testimony which may be incriminating."

Incendiary as the filing is, its guiding champion is facing significant legal issues of her own – her law license suspended and awaiting her own trial on charges of leaking grand jury information to the press to undermine internal enemies, Attorney General Kane announced last month that she wouldn't seek reëlection for a second term, days after barely surviving a motion for her removal from office in the Pennsylvania Senate.

While the grand jury's report closes with just the latest call for the legislature to pass a "window" law suspending the civil statute of limitations to allow lawsuits to proceed, given the fallout of the Sandusky case and the institution that covered up the coach's abuse, any push to that end would hit an iron wall against the clout of Pennsylvania's most influential fold: the Penn State faithful, who long ago replaced Catholics as the Commonwealth's most numerous and fervent religious body – a reality exponentially reflected in Harrisburg.

SVILUPPO: Just before 6pm local time, the Altoona-Johnstown Chancery in Hollisdaysburg released the following as a "media advisory":

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has received the report issued today by the Thirty-Seventh Statewide Investigating Grand Jury. As noted in the report, the Diocese cooperated fully with authorities throughout the investigation, and will continue to do so as part of our commitment to the safety of all children. At this time, the Diocese is reviewing the report.

The Diocese’s youth protection policy, which calls for mandatory reporting of all abuse allegations to civil authorities as well as criminal background checks and education for clergy, employees, and volunteers who work with children, may be found at www.dioceseaj.org/childprotection. Suspected child abuse should be reported directly to civil authorities. The Diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator, Jean Johnstone, may be contacted at (814) 944-9388 for additional support.

“This is a painful and difficult time in our Diocesan Church,” said the Most Rev. Mark L. Bartchak, Bishop of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. “I deeply regret any harm that has come to children, and I urge the faithful to join me in praying for all victims of abuse.”
In light of the gravity of the findings, a statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is expected to emerge shortly. (10pm ET: Until, apparently, it wasn't.)