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Grand jury report reveals decades of clergy sex abuse in Altoona-Johnstown diocese

  • U.S. Bishop Joseph Adamec is pictured in 2010 during a U.S. bishops meeting in Baltimore. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)
  • U.S. Bishop James Hogan, who headed the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., from 1966 to 1986, in an undated CNS file photo.
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A statewide grand jury report released Tuesday by the Pennsylvania attorney general revealed a blistering sketch of at least six decades of persistent and concealed sexual abuse of hundreds of children by at least 50 priests and religious leaders assigned to the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.

Beyond the purported crimes, the report outlined how several bishop-enablers took conscious steps to stifle victims and advocates in reporting and to move the priests -- at times unimpeded by local law authorities aware of allegations.

"The Grand Jury concludes the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown was a location rampant with child molestation for decades," the report stated. "That widespread abuse of children was assisted by priests and Bishops who covered up the abuse rather than properly report it."

The 147-page grand jury report chronicles a history of abuse in the south-central Pennsylvania diocese that extended from 1940 through 2009. It comes as the third such major probe into the issue of clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, following grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011 examining the Philadelphia archdiocese.

"This is a finding of fact and an effort at transparency -- not to slander a religion but to expose the truth about the men who hijacked it for their own grotesque desires," the grand jury said.

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In a statement, the Altoona-Johnstown diocese said Tuesday it is reviewing the report and continuing to cooperate fully with authorities. Bishop Mark Bartchak, who testified before the grand jury, said the report represents "a painful and difficult time in our Diocesan Church.

"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," said Bartchak, head of the diocese since 2011. The grand jury made a point to separate him from his predecessors, even commending his actions in reporting and removing four priests from ministry.

The report emerged from a review of 200-plus exhibits, witness testimony resulting in thousands of transcribed pages, and more than 115,000 documents removed from the diocese. It was the latter -- uncovered through search warrants and located in the diocese's "secret archive" -- the grand jury credited with revealing the extent to which past bishops knew about allegedly abusive priests.

More sordidly, those archives showed the steps church officials took to protect them -- at one point, Bishop James Hogan sent suspected predatory priests a letter "warning them that police were running surveillance on areas where priests were known to solicit children and young men for sex," the report said. Meanwhile, his successor Bishop Joseph Adamec created a pay scale for the diocese to calculate how much to compensate victims of specific sexual acts.

No charges filed                                         

Despite the report detailing "heinous crimes," Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said none could be prosecuted due to deaths of alleged abusers, an inability of traumatized victims to testify and expiration of statutes of limitations. For criminal prosecution, state law allows victims of sexual assault under 18 to report the abuse by age 30 (if born before Aug. 27, 2002) or age 50 (if born after Aug. 27, 2002). For civil cases, people who were minors at the time of the assault have until their 30th birthday to file charges. 

Kane, a Catholic, said the investigation is ongoing.

"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 at a press conference Tuesday morning in Altoona. "... but today is the day we get to tell you exactly what happened in Pennsylvania."

Because of the inability to press charges, the grand jury recommended that state law abolish the statute of limitation for sexual offenses against minors, and the suspension of the civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims for a defined period of time.

"The victims of child sexual abuse never escape their victimization; it is inequitable and unjust to allow their victimizers to escape accountability," it said.

"There is no time period that we can put on a child to state that he or she should have the strength, he or she should have the capacity, he or she should be strong enough at this point to step out into the public and tell everyone the most embarrassing, humiliating, traumatizing events that have affected their entire life," Kane said.

"No one can put a number on that, no one can put an age on that," she said.

The grand jury also recommended that all possible criminal conduct should be reported directly to law enforcement, adding that "many child predators offend again and again … feed on innocence and are enabled by the hubris of apathetic administrators."

'The tears of children'

The grand jury report is the result of nearly two years of an investigation that began in April 2014 of the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, home to 88 parishes, 58 active priests under age 75 and a Catholic population of roughly 94,000. It names 34 priests, 14 of them still alive (three retired, nine suspended* or removed from ministry, one incarcerated and one unknown). For the priests who came before the grand jury, each indicated it was the first time they were questioned by law enforcement.

When special agents of the Office of Attorney General entered the diocese's secret archives -- a mandate in canon law for dioceses to maintain -- they found themselves surrounded by numerous boxes and filing cabinets "filled with the details of children being sexually violated by the institution's own members," the report said.

The findings, the grand jury said, "are both staggering and sobering."

Specifically, it singled out Bishops Hogan (head of the diocese from 1966-1986; died 2005) and Adamec, 80, (1987-2011; still living). Instead of reporting abusive priests to law enforcement or removing them from ministry, they opted to shield the church and themselves from scandal.

"Those men wrote their legacy in the tears of children," the grand jury said.

At one point, the grand jury expressed shock at the "cold bureaucracy" with which the diocese under Adamec approached providing compensation to alleged victims. The bishop had created a "pay-out chart" to guide payments to abuse victims, including a footnote of "factors to consider," among them: frequency and duration of abuse; age of victim; use of drugs or alcohol; and apparent psychotic effects.

altoona gj chart.jpg
(A diocesan "pay-out chart" for compensating victims of clergy sexual abuse. From the 37th statewide investigating grand jury of the Office of the Attorney General, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania)

While Adamec was scrupulous in distributing diocesan funds to victims, he was less so in maintaining important records in priest personnel files. While meeting with Fr. James Coveney in 1996 regarding allegations that a decade earlier he had fondled a 10-year-old boy, Adamec admitted that he didn't always keep records regarding priests' psychiatric reviews.

"The bishop puts into the secret archives what he feels needs to be preserved," he said in a 1994 deposition, adding his practice was to make summary notes of treatment reports and then destroy the originals.

In terms of the diocesan Allegation Review Board, the grand jury reported it never met without Adamec present. It went on to describe a process tilted entirely in favor of the accused priest, with the bishop-appointed members acting more as inquisitors than advocates of victims.

"The Allegation Review Board is fact-finding for litigation, not a victim service function of the Diocese," the report stated.

Power of the bishop

The bishop of Altoona-Johnstown held great power in the diocese's eight-county region, one of Hogan's top officials told the grand jury. Msgr. Philip Saylor testified in November 2014 that the Catholic church essentially selected community leaders: "For example, in Johnstown I would basically pick the mayor; I would pick the chief of police. I would -- you know, I became a very active citizen you might say and people trusted me."

That power extended to times when priests were involved in misconduct, with civil authorities often deferring to the diocese, often left to get "their guys" under control.

In 1969, a father approached Hogan and Pennsylvania State Police alleging that Fr. John Boyle had sexually abused his 12-year-old son. In notes from the meeting, Hogan indicated the "boy's story is believed by all" and there was "sufficient" evidence to press charges.

In February 1970, the bishop wrote Boyle to inform him no charges were filed: "The D.A. is disposed to do this: To withhold the filing of formal charges as well as a pressing for extradition," Hogan said, as long as he guaranteed that Boyle not re-enter the area or hold parochial assignment "until professionally recommended," and that the priest place himself under psychiatric care. Hogan concluded the letter, "Your priestly life and effectiveness is my sole concern -- as it is yours."

Less than a year later, Boyle returned from "sick leave," with allegations arising he groped a boy in 1971, raped another between 1973 and 1975, and forced a third in 1982 to perform oral sex. In 1995, Adamec sent Boyle for treatment and the priest ultimately retired later that year.

In February 2015, former priest Joseph Gaborek testified before the grand jury, admitting he molested a 16-year-old boy in 1982, but that he avoided charges in 1984 thanks to Hogan's intervention. Hogan wrote in notes that he discussed the complaint with a state police officer, who indicated he had no desire to "occasion publicity, etc."; the bishop agreed to send Gaborek to an institution -- as it turns out, a seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich.

"[Bishop Hogan] said, Joe, he says, I made a deal with the authorities -- maybe I shouldn't say this about him -- he says and I was moving you for them to, you know, get you off the burner," Gaborek told the grand jury.

Gaborek quickly returned to ministry at a new parish, but was later prosecuted in 1998 for corruption of minors and finally defrocked in 2004.

Perhaps the most alarming instance of police obstruction came with regard to Fr. Leonard Inman, who was accused of raping a 16-year-old boy and of paying young men for sex from 1971-1986 while a priest at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona. According to the grand jury, documents from the secret archives "indicate that then Bishop Hogan was very much aware that Inman was raping children as a priest at the Cathedral."

In 1986, an alleged victim reported to Altoona Police, describing the priest, the location, and the abuse. Police corroborated the story with young men who said Inman approached them outside the cathedral and offered money for sex. Hogan denied them access to search the cathedral, and an attempt to have a witness wearing a wire catch Inman soliciting sex ultimately failed.

While the grand jury was unable to confirm his story, former Altoona police chief Peter Starr testified that the wiretap failure may have resulted from an attorney alerting his aunt -- a nun who lived across from the cathedral -- of the planned police activity, and telling her to inform Inman.

Asked why the Inman case was ultimately dropped, Starr -- who acknowledged Saylor "apparently persuaded" the Altoona mayor of appointing him as chief of police – said he was told by the monsignor that the priest had left for treatment in Baltimore. In his notes, Hogan recorded he had met with police and that Inman would seek treatment.

"The Grand Jury was able to conclude that the Altoona Police chose not to pursue the Inman matter. … There is no creature of law or reality which would have prevented Inman from facing justice … other than the decision by the Altoona Police to not pursue a predatory priest within their jurisdiction," the report said.

According to the grand jury, a year earlier Hogan engaged in similar intervention by mailing a letter to suspected predatory priests, including Inman, "warning them that police were running surveillance on areas where priests were known to solicit children and young men for sex."

Inman, who died in 2001, never faced charges.

Lawsuits dropped

Attempts by victims or advocates to confront the diocese about suspected abusive priests was often met with fierce resistance or victim blaming.

In 2003, a victim came forward to report that Fr. Charles Bodziak repeatedly engaged in sexual intercourse with her in 1971 when she was 16-years-old and in foster care. The grand jury report stated that at the time of the alleged abuse, "she was removed from foster care and blamed for having a 'love affair' with a priest." Bodziak is currently pastor at St. Michael's Church, in St. Michael. [Update: While the grand jury report listed Bodziak as pastor, local news reported he was suspended in January while the diocese reviews the allegation.]

Another victim, himself a priest later accused of improper contact with a child, considered in 2002 suing the diocese for sexual abuse he suffered by Fr. Martin Brady while a student at Bishop Carroll High School. Adamec, he said, would chastise priests for speaking out on the abuse issue publically. When informed of his wishes, Adamec responded with anger, the victim told the grand jury, and obliquely threatened him with excommunication:

"The Bishop called me into his office, and he had the number two man in line read me the penalties for suing the Diocese. And he was reading me the penalties, and he was saying the penalties are up to and including excommunication. And so I'm sitting in a chair and I'm thinking, oh, great, now I'm excommunicated from the church. So I'm thinking -- I was just sitting there in shock."

Threats arose against George Foster and his family after the businessman wrote an op-ed in a local newspaper openly questioning the church's knowledge and lack of response to sexual abuse.

When a civil lawsuit was dropped regarding former priest Francis Luddy, the diocese issued a press release describing the claim as "baseless and without merit," despite the diocese, according to the grand jury, having knowledge the priest had admitted to molesting children. A later civil case found Hogan and the diocese knew of his behavior and awarded a $1.2 million verdict; no criminal charges were ever filed.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story reported that the grand jury listed two of the 34 priests it named as currently in ministry. Further review of local news reports found both priests, Fr. Charles Bodziak and Fr. David Arsenault, had been suspended from ministry earlier this year.

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