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Grand jury: Altoona-Johnstown priests sexually abused hundreds of children

| Tuesday, March 1, 2016, 10:18 a.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane fields questions regarding a grand jury report detailing sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese during a news conference at the Blair County Convention Center on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane discusses a grand jury report detailing sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese during a news conference at the Blair County Convention Center on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane's shadow is cast against a news conference on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
A large media presence focuses on Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane as she discusses a grand jury report detailing sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese during a news conference at the Blair County Convention Center on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
George Foster, 55, of Altoona documented sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese a decade before the Pennsylvania Attorney Generals Office investigated the crimes.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese

ALTOONA — A secret archive kept locked in the bishop's office of the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese revealed a far-reaching cover-up of decades of child sexual abuse by dozens of predator priests, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said Tuesday.

Kane, who is Catholic, described a two-year statewide investigative grand jury report that documented hundreds of cases of sexual abuse of children by at least 50 priests over four decades from at least the 1960s that were kept quiet in part by two former bishops until as recently as 2011.

“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 147-page report said.

“The heinous crimes these children endured are absolutely unconscionable,” said Kane, who addressed the media at a news conference at the Blair County Convention Center. “These predators desecrated a sacred trust and preyed upon their victims in the very places where they should have felt most safe.”

She said the abuses occurred in a number of settings, including orphanages, foster homes, campsites, confessionals and the cathedral in Altoona.

But none of the priests or their supervisors were charged criminally. Though their acts were criminal, they could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations for some of the crimes expired, some victims are too “deeply traumatized” to testify and some of the priests are deceased, the report said.

“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.”

Bartchak recently suspended several priests named as alleged abusers in the report, though the grand jury said it remains “concerned the purge of predators is taking too long.”

The diocese said it cooperated with the investigation and is reviewing the report.

The pattern outlined in the grand jury report isn't unique. Thousands of children have been abused in Pennsylvania cities, throughout the United States and in other countries over many decades, and the church continues to grapple with the consequences. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates that American dioceses have paid nearly $4 billion since 1950 to settle claims with victims.

Using a complex diagram that detailed the service of priests in churches and schools, Kane recounted case after case, ranging from instances of fondling to rape of victims as young as 8 years old. In some cases, the grand jury learned that priests provided alcohol or pornography to children they molested.

“The offenders in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown knew what they were doing. They prepared their victims with the same devotion for which they prepared for Mass,” the grand jury said.

In some instances, victims said they stood together while they were abused. At least one victim committed suicide, and Kane said others attempted to take their own lives when they could no longer deal with their shame, anger and confusion.

In one instance, Kane recounted a victim reporting that the late Msgr. Harold Burkhart would ask the child he was abusing, “What do you think God would say?” And then he would take advantage of the child's silence to tell him, “God would approve.”

Although it could not recommend criminal charges, the grand jury recommended that the state eliminate all civil and criminal statutes of limitation in child sexual abuse cases.

“There should be no time limit to put on a child to say he or she should be strong enough to step forward,” Kane said, vowing to work with the Legislature to change the law.

She said documents showed those who came forward to the church and law enforcement were brushed aside. She credited local businessman George Foster, who wrote an op-ed piece in a newspaper and pursued complaints on his own, as being a hero for the victims.

The attorney general's investigation, however, did not begin until 2014 when Kane said her office took the case on a referral from Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan. A raid at the diocese office in August uncovered a “secret archive” with numerous files for priests accused of misconduct, the attorney general's office said. Obtained through a search warrant, the documents included victims' statements and documents showing two bishops were at the forefront of the cover-up.

The former bishops, James Hogan and Joseph Adamec, led the diocese of 94,000 Catholics in eight counties.

“They valued protecting the institution from scandal over protecting the victims,” Kane said.

Through his lawyer, Adamec, 80, who holds the title bishop emeritus and led the diocese until 2011, disputed the grand jury's conclusions.

“While in hindsight one might second-guess isolated actions taken by Bishop Adamec, there is simply no pattern or practice of putting the church's image or a priest's reputation above the protection of children,” attorney David Berardinelli wrote in response to the grand jury.

The grand jury, directed by Deputy Attorney General Dan Dye, cited how Hogan, who was bishop from 1966 to 1986 and is deceased, intervened in a state police investigation of Joseph Gaborek, a priest who was accused of sexually violating a 16-year-old boy he recruited to work at St. Michael's and St. Mary's churches in the 1980s. Hogan spoke to state police and assured authorities Gaborek would be sent to an institution, the grand jury said.

Instead, Gaborek, 70, was sent on sabbatical to a school for boys. No treatment was available there, and Gaborek was subsequently assigned to another parish in the diocese, records revealed.

Documents revealed Hogan reassigned James Bunn, another priest accused of abuse in 1984, and made him principal of Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown after repeated complaints of abuse, Kane said.

She said Adamec created a payout chart of settlements to be made to victims. The four levels of payouts varied by the severity of the alleged abuse and the duration and ranged from a low of $10,000 for fondling to $175,000 for rape.

Kane said the heretofore voiceless victims deserved to have their stories heard.

One of 15 boys who said he was abused by the late Msgr. Francis B. McCaa said he was abused during confession.

Kane, herself the subject of criminal charges for allegedly leaking grand jury documents, said the use of a grand jury and its subpoena power were key to unlocking more than 100,000 documents reviewed in the investigation.

Although none of the priests cited in the report is still serving the diocese, Kane said it was not until last year — at the demand of the Attorney General's Office — that priest Martin Cingle was removed from service. Allegations against Cingle dated back to 1979, and records showed he was sent for treatment after a victim came forward in 2002 but returned to service.

Staff writer Brad Bumsted and The Associated Press contributed. Debra Erdley is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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