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Altoona-Johnstown fund for clergy abuse survivors running dry after paying out $21.5 million

Deb Erdley
| Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, 4:57 p.m.

As the Pittsburgh Diocese prepares to unveil details of a fund for adult survivors of clergy child sexual abuse, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese this week revealed it has paid $21.5 million related to such costs over the last 19 years.

In a special message to parishioners dated Monday, Altoona-Johnstown Bishop Mark Bartchak said the church there sold its diocesan center in 2016 and bishop’s residence in 2014 and used those proceeds as well as insurance funds and financial reserves to pay $15.7 million to survivors, $514,422 in counseling and support services, $4.3 million in legal costs and just under $907,389 in support of priests accused of child sexual abuse.

The diocese with a Catholic population of about 84,000 — the smallest in the state— was the subject of a 2016 state grand jury investigation. It concluded about 50 predator priests prowled its small town and rural parishes and schools over decades, often transferred from place to place by their bishops as allegations of sexual abuse surfaced.

The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese opened its settlement fund for adult survivors of abuse in 2004, Bartchak said.

As officials in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and the dioceses of Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Erie, Harrisburg, Scranton and Allentown put the final touches on multi-million compensation funds to make reparations to adults timed out of court by the statute of limitations, Bartchak warned that the well in his small central Pennsylvania diocese was running dry.

“Our diocesan savings is insufficient to settle remaining requests for compensation at this time,” Bartchak wrote. He said the church hopes to secure additional support from its insurers.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese launched its settlement fund last month. Pittsburgh diocesan spokesmen have said they will announce the details of their fund this week. Officials in Greensburg and Erie expect to have their funds open in early 2019.

Those funds were announced days after a proposal to give adult survivors of clergy sexual a two-year window of opportunity to sue their abusers stalled in the Pennsylvania Senate.

The proposal that the House had passed by an overwhelming margin was among four measures recommended by a scathing statewide grand jury report. The nearly 900-page document released in August detailed rampant allegations of clergy child sexual abuse and cover-ups in dioceses based in Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Erie, Harrisburg, Allentown and Scranton.

Church leaders and insurance industry representatives recommended compensation funds in lieu of a new window for lawsuits to be filed. Such lawsuits could bankrupt dioceses, church leaders said.

Bartchak told parishioners the Altoona- Johnstown Diocese paid “settlements and financial assistance to more than 290 individuals” since 1999.

Much of those costs were from a handful of high profile cases, including $6.5 million paid to victims of Brother Stephen Baker, who was accused of abusing more than 100 boys; a $3.5 million settlement for 21 claimants in a 2004 suit; and nearly $3 million in settlements and awards to victims of the Rev. Francis Luddy.

Altoona lawyer Richard Serbin, who prevailed against Luddy in a protracted 1994 trial, represented scores of others in the diocese who applied to the settlement fund.

“I’m glad to see an effort toward transparency, but the numbers are inaccurate. I filed the Luddy suit in 1987. For 12 years before 1999, they bitterly contested it and spent money defending a serial child predator that had molested children for 19 years,” he said.

Serbin said a number of his clients in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese who were timed out of court applied to the settlement fund. He wasn’t allowed to accompany them to the review board that heard their cases. He said some walked away empty-handed; others said the church seemed more interested in discrediting them than settling claims.

“To say that they were treated with compassion is certainly untrue. I’m happy they’re trying to do the right thing. But I am dealing with broken people,” Serbin said. “Regarding the $900,000 spent on those priests, my feeling is if these child predators had been turned over to the police or (district attorney) offices and had those offices be willing to prosecute there would be no expense to the diocese.”

In hindsight, Bartchak, who has served the Altoona-Johnstown diocese since 2011, might wish his predecessors had done just that. Instead, the storm that devastated the small diocese when the 2016 grand jury report broke continues.

“There has not been one day that I did not hear from or about a person who was a victim and struggles to be a survivor of child sexual abuse,” he wrote in his message.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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