Diocese Probe is Urged

By Susan Evans
The Tribune-Democrat
February 26, 2003


A national victims' advocacy group is calling for a grand jury investigation of the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese and allegations that diocese higher-ups have covered up sexual abuse by priests.

The group also is pushing the state Legislature to lift the statute of limitations so old sex abuse cases against priests can be prosecuted.

The diocese hierarchy remained mum again yesterday about reports in The Tribune-Democrat that church officials know of abuse accusations against four priests, but have not taken the steps required by the church's national zero-tolerance policy.

"If we have a statement, I'll call you," said Sister Mary Parks, communications secretary for the diocese, in a telephone interview yesterday from her office in Altoona.

Pressure for an Altoona grand jury comes as Cardinal Bernard Law began testifying before a Boston grand jury investigating whether criminal charges should be filed against him or any other top church officials for their handling of priests accused of sexual abuse.

Law, who had spent some time recently at St. Vincent's College in Latrobe, had no comment after a full day of testimony at Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly's office.

His attorney, J. Owen Todd, said the grand jury and Assistant Attorney General Michelle Adelman focused on the evolution of the archdiocese's policy with abusive priests during Law's tenure, which began in 1984.

Law resigned as Boston archbishop in December after a year of revelations that he and top aides reassigned priests who were known molesters to different parishes.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, based in Chicago, is turning its attention to Western Pennsylvania, and Altoona-Johnstown in particular, said SNAP worker Kathleen Schmitt in a telephone interview.

"We want to force the bishop to open up files, to get rid of pedophiles and sex abusers, because so many perpetrators are still proudly wearing their collars," said Schmitt.

"Our goal also is to storm Harrisburg. We want to change the statute of limitations to force these bishops statewide to open files and get some of these cases in court," she said.

Pennsylvania's statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases normally expires five years after the victim's 18th birthday.

Because some victims don't come forward until they are adults, priests often go unpunished, she said.

Schmitt, a former Pennsylvania resident, said she has been working with a coalition of victim advocates to put pressure on Pennsylvania dioceses, and Altoona-Johnstown in particular, because of revelations about priests accused of sex abuse who are still ministering in parishes.

"We're coordinating with child abuse agencies across Pennsylvania, and with pediatricians, parents and victims," she said.

"We want to become more established in Western Pennsylvania and offer support to victims, to get them to come forward and become active in our movement," she said.

SNAP and other advocacy groups say they are frustrated that the church's canon law has protected abusive priests and bishops who look the other way.

Those who brought the most recent allegations of sex abuse to Bishop Joseph Adamec say they were rebuffed and that nothing has been done.

They are demanding Adamec step down.

But bishops have virtually unlimited authority under canon law, and only the Vatican can take action against them, say attorneys and victim advocates.

"It takes tremendous public pressure to force a bishop's resignation," said Church Colbert, a Boston-based writer for The National Catholic Reporter.

"Cardinal Law's resignation took a long time, and it was a sustained effort by various groups," Colbert said in a telephone interview.

"There were all of those cathedral protests, and then Boston had one horrific disclosure of information after another. It finally took its toll," he said.

Victim advocacy groups contend that abused Catholic children have not received protection under the law.

"We also are interested in the courts and police cover-ups in the past, when abusing priests were identified," said Schmitt.

"Catholic children were never protected because law enforcement was duplicitous. It was simply a cultural expectation that we wouldn't want to embarrass the church. They were doing what they thought was right," she said.

"But that's why the statute of limitations must be lifted, at least for a time, so that we can come out and criminally charge these offenders."

SNAP's national executive director, David Clohessy, issued a plea to sex abuse victims in the Altoona-Johnstown area to come forward and seek help.

Clohessy, who visited Altoona when the most recent sex abuse lawsuit against the diocese was announced, said his group's fundamental goal remains support for victims.

"We have monthly support group meetings, online help, through which victims begin to unburden themselves of their secrets and ultimately gain the courage to come forward," he said.

The problem is more pronounced and secretive in a diocese like Altoona-Johnstown, he said.

"In large, more urban dioceses, bishops are more apt to realize that secrets are bound to come out, and they may as well cooperate, or at least appear to cooperate.

"But more elderly bishops, or some in smaller rural dioceses, feel as though, hey, we've kept the lid on this for so long, maybe we can indefinitely," he said.

Adamec is wrong to withhold information from prosecutors, even on old cases, Clohessy said.

"The bishops promised last year to share all information, but many have done a flip-flop," he said.

"We've seen prosecutors getting much more creative and assertive, regardless of when the abuse took place. It's not the district attorney's place to walk into the cathedral and do the Easter homily, and it's not the bishop's place to decide what can be prosecuted and what can't," he said.

Last June, prosecutors in the eight-county Altoona-Johnstown diocese agreed that the bishop must turn over all sex abuse information, even if the statute of limitations had expired.

David Gorman, Blair County district attorney, has said he is disappointed that Adamec has not done so.

While refusing to comment publicly, Adamec has issued written statements saying the diocese is handling all allegations in an appropriate manner.

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