Diocese Muzzles Priests
By Susan Evans
March 2, 2003
Priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese are under a gag order that threatens penalties, including excommunication, if they publicly disagree with the bishop.
Under a similar gag order and threat of excommunication is a prominent retired monsignor, Phillip Saylor, whose testimony on priest sex abuse broke ranks with diocese hierarchy in the 1994 trial of now-defrocked Francis Luddy.
Bishop Joseph Adamec continues to refuse public comment on the controversies surrounding his administration, including new allegations of sex abuse by priests. He abruptly canceled a press conference scheduled Friday.
The gag orders were revealed last week on the heels of a Tribune-Democrat investigative report that diocese officials know of sex abuse accusations against four previously unidentified priests, but have not taken the steps required by national church policy.
Nor have officials reported the accusations to prosecutors, despite an agreement to report even old allegations.
The diocese last week began its new program to prevent abuse, called "Protecting God's Children," with training of 40 facilitators. Adamec was scheduled to answer media questions Friday morning, but canceled, saying he had to attend another meeting.
The diocese issued a written statement through the office of Sister Mary Parks, secretary for communications, denying a cover-up of sex abuse by priests and saying the diocese is "re-examining several old cases.
"We took these allegations very seriously when they were first made 10 to 20 or more years ago about events that took place in every case at least 15 years ago," the statement said. "We regret that sexual and physical abuse of children has occurred."
Gag orders have not been uncommon during Adamec's 16-year tenure as bishop.
During such highly public controversies as pro-abortion political candidates placing ads in diocese publications or being featured guests at diocese functions, Adamec has said publicly that he expects differences to be resolved privately and priests to be obedient.
Last week, several priests spoke to a reporter on the condition of anonymity, saying that all priests are currently under a gag order imposed by the bishop several months ago, which bars them from public disagreement with diocese policies or actions.
The order was imposed after various priests spoke out about such issues as potential church closings, the guest appearance of a controversial "New Age" nun, and revelations that the diocese has paid more to its attorneys than the victim in the 1994 abuse case.
It threatens suspension or expulsion of any priest who disagrees publicly with the bishop or any of his policies, the priests said.
The diocese declined comment, saying it is inappropriate to comment on personnel issues.
Most mysterious is the gag order imposed on Saylor.
The order was published this week on a new Web site, dioceseaj.com, which is sponsored by conservative Catholics. They accuse Adamec of covering up sex abuse cases and shifting suspected abusers from parish to parish.
The order is in the form of a decree, signed by Adamec, and dated Sept. 9, 1999, the same week as Saylor's retirement.
No one would comment on the decree But records show it was issued five years after Saylor's testimony damaged the diocese's case in the Luddy trial, and three years after reports that Saylor fired a church janitor with a criminal record, who then threatened to expose homosexual acts committed by a priest who for a time served on Adamec's personal staff.
The decree presents itself as a "penal precept" and a "canonical warning," saying Saylor "may not use a public event or assembly or in published writings or in other media to harm public morals or to excite hatred or contempt for the Church or Diocese.
"Monsignor Saylor may not publish any writing or take part in any radio or television programming without the permission of the Diocesan Bishop," the decree said.
"Violation of this personal, penal precept will be punished with just penalties, which could include suspension and even excommunication," it said.
Saylor did not return several telephone calls from a reporter.
The diocese declined comment, calling the gag order "a personnel matter."
It was an ignoble end to a distinguished career for one of the diocese's most visible and best-known clerics.
A review of news reports show that Saylor played a key role in various communities, chairing Johnstown Historic Preservation Committee and Cambria County Senior Citizens Advisory Board.
In Blair County, he was a member of Human Relations Advisory Committee and a Mercy Hospital trustee.
He was a pastor in Lakemont and State College, and editor of the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Register.
Just a month after his retirement, and after the gag order was issued, Saylor received a prestigious award from Mount St. Mary's National Alumni Association, according to news reports.
An Aug. 15, 1996, story in the weekly orthodox Catholic newspaper, "The Wanderer," said Adamec fired Saylor as pastor of Our Lady of Victory in State College because of Saylor's firing of a church employee. The newspaper describes the worker as "a drunk who was convicted and sentenced for murdering his first wife and beating his second wife."
The article said the fired worker demanded his job back, threatening to expose the sexual activity of a former priest at Our Lady of Victory.
The story said the worker received a financial settlement form the diocese, and that Saylor was punitively transferred to a small parish.
Saylor was in the spotlight in 1994, when his testimony at the Luddy sex abuse trial contradicted that of former Bishop James Hogan and other church leaders, who said they were unaware of priests who were abusing young men.
Saylor testified that Hogan and others knew of abusive priests as early as 1978 and did little more than transfer them from parish to parish, court records show.
Diocese spokeswoman Parks repeatedly has declined comment on specifics.
Her written statement said that the diocese will make specific responses to allegations on its Web site, diocesealtjtn.org, and in the next edition of The Catholic Register.
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