a katz /

March 8, 2016; The Guardian

Just months after the release of Spotlight, a movie detailing the investigative efforts of the Boston Globe to uncover the extent of the Catholic Church’s systematic sexual abuse of children in the Greater Boston area, the Pennsylvania Attorney General released a grand jury report last week illustrating in excruciating detail abuse and tactics in a Pennsylvanian Diocese that were much the same.

The report focuses on behavior of several members of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in Central Pennsylvania from 1940 to the 1990s. According to the report, the attorney general’s grand jury investigation was sparked in 2014 after several law enforcement officials and neighboring district attorneys approached the office with information about abuse within the Diocese.

As seen in the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize–winning work on the Boston Archdiocese, as well as the investigations into the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown actively worked to conceal the abuse from the public, ensuring children continued to be abused and predators remained in positions to abuse children, both male and female.

The majority of the thorough report is spent identifying the priests and religious leaders and exactly how they victimized the children. For some victims, the abuse spanned several years. Moreover, much of the abuse was documented in letters from victims or documents kept by the Diocese.

According to the report, “The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown was in possession of a massive amount of data detailing a dark and disturbing history. The history of child sexual abuse and the attempt to conceal that abuse from the public is detailed in this report.” This evidence helped verify allegations that, to a large extent, the Diocese had known for decades about the abuse taking place by its priests and yet ultimately failed to take proper action against the offenders.

Here are the main takeaways from the report:

  • At least 50 priests and religious leaders were identified as having committed child sexual abuse in the Diocese. When each individual was interviewed, he indicated it had been the first time he had ever been approached by a member of law enforcement for the abuse.
  • There is ample evidence to show the Diocese’s Bishops permitted the systematic abuse of children. Bishop James Hogan and Joseph Adamec are two of the bishops identified in the report as having enabled abuse to continue in the Diocese. While Hogan is now deceased, Adamec is still alive and retired in 2011. Some victims sent letters to the bishops asking for their abusers to be reprimanded or, at the very least, removed from their position. Instead of contacting authorities, the bishops filed away these letters from victims, evidence that most directly showcases their knowledge of the abuse.

The report says:

Rather than expose the conduct and embolden the silent victims of abuse the Diocese choose to remain silent itself. The Grand Jury found, as was the case in most sexual assault reports involving priests in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Diocese officials did not report the matter the police. Instead the church engaged in secrecy and an assessment of civil liability.

  • Some priests admitted to the Bishops that they had abused a child or children, but were allowed to continue working in their posts. According to the report, “The Grand Jury concludes that [Father Martin] Cingle’s clearly incriminating statement to [Bishop] Adamec that he had accidentally fondled a partially undressed child, whom he was sleeping next to while partially undressed himself, warranted Cingle’s removal at that time. The Grand Jury is left to wonder why the account that both Adamec and Cingle recalled does not appear in diocesan records.”
  • Pornography and alcohol abuse were also noted in several victims’ recollections of their abuse or in letters to higher ranked clergy.
  • Religious leaders were often moved around or sent to “treatment centers.” As seen in other investigative reports of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, religious leaders who had been discovered to be predators were either shifted around to other parishes or were sent to diocese-approved treatment centers, which “would often note that they had not diagnosed the offender as a ‘pedophile,’” preventing detection. Other times, when offenders were not sent directly to centers, the diocese relied on offenders to self-report.
  • Code words were given for predatory religious leaders to remain in the church. Predatory religious leaders would also be placed on special statuses such as “sick leave” or “nervous exhaustion,” which served as code for an offender being moved to another location until attention on the case had died down. In their profiles for each identified priest, the report also includes for some priests the various locations where they were transferred, as well as periods of “sick leave” or “evaluation at a treatment facility.”
  • The abuse was destructive not only to the victims, but to their families as well. In the case of Father James Bunn, who moved between seven parishes in a 38-year span that included a stay for psychiatric evaluation, his abuse of a child from the ages of 10 to 13 took a toll on the family. “The entire family deeply trusted their priest, James Bunn. The stress of Bunn’s victimization of their family was crushing. The victim’s father found himself dealing with intense feelings of anger and violence. The victim’s mother was treated with medication. The victim himself began to struggle with this faith and abandoned hopes of being a priest.” While the family tried in the 1980s to have Bunn removed from his position and no longer have contact with children through the diocese, Bunn did not retire until 2002 and faced no scrutiny until this grand jury investigation in 2015.

Unfortunately, despite this powerful and incredibly thorough public investigation into an obviously morally corrupt diocese, consequences may be out of the question. Many of the offenders and their enablers are deceased, and—assigning no blame to the victims here—in many cases, decades passed before they came forward, and so the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil cases have expired.

However, the grand jury did put forward several recommendations, which include abolishing the statute of limitations for abuse against minors and a mandate that any suspected criminal conduct be reported immediately to authorities, which was also a shortcoming of law enforcement in these cases as well. Child abuse advocates and activists have been working on abolishing the statute of limitations for years now, and these legislative efforts require the work of the nonprofit sector. In particular, tackling abuse within the Catholic Church will take further thorough investigations and a hardline stance for absolutely no tolerance on the issue. From 2004 to 2014, there were 3,400 credible sexual assault cases that had been referred to the Vatican, and more victims are still coming forward even after years of silence.

As the report indicates, “As wolves disguised as the shepherds themselves—these men stole the innocence of children by sexually preying upon the most innocent and the most vulnerable of our society and of the Catholic faith.”—Shafaq Hasan