Pittsburgh, Pa., Mar 3, 2016 / 12:52 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Bishop of Altoona-Johnstown is calling for prayers after a Pennsylvania grand jury released its report on the alleged sexual abuse of hundreds of children by priests in the diocese in past decades.
The report covers cases dating back to the 1940s and charges that previous bishops put abusive priests back to ministry.
“This is a painful and difficult time in our diocesan Church,” Bishop Mark L. Bartchak of Altoona-Johnstown said March 1. “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.”
On March 1 a grand jury released its 147-page report on the diocese’s response to sex abuse by clergy. The report in part drew on evidence from diocesan archives that were opened through a search warrant. Over 115,000 documents were seized, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
Bishop Bartchak, who has headed the diocese since 2011, is not accused of wrongdoing. He has suspended several priests accused in the report. The diocese said it is reviewing the report. It reaffirmed its intention to protect children and said its policy mandates that all abuse allegations be reported to civil authorities.
The report is strongly critical of Bishop James Hogan, who headed the diocese from 1966 to 1986, and Bishop Joseph Adamec, who headed the diocese from 1987 to 2011. Bishop Hogan died in 2005.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane charged that the two previous bishops “placed their desire to avoid public scandal over the well-being of children.”
There are about 100,000 Catholics in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, located in central Pennsylvania.
Much of the alleged abuse documented in the report is from the 1940s to the 1980s, though many alleged victims came forward more recently. The grand jury document details hundreds of children reportedly molested or raped.
“These findings are both staggering and sobering,” the report said. “Over many years hundreds of children have fallen victim to child predators wrapped in the authority and integrity of an honorable faith.”
“Priests were returned to ministry with full knowledge they were child predators,” the grand jury said.
Bishop Adamec, who is now 80, declined to testify to the grand jury on the grounds he might give evidence against himself.
His attorney said the claims against the bishop are unfounded and charged that the report left out key evidence. He said the bishop investigated abuse claims and required 14 accused priests to undergo psychiatric evaluation. Nine of these were suspended or removed from ministry and the five priests who were reinstated never offended, he said.
One section of the report strongly criticized Bishop Adamec for the response in 1992 to the dismissal of a lawsuit against a priest accused of molesting and abusing at least 10 children. The diocese in 1992 called the lawsuit “frivolous” even though Bishop Adamec knew “with certainty” that the priest had admitted to the acts, the report said.
A former aide to Bishop Hogan, Monsignor Philip Saylor, told the grand jury that county officials and law enforcement officers let the diocese handle abusive priests internally rather than prosecute them. The report indicates this was due to the diocese’s massive political influence, including Msgr. Saylor’s involvement in approval of police and fire chief of the city of Johnstown. A former police chief told the grand jury the politicians feared Msgr. Saylor due to his role as editor of the diocesan newspaper.
One priest who is a former abuse victim said that a top diocesan official told him he could be excommunicated for suing the Church but then admitted to citing an outdated version of Church law, the report said.
The report also questioned the actions of the diocese’s review board instated in recent decades to handle abuse claims. The report said the board’s investigations often focused on those who report abuse, rather than on accused priests.
Kane said that no criminal charges are being filed. She said some accused abusers have died, the statute of limitations has expired or victims are too traumatized to testify, the Associated Press reports.
The grand jury has recommended the complete removal of statutes of limitation for future criminal cases of child sexual abuse. It also recommends opening a legal window for a period of time to allow civil suits for past abuse.
On March 1 the diocese said it “cooperated fully with authorities throughout the investigation, and will continue to do so as part of our commitment to the safety of all children.”
The diocese said its youth protection policy calls for mandatory reporting of all abuse allegations to civil authorities. The policy also requires background checks and education for clergy, employees and volunteers who work with children.
The grand jury report resulted from the attorney general’s review of the response to abuse allegations against Franciscan Brother Stephen Baker, an athletic trainer at Bishop McCort Catholic High School from 1992 to 2001.
In 2014 the diocese reached an $8 million settlement with 88 former students at the high school who had made abuse claims. An Ohio diocese where the Franciscan brother worked had also made settlements. The brother killed himself in 2013 when the Ohio settlements became public knowledge, the Associated Press reports.