Law officers, clergy forged ties stymieing prosecutions

Elizabeth Williams, left, former president of ProNino USA, and Marci Hamilton, a Philadelphia-area attorney, review video testimony.
Elizabeth Williams, left, former president of ProNino USA, and Marci Hamilton, a Philadelphia-area attorney, review video testimony. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 07, 2016

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. - In January, a deputy attorney general and two agents walked into a judge's chambers here with questions. They wanted to discuss a meeting decades earlier that had ended with a "monster" priest being allowed to go free.

Back in 1985, Cambria County Judge Patrick T. Kiniry had been a local prosecutor, and met with Bishop James Hogan to discuss a priest suspected of sexually abusing children. As leader of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, the bishop had outsize influence in the area. Kiniry, a former altar boy, had been excited to meet him.

Hogan didn't dispute the claims about the Rev. Francis McCaa that day.

But nothing happened.

McCaa, suspected of abusing at least 15 boys, some as young as 8, lived another two decades without ever being charged.

"You have to understand: This is an extremely Catholic county," Kiniry allegedly explained this year when Deputy Attorney General Daniel J. Dye and two agents came to talk to him about the case.

Such cozy alliances between law enforcement and church officials were pervasive and a central theme in a 147-page grand-jury report last week on decades of clergy sex abuse in the central Pennsylvania diocese.

The findings, released Tuesday by Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, recommended no criminal charges. But, recounting evidence and conversations like the one with Kiniry, they vilified two bishops and members of law enforcement for enabling 50 abusive priests and religious leaders to damage "hundreds" of children over two generations.

Much of what was found in the diocese mirrored patterns seen elsewhere since the clergy sex-abuse scandal began with Boston in 2002. Still, the Altoona allegations, castigating the diocese for repeatedly and systemically ignoring or hiding the abuse, may stand apart in another way - the length of time they took to finally come to light.

In 1994, an 11-week civil trial in Altoona of a predatory Catholic priest included some of the first signs nationally of a diocese where superiors who knew about and tolerated serial sex abuse. Yet 20 more years would pass before investigators decided to ask: How bad was the problem here?

"Disgusted," Richard Serbin, the attorney in that landmark case of the Rev. Francis Luddy, said after last week's findings. "This report could have been done by one of Kane's predecessors in 1994."

In sometimes graphic detail, the grand jury outlined dozens of instances of abuse but found none that could be prosecuted. Offenders had died, the statute of limitations had expired, or victims did not wish to go public.

According to the report, victims got little traction with police and prosecutors, even as one bishop disbursed settlements using a chart that dictated payouts according to severity of abuse: as little as $10,000 for over-the-clothes fondling, up to $175,000 for sodomy.

"I extend my most heartfelt and sincere apology," the diocese's current leader, Bishop Mark Bartchak, said Thursday. "I apologize to the victims, to their families, to the faithful people of our diocese, to the good priests of our diocese, and to the public."

His predecessor, who was blamed throughout the report for hiding the abuse, was less conciliatory. In a response filed in court, an attorney for Bishop Joseph Adamec called the criticism against the now-retired church leader "unfounded."

"It appears the grand jury was not provided with a full and balanced set of facts," the filing said.

In the days after releasing the report, Kane's investigators received calls with tips from about 200 people to a new hotline. They stressed the case is not closed.

And yet, as those calls poured in, unquestioning support for the church lingered.

Even at Holy Name Church in nearby Ebensburg, where decades ago McCaa was abruptly removed and later transferred out of state after abusing boys in the sacristy, the rectory, and during confession.

"People knew why," parishioner Patricia Serotkin, 65, said after Mass on Wednesday morning.

But still, she said, parishioners kept coming back. And, even on the morning after the report's release, no one mentioned it, she said.

"The people here are so simple, so solid," Serotkin said. "Their faith is almost unshakable."

Ahead of their time

Altoona and Johnstown may seem like blips on the map, a pair of towns frozen in time. But they were ahead of their time when it came to publicly airing Catholic priest abuse.

Yellowed buildings, a gazebo at the town square, and a church on virtually every block give Johnstown the feel of a place untouched by change. Known most for the catastrophic 1889 flood that killed 2,200 people, the onetime steel town almost three hours west of Harrisburg now has less than a third of the 68,000 who thrived on its industry a century ago.

Religion is everywhere. "Violators will be Baptized!" blares a towing sign in one church parking lot.

"It's one of those cities you would see in an old movie," said Kelli Walerysiak, a 28-year-old restaurant manager and native.

Altoona, about 50 miles northeast, has fared only marginally better, with highways destroying its once-vibrant role as a Pennsylvania Railroad hub. Today, its population is 46,320, compared with a 1930 peak of 82,000.

As the jobs and population dwindled, loyalty to the church did not. With 90,000 Catholics across an eight-county region, the diocese remained a powerful influence, even as it shrank.

In 1987, Serbin filed a civil lawsuit in Altoona against the diocese and Rev. Luddy on behalf of a former altar boy. When it went to trial in 1994, it was just the fifth abuse case taken to a civil jury, according to BishopAccountability.org.

Ultimately, jurors sided with the victim.

But despite a trove of damning documents and testimony about what the church knew, no criminal probe followed.

Not even after the 2002 Boston scandal that sparked cases worldwide. In the central Pennsylvania diocese, Catholics accepted it and moved on.

"No matter what the priests do, I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ," William P. Gaspar, 78, a retiree, said after Mass on Thursday at St. Benedict Church in Johnstown. "We all make mistakes. Some are worse than others."

One he referred to was the Rev. Dennis Coleman, a priest at St. Benedict who molested at least three 13-year-old boys in the 1980s, according to the grand jury report. Coleman did this, the grand jury found, after church officials knew he had previously abused a 10-year-old boy at another parish.

Coleman, who died in 2014, would take boys on camping trips and "hypnotize" them, the grand jury found. Several more years would pass before he was suspended. At one point, the grand jury said, Coleman was offered a job at the Cambria County Courthouse - with help from a judge.

"He was a real skunk, I guess," Gaspar said.

'Secret archive' discovered

The clergy sex-abuse report on the Altoona diocese is only the eighth of its kind and the first issued in more than a decade. Prior ones, including from Rockville Centre, N.Y.; Philadelphia; and Boston became public after the 2002 scandal.

What sparked it was a case that exploded into view in Johnstown in 2013 - reports that an athletic trainer at Bishop McCort High School had abused children in Ohio before arriving in Cambria County.

The trainer, Brother Stephen Baker, a Franciscan, stabbed himself in the heart at St. Bernardine Monastery in Hollidaysburg in January 2013, just days after the media reports about his past in Ohio.

After months of exploration, Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan in December 2013 referred the case to the Attorney General's Office, she said last week.

Kane's office brought the case before a grand jury in April 2014.

Last August, agents raided diocesan offices in Hollidaysburg and carted off 115,042 documents from filing cabinets and a so-called secret archive of documents kept under lock and key. More than two dozen would later sort through it all.

"As Special Agents of the Office of Attorney General stood inside an organization devoted to the tenets of scripture and morality," the grand jury wrote, "they found themselves surrounded with evidence of an institutional crisis of child sexual abuse."

Internal notes of meetings revealed conversations between bishops and police or prosecutors who allowed the diocese to handle cases themselves - including mentions of the 1985 meeting between Hogan and Kiniry.

The grand jury also heard testimony that illustrated the church's tight grip over civil leaders.

"In Johnstown, I would basically pick the mayor; I would pick the chief of police," Msgr. Philip Saylor, who served under Hogan several decades ago, told grand jurors.

Dye, the deputy attorney general who led the investigation, said he and his team initially were shocked by what they found in the files.

"You had everybody - the district attorney admitting in his chambers in Cambria County - that this was how it worked back then," Dye said. "Almost as though we were the strange aliens that just didn't grasp things."

Not all cases detailed in the report went without prosecution.

One handled by federal authorities ended last week when the Rev. Joseph Maurizio, 70, was sentenced to more than 16 years in jail.

But Maurizio's federal conviction came by no expeditious process: In 2009, a woman from Richmond, Va., had informed top diocesan officials that children at a Honduran facility for orphans allegedly had been abused by Maurizio during his trips to the region.

The woman, Elizabeth Williams, said the diocese resisted, even after she showed church officials videos of the children describing what had happened. Months later, Williams received a letter from a diocesan attorney.

"At that point, it became clear to us that they were not working in good faith," Williams, former president of ProNiño USA, the Virginia-based nonprofit, told the Inquirer last week.

Federal authorities arrested and charged Maurizio in late 2014.

State prosecutors last week would not say whether charges were in the offing - only that their probe was continuing.

In an interview, Kane said the report displayed a profound fear that police and even prosecutors felt. Of being labeled a "bad Catholic." Or being excommunicated.

"That's not an excuse," Kane said. "But that was one of their excuses."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

610-313-8117@Panaritism

cmccabe@philly.com

610-313-8113@mccabe_caitlin

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