'I only answer to God. Bishops don't bother me.'

"I only answer to God," George Foster said. "Bishops don't bother me." His wife, Katie, said: "It took this long to be heard. How many people were hurt?" ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
"I only answer to God," George Foster said. "Bishops don't bother me." His wife, Katie, said: "It took this long to be heard. How many people were hurt?" ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 23, 2016

The three veteran investigators were speechless.

For just a few months, they had waded into a probe of clergy sex abuse in central Pennsylvania. They didn't yet know much. But they had heard about a man near Altoona named George Foster.

Foster, they were told, had long been "making noise" about eliminating abusive priests in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown - writing letters in the local papers, meeting with church leaders. Daniel Dye, the deputy attorney general leading the investigation, knew he was someone worth meeting.

But Dye and the two agents with him were not prepared for what they saw as Foster arrived at a Pittsburgh hotel to meet them for a cup of coffee in late 2014.

Foster came carting an armload of manila folders. Each was labeled. "Victim 1." "Victim 2." And so on. Others bore the names of priests. Inside were detailed accounts from victims and others.

Years' worth.

"You kept files?" Dye asked incredulously.

"Oh, yeah," he told them. "People have been coming to me for years."

"Why didn't you ever take these files to the police?" Dye asked him.

"Well," Foster said, "some of what's in here, I'm getting from the police."

His information became a critical building block for investigators as they developed the case that led this month to the release of two grand jury reports outlining years of child sex abuse by clerics in the eight-county Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.

The grand jury was livid that parents sought justice but civil authorities took no action to help them. Instead, people with badges and law degrees deferred to bishops and other Catholic leaders, who largely buried what was known about child abusers under their charge.

Foster, however, refused to turn away. For that, Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane and the grand jury branded him a hero.

"This is not about a religious order. This is not about Catholicism," Kane said last week, taking a moment in her news conference at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown to point out Foster, a silver-haired man with hazel eyes. "This is about the law. And this is about people standing up for other people."

Dye put it another way.

"George became like a compass" for the investigation, he said in an interview. "George got us there quicker."

Inspired by his faith

A devout Catholic and family man, Foster, 55, is like and unlike many who live in the Altoona-Johnstown area.

He has spent his whole life in the neighboring postindustrial cities, which are shells of what they once were. He is married, has six children, and adheres to church dogma with deep loyalty.

"I don't think I did anything special," he said in his office in Duncansville, surrounded by photos of his family and a Star Trek cup and saucer.

But where fierce devotion to the church blinded others from taking action, Foster drew on his faith as fuel to do the right thing.

"I only answer to God," he told the grand jury. "Bishops don't bother me."

The path that led him there had begun more than a decade earlier.

In 2002, a man in his 30s showed up without an appointment at Foster's workplace, the Altoona-area office for the billboard and advertising giant Lamar Advertising Co.

As the clergy sex-abuse scandal was unfolding nationally, Foster had already taken bold stands in letters to the local paper about removing abusive priests. The man knew this. Foster and he were about the same age.

"I came to you," he said, "because you're not afraid of the diocese."

The stranger told Foster that as a youth he had been sexually abused by a local priest and then berated by the priest's jealous lover - another priest, who worked at the high school the victim attended.

"The one guy's abusing me, and the other guy's screaming at me when I'm at school," he explained, according to Foster.

The victim said the diocese leaders knew about the sexually abusive priest but did nothing. He wanted to rent a billboard to expose the priest as a molester.

Foster was shocked. And yet, he instinctively reached for a notebook: "I immediately started writing things down. I said, 'Let me look into this.' "

Foster had come from a devout family. An uncle and a brother were priests. And he knew a lot more priests, too. So he called one and asked, discreetly, about the alleged abuser.

"Oh, yeah," the priest replied. "I think he could do that."

Wow, Foster thought. The priests knew.

More phone calls and visits followed.

Foster also heard about a 1994 Blair County civil trial and guilty plea delivered by an accused predator named the Rev. Francis Luddy. So he went to the courthouse, found the case file. Couldn't believe what he read.

"It was like the roots of a tree spreading out," Foster said. "I realized, if I'm just a lay person and just asking a few questions, I'm getting all this information, how widespread and deep is this?"

Bearer of influences

A Johnstown native who lives in a once-grand Hollidaysburg house built for a 19th-century banker, Foster carries profound influences forged in childhood.

His father, James, said the rosary every night. He enlisted at age 17 to serve in World War II, and then raised seven children as a life-insurance salesman, proud he had what he considered a noble job.

James Foster went to every client's funeral. When he died in 2000, so many came to his, you couldn't get in, recalled his son, John.

To him, George is a lot like their father.

"George is one of the few guys who puts his life where his mouth is," said John Foster, 59, of Collingswood, N.J., the only one of seven siblings who moved away.

But George recalls the righteous passions of his mother, Patricia.

"She was like the Blessed Mother - but with a machine gun," he said.

"We grew up with pictures of aborted kids on the kitchen table," Foster went on. "A lot of that burned into me."

And yet, as strong as her religious identity was, he is convinced that his mother would have insisted he do nothing other than what he has done the last 14 years. Her maternal and advocate soul would have agreed.

"Child molestation is wrong," Foster said. "And it doesn't take a bunch of psychiatrists or a bunch of bishops to hold a meeting to figure that out."

The first grand report alleged decades of clergy sex abuse ignored or concealed by the leaders of the diocese. Prosecutors say as many as hundreds of children may have been assaulted, but that the statute of limitations, or the deaths of accused priests, prevented them from bringing charges.

In a potentially groundbreaking prosecution, however, Kane last week announced charges against three priests who as leaders of a Franciscan order allegedly failed to remove a friar suspected of sexually assaulting more than 100 minors since the 1980s.

Minutes before announcing those charges, Kane met privately with Foster to thank him. He came at her invitation.

Dye also shook his hand - again.

"You can't have mercy," Foster told Dye, "without justice."

At home the next day, Foster's wife of 27 years, Katie, 51, said she does not view him so much as a hero as a man who strives to live by his faith. She kissed him on the cheek as she spoke of him.

"George is a father," she said. "I think that maybe that instinct is what came through."

Both are relieved that "truth has been heard." But they are sad - that the scandal has driven people away from their faith, that it has caused so many souls so much damage.

"It took this long to be heard," Katie Foster said. "How many people were hurt in the interim?"

Foster is convinced he was guided by an invisible hand. "I got wrapped up in this," he said, "and that was God's will."

Perhaps his late father helped keep him strong, too. Long before the grand jury's work was made public - and his name in it - word had spread through the local church that he was an agitator, worthy of excommunication.

One day not long after his father died, in 2009, one of his dad's friends - "Uncle Harry" to the seven kids - called from Johnstown with a message.

"I just want you to know," Harry told him, "your dad would be proud."

As he recalled the message last week, tears welled in Foster's eyes.

"He knew," Foster whispered, "I was taking heat for this."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

610-313-8117

@Panaritism

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