Hundreds of children were sexually abused over at least 40 years by priests and other religious leaders in a diocese in Pennsylvania, a state-wide grand jury has found.
At least 50 priests or religious leaders were involved in the abuse and diocesan leaders systematically concealed the abuse to protect the Church's image in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, according to the grand jury report released 1 March by Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane.
The report identifies priests and other leaders by name and details incidents going back to the 1970s. Kane said that much of the evidence revealed in the report came from secret archives maintained by the diocese that were only available to the bishops who led the diocese over the decades.
Victims testified to the grand jury, after local law enforcement officials and district attorneys of several counties approached Kane's office with information about the abuse in 2014.
Kane said during a news briefing at the Blair County Convention Centre in Altoona that the investigation was continuing. She said that the actions of law enforcement are also part of the investigation.
"We have had evidence of law enforcement perhaps looking the other way, law enforcement working with the diocese to let the priests move on, retire or go to a psychiatric facility in lieu of charges," she said.
Kane did not rule out charges being filed against diocesan officials for their role in failing to report abuse and repeated several times that the investigation is unfinished. The report said the diocese cooperated in the investigation.
Tony DeGol, diocesan secretary for communications, said in a statement that the diocese had received the report and was reviewing it. The diocese pledged to continue cooperating with authorities in their investigation "as part of our commitment to the safety of all children," the statement said.
"This is a painful and difficult time in our diocesan church," Bishop Mark L. Bartchak of Altoona-Johnstown said in the statement. "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."
The diocese continues to follow its youth protection policy, which calls for mandatory reporting of all abuse allegations to law enforcement authorities and requires criminal background checks and education for clergy, employees and volunteers who work with children, the statement said.
Kane echoed the grand jury report in crediting Bishop Bartchak, who was appointed to the diocese in 2011, for reporting abuse allegations to authorities and removing accused priests from ministry. Kane's office began investigating abuse claims in 2012, and after two years asked the grand jury to hear evidence that had been gathered. By then the grand jury could not indict any of the suspected abusers because the state's statute of limitations had expired.
In Pennsylvania, injury victims have two years to file a civil suit while the time frame for filing criminal charges varies, depending on the age of the victim. An assistant to Kane said at the press briefing that the names of priests were included in the report in incidents in which the statute of limitations had expired.
As part of its proceedings, the grand jury recommended abolishing the statute of limitations for sexual offences against minors and urging the Pennsylvania General Assembly to suspend the civil statute of limitations on sexual abuse claims.
The report said the grand jury reviewed more than 200 exhibits and heard testimony from an unspecified number of witnesses. It provides details of abuse – sometimes in graphic language – by 34 priests against hundreds of victims, some of whom Kane said were as young as eight. It said other complaints had been made against a teacher who was studying to become a deacon, a choirmaster, a coach and members of religious orders.
The investigation uncovered how two bishops since the 1960s had taken steps to prevent scandal from overtaking the diocese by moving priests to new assignments after allegations were made against them and how diocesan officials used their influence with law enforcement and elected officials to prevent criminal charges from being filed against clergy, according to the report.
Grand jurors outlined actions by Bishop James J. Hogan, who led the diocese form 1966 until 1986 when he retired – he died in 2005 – for failing to report abuse allegations to police. Kane said Bishop Hogan covered up the abuse to protect the Church's image.
A raid on diocesan offices in August in Hollidaysburg, near Altoona, led to the discovery of what Kane called a "secret archive." Officials with Kane's office uncovered dozens of handwritten notes by Bishop Hogan, letters and documents sent to Bishop Joseph V. Adamec who retired in 2011, statements from abuse victims, correspondence with offending priests and internal correspondence on clergy abuse matters, the report said.