Expect worse cases of clergy abuse: Witnesses in state investigation into allegations in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Allentown

| 9/16/16 | Ivey DeJesus | pennlive.com |

Several of the witnesses called to testify before a grand jury investigation by the state Attorney General’s office into allegations of clergy sex abuse across dioceses in the state are warning that they expect those findings to dwarf an earlier report this year out of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

“After reading the Altoona-Johnstown report, I thought it couldn’t get much worse but from hearing stories from victims about their abuse in Allentown it’s going to make the Altoona-Johnstown report look mild,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks), who gave testimony to investigators a month ago in Pittsburgh.

“The number of people that I know that want to testify clearly outweighs the number that they were able to get in Altoona-Johnstown,” he said on Friday. “I think you are really going to see some horrific stories of abuse that you didn’t see in Altoona.”

The Harrisburg Diocese on Friday confirmed that it had received a subpoena from the Attorney General’s office to testify in a statewide probe into allegations of child sex abuse by priests from dioceses across the state, including those in Allentown and Pittsburgh.

While he could neither confirm nor deny an ongoing investigation, Jeffrey Johnson, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office, said the office was doing its “due diligence” following up the increasing numbers of allegations reported to the state’s child sex crime hotline.

“I think we are just hitting the tip of the iceberg,” said George Foster, Altoona businessman who played a critical role in the investigation into his diocese. Foster, a Catholic, for months kept records on priests with credible allegations and unsuccessfully attempted to get church officials in Altoona to address the allegations. In 2014, he turned his documents over to state officials, who launched a grand jury investigation into the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Investigators uncovered a decades-old systemic abuse of hundreds of children by priests and church leaders – and its cover-up by the church and even local law enforcement officials.

“Unless the dioceses have destroyed evidence, I’m very confident they are going to find the same thing going on,” said Foster, who remains deeply involved as a victim’s advocate. He says he continues to receive calls from across the state from parents who say their children have been sexually molested by priests.

“We are fooling ourselves,” Foster said. “We are not being smart here. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Marci Hamilton, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of CHILD USA, said the latest grand jury investigation into possible child sex abuse in Catholic dioceses across the state confirms that state residents still do not comprehend the magnitude of child sex abuse across the state.

“It is important to remember that there are child sex abuse scandals in many institutions, and that every prosecutor in the state should be looking in his or her own backyard to uncover the hidden predators and the survivors who are being ignored by Pennsylvania’s inadequate legal system,” she said. “The time has come to cease deferring to powerful local institutions and to simply do the right thing for our children.”

Hamilton has led an effort to reform Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations – which set the time period in which victims of sex crimes have to seek legal recourse.

In the wake of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese grand jury report, the General Assembly fast tracked a bill to reform the state’s child sex crime law – known as statute of limitations. Hamilton testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee on the constitutional merits of reforming the law to extend to victims retroactive measures. Both chambers of the Legislature approved the bill, but the Senate stripped the retroactive measure. The bill goes before House again for concurrence this fall.

“These investigations are especially important as Pennsylvania’s lawmakers dither on meaningful reform of the states’ increasingly antiquated statutes of limitations for child sex abuse,” Hamilton said. “Many other states are moving forward making Pennsylvania’s worse and worse by comparison. The tried and true method for identifying hidden predators, negligent institutions, and improving health outcomes for survivors and families is through statute of limitations reform. That is a simple fact.”

Richard Serbin, an Altoona-based attorney who has represented scores of victims of child sex abuse, says that bishops and other church leaders who have over the decades turned a blind eye to the abuse of children by priests should be prosecuted.

“The reality is that under existing laws most of these predators have escaped prosecution and will escape prosecution not because justice requires it but because the law limits criminal prosecution for certain time period,” said Serbin, who testified in the current state grand jury investigation in November.

The law, he said, will impede the investigation by the Attorney General’s office, although he is emboldened by the conviction of Philadelphia Archdiocese Monsignor William Lynn, who became the first U.S. Catholic Church official to be charged and convicted in the clergy sex abuse scandal.

“That’s what’s so disappointing,” Serbin said. “Historically what has happened in our state is that there have few prosecutions. That’s because of the power of the church.”

Lynn, who has served nearly three years in prison, is set to face a new trial in May after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s decision to overturn his conviction. Police say Lynn endangered thousands of children throughout the city’s Catholic parishes when he knowingly transferred predator priests to cover up abuse.

While victims advocates say the Pennsylvania statute of limitations is likely to hamper prosecution of predatory priests, they say they are emboldened by the conviction of Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia, the first U.S. Catholic Church official to be charged and convicted for endangering the welfare of children.

“Of course the church is not the only institution that has protected child predators,” Serbin said. “But certainly the numbers are staggering.”

Serbin maintains a list of 109 priests who have been named as possible predators by former or current clients. Some of the clients who contacted him had no desire to file claims but only to alert others of predator priests, he said.

In some cases, Serbin had to inform clients that they had no legal recourse because the statute of limitations had expired for them.

“That’s how this law is so backwards,” he said. “In a sense, instead of protecting children by publicly identifying predators, we are protecting those who abused children.”

Foster bemoans that the church has not taken it upon itself – regardless of police action – to remove predators and priests with credible allegations.

He said the Catholic Church has not put in place enough changes to stop, prosecute and remove predator priests.

“People think that just because they know this happens, because they are aware that their kids are somehow safe,” Foster said. “Your children are not going to let you know they were molested for maybe 10, 12 years. People are fooling themselves it they think their children are any different than the thousands of children that were molested before them and kept silent. That’s what people don’t understand. They are sending their kids to schools where priests are not safe, confessions are not safe.”

A request for comment from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the legislative arm of the church, was not immediately granted on Friday.

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