| 9/16/16 | Steve Esack, Peter Hall and Matt Assad |Allentown Morning Call |
The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office is looking into allegations of abuse by priests in the Allentown Diocese as part of a bigger statewide investigation, a lawmaker who was called to testify told The Morning Call on Thursday.
The Harrisburg Diocese also is under investigation.
“I can acknowledge that the Diocese of Harrisburg has received a subpoena from the state grand jury,” spokesman Joe Aponick said Thursday.
State prosecutors have been taking testimony in Pittsburgh for months in a wide-ranging investigation that started with a scathing March report detailing allegations of abuse by about 50 priests and other religious leaders in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese and a cover-up by church officials. It’s not clear how many of the state’s eight dioceses are being investigated.
“They’ve got a grand jury going on in the Allentown Diocese and on the Harrisburg Diocese,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi, a former altar boy who says he was abused by an Allentown Diocese priest in 1984. “Allentown is definitely under the microscope.”
Allentown Diocese spokesman Matt Kerr would not confirm the investigation Thursday. In a statement, he said the diocese promptly reports abuse allegations and has “zero tolerance” for offenders.
“The Diocese of Allentown is committed to the protection and safety of children and young people. To this end, it is the policy of the Diocese of Allentown to cooperate with law enforcement,” the statement said.
The Harrisburg Diocese issued a similar statement, saying its policy too is to cooperate with authorities and “to ensure the protection of our children and young people.” The diocese encourages victims to report abuse, the statement said.
Rozzi, who has led efforts in the Legislature to relax the statute of limitations on sex crimes against children to make the church more accountable for past sins, told The Morning Call he testified before the grand jury about three weeks ago.
Richard Serbin, a lawyer who represents dozens of alleged victims, said he has provided information to attorney general’s office investigators. And two people who say they were abused by Allentown Diocese priests told the newspaper they have been questioned by state investigators in recent weeks.
Rozzi would not disclose his testimony. But he has told the story of his abuse numerous times in public, including on the House floor during debates on legislation dealing with sex abuse issues.
Rozzi added he knows of others who have testified in Pittsburgh, but he would not identify them. He added that his office routinely receives calls from people claiming they were abused by Allentown-based clergy and that those calls are forwarded to the attorney general’s office.
“They [investigators] know Harrisburg is bad but I think people are really going to be shocked when they see the Allentown Diocese,” Rozzi said. “It is just too disgusting.”
Former Attorney General Kathleen Kane launched the statewide probe after the Altoona-Johnstown investigation found that hundreds of children were abused over five decades.
Based on that grand jury report, the attorney general’s office on March 15 charged three Franciscan friars with child endangerment and criminal conspiracy. The agency also set up a tip line for people to call with allegations involving diocesan officials.
During a Senate hearing in June, Kane’s solicitor general, Bruce Castor, confirmed the agency was using a grand jury to investigate other Catholic dioceses.
“Our office is continuing its investigation by branching out to other parts of the state to ascertain the scope and breadth of church officials to conceal allegations of sexual assault by members of the clergy against children and perhaps against adults as well,” Castor said during the hearing in which the Senate was considering a House bill that would extend the amount of time victims have to bring charges or lawsuits against abusers.
Agency spokesman Jeffrey Johnson said he could not comment about secret grand jury matters. Johnson added that investigators are tracking down tips left on the hotline.
“The hotline has generated calls related to dioceses beyond Altoona-Johnstown and we are doing our due diligence to look into those investigative leads,” Johnson said.
Serbin, who testified in the Altoona-Johnstown probe in November, expects the expanded investigation to touch Catholic dioceses in every corner of the state.
“I think every diocese in Pennsylvania was identified as having a child predator in its midst,” he said.
Serbin represented alleged victims of priests in five ultimately unsuccessful lawsuits accusing retired Allentown Bishop Edward P. Cullen and his predecessor, Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, of covering up allegations by moving accused priests among parishes or allowing them to retire. The diocese of about 260,000 Catholics spans Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Carbon and Schuylkill counties.
Serbin would not discuss his November grand jury testimony, citing a warning from the supervising judge about secrecy. But since his testimony, Serbin said, he has had several meetings with the attorney general’s office and provided investigators information he gathered on 109 clergy members around the state. The list includes 11 in the Allentown Diocese.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Allentown would be included in the statewide investigation,” Serbin said.
At least six of the 11 Serbin identified from Allentown have either died, left the priesthood or, in one case, left the country. The diocese had said the other five were no longer active in ministry. Two of those, however, remain listed in the diocese’s directory, though they are not affiliated with parishes.
Kerr did not respond Thursday when asked if any had been defrocked.
While some of the 109 accused priests were named as defendants in lawsuits, the cases were dismissed because the deadline had passed for many accusers to file abuse claims.
“Had those cases been allowed to go forward, I have no doubt in my mind that other child victims of those predators would have come forward,” Serbin said.
Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University and plaintiff lawyer who specializes in sex-abuse cases, said she has heard from several people who have been asked to testify before the Pittsburgh grand jury.
“I have been contacted by many survivors across the state because of the work I do and I have heard from survivors themselves that they have been invited to testify,” Hamilton said, declining to give numbers or names. “It’s a matter of making arrangements to get them all out to Pittsburgh.”
Grand jury investigations such as the one in Altoona-Johnstown and what is building in Pittsburgh are important to survivors and educate the public about child sex abuse, Hamilton said. The investigations should not be seen as an attack on the Catholic Church or any one institution, she said, but when there are many allegations about an institution, law enforcement must investigate.
“It’s good to see the state continue to work on the issue but it’s really time for the state to focus on abuse happening in many institutions, beyond the Catholic Church as well,” Hamilton said. “For survivors, it’s a vindicating experience.”
The Catholic Church’s history of protecting child abusers re-emerged in the public’s consciousness this year as the film “Spotlight,” detailing the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation of the coverup, received an Academy Award for Best Picture.
#SOLReformThe Altoona-Johnstown grand jury report came out about the same time. And then the York Daily Record began investigating abuse claims in the Harrisburg Diocese, using court records, lawyers and news stories. Its Aug. 8 story listed the names of 15 accused priests that the Harrisburg Diocese gave the newspaper, including details on where and when the priests served, and how the diocese responded when the allegations were made. Later that month, the diocese provided three more names to the newspaper, which published another story.
The state’s largest diocese, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has been the subject of two grand jury investigations since 2003. Those investigations uncovered allegations of sexual abuse against hundreds of priests that church officials never reported to law enforcement. Cullen, the Allentown bishop who had been the Philadelphia cardinal’s top aide, was called to testify about why cases weren’t reported.
Prosecutors eventually brought charges against three priests and a Catholic school teacher as well as the archdiocese’s secretary of clergy, whose case was tossed and will be retried.
Revelations about the Pittsburgh grand jury probe come days after the Lehigh County district attorney’s office charged Monsignor John Stephen Mraz, pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church in Emmaus, with child pornography possession on computers. According to court records, the investigation began shortly after July 25, when a parishioner who was upgrading Mraz’s laptop computers discovered a file of images and contacted the diocese, which in turn called law enforcement.
Rozzi, D-Berks, said Mraz’s arrest and the ongoing grand jury report show that the state needs to lift its statute of limitations on criminal and civil litigation against adults who have committed sex crimes against children.
“Predators don’t stop until they are caught or dead,” he said.
In April, the House adopted the bill that would have treated future cases of child abuse like murder, prosecutable at any time, and would have allowed victims up to age 50 to retroactively sue their alleged abusers and the employers who protected them.
In June, the Senate stripped out the retroactive civil lawsuit part of the bill and replaced it to allow only future victims to sue abusers and their employers. The Senate agreed to raising the age limit for those filing lawsuits from abuse in their childhood from 30 to 50, going forward.
The bill is now back in the House, which is scheduled to return to session Monday. No vote is planned on the Senate bill.