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Central Pa Catholic priests accused of abuse

Four men have recently accused Huntington County Roman Catholic priest George Koharchik of sexually molesting them when they were minors. Bishop Mark Bartchak relieved Koharchik of Saint Catherine of Siena Parish in Mount Union of his priestly duties.

Central Pa Catholic priests accused of abuse

by James Hynes

 

Four men have recently accused Huntington County Roman Catholic priest George Koharchik of sexually molesting them when they were minors. Bishop Mark Bartchak relieved Koharchik of Saint Catherine of Siena Parish in Mount Union of his priestly duties. The priest will not be permitted to have contact with children while on leave. Investigators confirm that two alleged victims reported abuse to diocese authorities while two others subsequently reported directly to the Cambria County District Attorney’s office.

The allegations date back more than 30 years ago when Koharchik was parish priest in Cambria County. It’s not clear at this point where in Cambria County the abuses allegedly occurred or whether the accusers are from the same parish, but according to a brief statement published in the August 26 church bulletin, Koharchik referred to an allegation from his “first parish.” Koharchick worked in at least two parishes in Cambria County, St. Clement Roman Catholic Church in Upper Yoder and St Joseph Parish in Portage, before being assigned to St. Catherine of Siena in Huntington County.

Cambria County assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Bolton Penna said that her office is investigating the two allegations that were made directly to them but are in consultation with the state Attorney General’s office to determine jurisdiction. It is not clear at this time if the two earlier accusers who reported to the diocese will press charges. The diocese claimed that the men had requested information about them be withheld in order to “protect their privacy,” Bolton Penna said.

In reporting those cases to the District Attorney, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese was following church protocol. Church workers are mandated to report these crimes, but they were not required by law to report to legal authorities because the alleged victims are adults. Charges have not been filed for any of the allegations, and George Koharchik is the only priest presently accused. The diocese is fully cooperating with investigators.

The Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese is conducting its own investigation.

“If someone comes to us with allegations, it goes to the Allegation Review Board,” said Tony De Gal, spokesperson for the diocese. “If the board deems the allegations to be credible, the bishop will notify the priest and civil authorities are notified.”

The Allegations Review Board was established in 2002 as part of a comprehensive set of reforms embodied in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People—a document drafted and accepted by the United States Conference of Bishops in response to a spate of sexual abuse accusations against Roman Catholic priests.

Some child victim advocates are unsatisfied with Bishop Bartchak’s response to the allegations.

In a statement issued immediately following the diocese’s press release, Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said that the diocese should do more to shed light on this case.

“It is extremely frustrating that Bishop Bartchak is refusing to say how many times Rev. Koharchik has been accused, what the age group and gender of his victims were, and how many victims are known,” she said. “If he truly wants to keep his flock safe and informed, he should release all of the details he knows about Rev. Koharchik’s alleged crimes, and he should immediately reach out to parishioners and try to find other victims and witnesses.”

“The diocese needs to do more outreach...the bishop has the moral authority to set the right tone for the protection of children,” Dorris added. “There doesn’t seem to be the will to change things.”

History of Abuse

This is not the first time that the Altoona-Johnstown diocese has been embroiled in allegations of priest sex abuse. In 1994, former priest Francis Luddy admitted to sexual relations with five boys, including at least one altar boy. Luddy made this admission in his courtroom testimony during the civil lawsuit of Michael Hutchison, a then 26-year-old former member of St. Therese’s Catholic Church. Hutchison accused Luddy of molesting him repeatedly from 1976 to 1984 and at least once again in 1987.

That suit also named the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese and Bishop James Hogan as defendants, claiming that they ignored signs of abuse and covered up Luddy’s crimes. A jury found in favor of the victim and, after years of appeals, the Pennsylvania Superior Court awarded him $1.7 million in compensation and punitive damages in 2008.

Hutchison’s was not an isolated case. During the investigation and trial evidence revealed a system of secrecy and protection of accused priests. According to court documents archives open only to the bishop contained letters and other documents implicating as many as 10 priests in the abuse of possibly hundreds of young boys.

For years, none was reported to authorities. In one case, the police raised the alarm. When police observed several priests “cruising” for young prostitutes, an officer urged Hogan to discipline them. Law enforcement took no further steps, and the bishop simply implored the priests to say nothing while he transferred them, offered to get them counseling or simply gave them temporary leave.

Bishop Hogan’s attitude was summed up in a letter reviewed by the jury at the Hutchison trial—a letter he had written to one of the other accused priests.

“Painful as the situation is,” he wrote, “We must safeguard your own good name, protect the priestly reputation and prevent scandal from touching the church—even if unjust [emphasis added].”

Bishop Hogan retired in 1987 and was replaced by Bishop Joseph Amarec. According to a February 2003 Tribune-Democrat article Amarec and the diocese were named in a new lawsuit.

The bishop was accused of “covering up sexual abuse by priests, transferring offending priests from church to church and lying to area congregations.” Amarec had also been informed of four previously unknown cases of priest sex abuse in his diocese but he “kept the new accusations a secret from area prosecutors, despite [his] repeated promises of cooperation with district attorneys in the eight counties of the diocese.”

By 2004, the Altoona-Johnstown diocese faced 13 lawsuits alleging sex abuse. One of the accused priests, Martin McCamley, a former McCort High School music teacher, was accused by four men of “fondling” them and making sexual advances when they were minors. McCamley was transferred to Our Lady of Victory parish in State College in 1995. There, he led masses until he was forced on administrative leave in 2003.

The extent to which he had contact with children at OLV is unclear. However, there have been no accusations against him by any member of the OLV parish. McCamley maintains his innocence.

Most of these cases were never prosecuted as they either lacked sufficient evidence or they exceeded Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations. According to state law at the time, a victim had until age 30 to report his own case of child sex abuse. That was subsequently changed to age 50 as it stands today. In May 2004, the diocese agreed to a $3.7 million dollar settlement of the 13 lawsuits. Not one priest in the diocese has ever gone to prison.

The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese has not been alone in defending itself against allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

One of the first cases to break national news was in 1985 when Gilbert Gauthe, a Roman Catholic priest in Louisiana, pled guilty to 11 counts of molesting young boys. This case opened a pandora’s box of accusations of abuse and cover-ups that spread across the United States.

Most notably, in Massachusetts a Boston Globe inquiry led to the eventual downfall of one of the American church’s most revered figures. Boston’s Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law became the highest-ranking church official to be accused of suppressing evidence and misleading legal authorities. Cardinal Law was defrocked but never faced criminal charges.

Reform

By the time Law was forced to retire in 2002, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States had been under public and legal scrutiny for years. Trust for the church hierarchy had been greatly damaged and congregation numbers were declining steadily.

In response, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called a general meeting in Dallas where it approved a blueprint for reform called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. One of the changes instituted was the formation of a National Review Board. This board commissioned the John Jay College Research Team to study the scope and causes of priest-led abuse and to suggest systemic changes to prevent further molestations.

According to one of the subsequent studies, The Causes and Contexts of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, 4,392 priests were named in 10,667 individual cases of abuse reported to dioceses between 1950 and 2003.

The number of cases “increased steadily from 1950 through the 1970s and then began to decline sharply at or about 1985, with the decline continuing through 2002.” Even cases that came to light after this period mainly involved abuse that took place in the 1960s through the early 1980s.

According to the study, there are many reasons for that spike and decline. Some of the reasons given involved cultural changes in sexual norms and increased opportunity for abuse as parishes began developing youth services before informed plans for detection and prevention of abuse were even considered.

The findings in the study did not, however, support claims by some conservative Catholics that the sex abuse within the church was a product of a liberalized church. Critics of the church reforms undertaken in the 1960s claimed that the “liberalized church” has emboldened gay priests, and that sex abuse is the direct result.

Despite that 81 percent of all priests’ victims were boys, the study findings indicate that “priests who identified as homosexual, as well as those who participated in same-sex sexual behavior prior to ordination (regardless of sexual identity), were not significantly more likely to abuse minors than priests who identified as heterosexual.”

Tony De Gal, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese spokesperson, agreed.

“I don’t believe that those accused of pedophilia are homosexual,” he said. “This is about people abusing children.”

De Gal challenged the idea that child sex abuse is particular to the Catholic Church or that the Church’s hierarchical structure is to blame.

“Child abuse is a problem in society,” he said, “Pick up any newspaper. This is a problem across the country.”

While acknowledging that the Church has made mistakes and that his own diocese has justly been criticized, De Gal contends that the Church has made real changes.

“We are very serious about protecting children,” he said. “Our Diocese and the Church as a whole are being proactive in making children feel safe. We have been a leader in this.”

He pointed to the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People as evidence that the Church is serious about reform. The Charter established several institutional changes to reduce abuse and maintain transparency.

Church leaders set up abuse prevention programs aimed at seminarians and programs to train all employees how to detect and respond to possible abuse. It has created outreach programs in every diocese to increase open dialogue between parishioners and church officials and invite parishioners to report suspicions. A National Review Board oversees diocene compliance with protocol. Each diocese has set up an Allegations Review Board that hears allegations and reports credible ones to civil authorities, reflecting a shift toward viewing sex abuse as a real criminal matter.

But as Barbara Dorris of SNAP pointed out, this still leaves considerable discretion in the hands of church leadership. The Allegations Review Board has the power to determine which allegations are credible and which are not.

In the case of George Koharichik, the Altoona-Johnstown’s latest accused priest, the diocese claimed to have followed the Dallas Charter’s protocol. However, Dorris countered that, in spite of having reported the allegations to civil authorities, the diocese is still not obligated to provide specific information about those allegations.

“The [Dallas] Charter has no teeth,” she said. “It still holds no one accountable.” 

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