It has been a grim couple of days reading about and listening to testimony related to past abuse of children by Catholic priests, revelations from reports and documents that have been moldering in diocesan archives for decades. On March 1, as Cardinal Pell began his extraordinary testimony in Rome regarding acts of sexual assault over decades in Australia that led to scores of suicides, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, who had forced open the files of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, released yet another grand jury report on clerical abuse. Though elements of the story of abuse in Altoona-Johnstown were already known because of press reports, this grand jury report marked the first, detailed and gruesome accounting of decades of criminal acts by at least 50 priests or religious leaders and attempts to obscure those crimes and hide away those offenders by diocesan officials.
Today, Altoona-Johnstown’s current leader Bishop Mark Bartchak, acknowledging the report and its indictment of past episcopal leadership in the diocese, made a renewed commitment to respond to past clerical abuse of children and to efforts to prevent such acts in the present.
After extending his “heartfelt and sincere apology… to the victims, to their families, to the faithful people of our diocese, to the good priests of our Diocese, and to the public,” Bartchak pledged “to do more” to protect the children of Altoona-Johnstown. “Let me start with a significant commitment to transparency, past and future.”
A list of “all priests who have been the subject of credible allegations, along with each priest’s current status” will be posted to the diocesan website, he said.
He added, “This Diocese will continue to report to law enforcement, in writing, all allegations it receives of any type of sexual misconduct involving a minor by any clergy or religious (living or deceased), regardless of when the conduct occurred, whether or not the victim is now a minor and whether or not the victim or another person already has made the report.
“In addition, I will undertake a full review of our diocesan policies and procedures regarding child protection and will make all changes that should be made. This review will be comprehensive and will include our training and background check programs, the diocesan review board, and communication on reporting requirements.”
The bishop’s public apology included the Attorney General’s hotline, 888-538-8541, for reporting suspected abuse and the number for the diocesan victim assistance coordinator, Jean Johnstone, who can be contacted at 814-944-9388.
The commitment to transparency in Altoona-Johnstown is welcome now. It’s unfortunate that it took the full investigatory powers of the attorney general’s office to make it so.
That transparency would have been equally welcome 10, 20 or 30 years ago. The same can be said for dioceses all around the country and indeed throughout the rest of the Catholic world where archives and reports are still awaiting court orders before they will be reviewed and released. Accepting the Oscar for Best Picture a few days ago, “Spotlight” producer Michael Sugar said he hoped the film’s message would reach the pope. “This film gave a voice to survivors, and this Oscar amplifies that voice, which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.”
Indeed it is far past time for church officials to come clean on what and on all that they know about priest abusers and misguided efforts to protect the church from scandal by keeping these offenders from prosecution. Pope Francis should put an end to this soul-crushing grind of scattered archives opened only under juridical duress and require bishops around the world to release what they know, now. Let’s get this over with, so we can restore the victims and begin to, as Mr. Sugar put it, “restore the faith.” The church should bring everything it knows out in to the light of day from whatever musty corners its dossiers and documents are hidden; that way fewer bishops will have to be drawn out into media spotlights in compelled testimony that only forces us to relive the horror over and over again.
As another penance for continued efforts to keep the whole story from the people of God and the general public, the church in the United States should reverse institutional resistance to efforts to extend or eliminate the statute of limitations of acts of child sexual assault, acknowledging how long and painful the process is for many victims to understand what has been done to them and to come forward to seek restoration and justice.