Altoona-Johnstown and Cardinal George Pell

Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown

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There is no question in my mind that if the Catholic Church is ever to end the plague of sexual abuse committed by priests it will require a sea change within the church hierarchy. Specifically, Bishops must be held accountable when priests in their charge abuse children.

For too long Bishops have placed the Church’s image and priest’s reputations above the protection of children. Time and time again Bishops ignored reports of abuse or covered-up crimes committed by priests. Their actions have been not only morally indefensible, but often criminal as well. In spite of the promises of reform delivered by St. Francis and the Vatican, news continues to surface that makes me question how serious the church really is about ending the long history of sexual abuse committed by priests.

In Pennsylvania this week, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese issued Tuesday a 147-page report on sexual abuse in the Diocese, home to nearly 100,000 Roman Catholics. The report was based partly on evidence from a secret diocesan archive opened through a search warrant over the summer. In chilling detail the report recounted how two Catholic bishops, James Hogan and Joseph Adamec, who led the small Pennsylvania diocese helped cover up the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by more than 50 priests and other religious leaders over a 40-year period. It portrays the church has holding so much influence in the community and with law enforcement, that the Bishops even helped select the police chief. When announcing the findings, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said the two previous bishops “placed their desire to avoid public scandal over the well-being of children.”

The clergy sex abuse crisis erupted in 2002, when The Boston Globe reported that the Boston Archdiocese had transferred child-molesting priests from parish to parish to protect them. The recent academy award winning film Spotlight showed in detail the lengths the Catholic Church in Boston was willing to go to silence victims and protect pedophile priests. Since then similar scandals involving hundreds of offenders and victims have since erupted in dioceses across the U.S. and beyond.

The Altoona-Johnstown report, like the Spotlight investigation, exposes clearly the extent of the criminal behavior by high-level church officials and their criminal callousness driven by the desire to avoid public scandal. Reports of abuse were covered-up and known sexual predators were allowed to remain as members of the clergy.

Probably the most chilling piece of evidence uncovered in the report was a “payout chart” developed by Adamec to determine how much to pay victims who reported abuse.

The chart recommended paying $10,000 to $25,000 to victims fondled over their clothes; $15,000 to $40,000 to those fondled under their clothes or subjected to masturbation; $25,000 to $75,000 for those subjected to oral sex; and $50,000 to $175,000 to those subjected to intercourse. This unconscionable document is then followed by a graphic chronicle of the accusations against every allegedly abusive priest known to have worked in the diocese.

While the Altoona-Johnstown was being released, Cardinal George Pell was testifying from the Vatican to the Australian Royal Commission looking into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. The commission questioned Pell on how much the cardinal knew about a number of priests and brothers accused of pedophilia during the 40 years in which he rose through the ranks of Australia’s clerical hierarchy, and whether he failed to act on the abuses. Many of the accused offenders have been convicted, but none of the Bishops who oversaw them and failed respond to the reports of abuse.

Pell was combative in his testimony, which prior to giving he had announced to reporters that he had, “the full backing of the Pope.”

In his testimony Cardinal Pell continued to insist that he has no memory of hearing about specific substantiated cases of sexual abuse during the 1970s and 1980s, but only that he occasionally heard gossip. But in earlier Royal Commission Hearings in Ballarat, Victoria compelling evidence revealed that as a Bishop, Pell had moved a disgraced pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale between parishes and even tried to pay one of his victims to remain silent. Pell was also accused by the commission of ignoring another victim’s claim that a now-convicted sex offender was abusing children at St Patrick’s College in Ballarat while Pell was auxiliary Bishop there. Again in this week’s testimony, and despite evidence to the contrary, Pell was resolute in his insistence that while he was a priest in Ballarat he was unaware pedophile priests were being moved between parishes to escape prosecution, and to protect the reputation of the church.

It is worth noting here that Pell gave his video testimony via video-conferencing rather than return to Australia in person. He was allowed to on the basis of a recent medical diagnosis that found an undisclosed heart problem. I was left wondering whether the real reason is that Pell is in fear of being criminally prosecuted in Australia. In the eternal city Pell lives alongside Bernard Law, the disgraced Boston cardinal featured in Spotlight, and both are expected to pass the rest of their days without fear of repercussions for their inactions.

Pell’s testimony and the Altoona-Johnstown report also come weeks after the high-profile Vatican Commission on the prevention of child abuse suspended one of it’s members, Peter Saunders (no relation). Saunders had complained publically of the commission’s impotence and accused the church of failing to deliver on its promises of reform and greater accountability. When announced, the commission was Pope Francis’ first formal response, but since its origin the committee has proceeded at a glacial pace and been marked by infighting. The removal of Saunders suggests that the commission has been reduced to being nothing but another toothless church panel.

Ultimately these scandals won’t be the last to be uncovered. For generations, young children were served up as prey to pedophile priests while the hierarchy of the Catholic Church covered up their crimes. In any other organization, the bishops who sheltered these sexual predators would face criminal charges. Instead, for their complicity men like Law and Pell are rewarded – allowed to live out their lives in the luxury of the Vatican never having to answer for the crimes they committed or the lives they ruined.

The victims of these heinous crimes might never find peace. But if it is to come, it must begin with a zero tolerance policy from the Vatican. This must include finally bringing to justice Law, Pell, and all the other bishops who allowed this horror to happen and making it clear the safety of children, and not the reputation of the church, will be the first priority.


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