Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown

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Coat of Arms of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown

When the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was published last summer two of the Pennsylvania dioceses were left out of the grand jury investigation.  That’s because both the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had already had grand juries convened to investigate priest abuse in their respective territories.

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown was originally named Altoona before its name was changed in 1957.  The diocese covers eight Pennsylvania counties and is situated in the central portion of the state.

A grand jury was convened in April 2014.  The jurors note that the report they provided was both “staggering and sobering”.  In its introductory pages, the jurors write,

As wolves disguised as the shepherds themselves these men stole the innocence of children by sexually preying up on the most innocent and vulnerable members of our society and of the Catholic faith. If these discoveries were not dreadful enough, this Grand Jury further found that the actions of Bishops James Hogan and Joseph Adamec failed to protect children entrusted to their care and guidance. Worse yet, these men took actions that further endangered children as they placed their desire to avoid public scandal over the wellbeing of innocent children. Priests were returned to ministry with full knowledge they were child predators.”

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown first public brush with fallout over priest abuse occurred in the 1990’s involving a diocesan priest named Francis Luddy.  The Report notes that press coverage of the Luddy scandal was thorough and extensive.  Susan Evans of the Tribune-Democrat wrote,

“A conspiracy of silence has deep roots in the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese, and in church law itself where “secret archives” are used to hide scandalous information, such as sex abuse by priests. And until recently, the conspiracy of silence often was aided and abetted by police and judges, who wanted the diocese to handle its problems internally. Locally, a mid-1990’s lawsuit against the diocese and since-defrocked Francis Luddy, accused of sexually abusing young boys, saw the first cracks in the church wall of silence. Nationally, the sex scandal that started in Boston and spread from coast to coast, has torn down that wall of silence. Now, everyone’s talking, either in court or in the court of public opinion.

But in the eight-county Altoona-Johnstown diocese, during the past several decades, errant priests were kept secret from their parishioners, often with police and even a few judges helping out. Records gathered for the Luddy trial in 1994, and only being made public in light of the national scandal, along with publicity about church Roman canon law, tell the story. Documents have been withheld because they are believed to be protected under centuries’ old religious doctrine, said the attorney who sued the diocese in the Luddy case. Priests accused of sexual misconduct have been counseled to “lay low and have been tipped off to police surveillance, court records show. And in at least one case, a priest wasn’t sent for treatment because diocese officials feared it would be an admission of guilt, court records say.”

When special agents of the Office of the Attorney General arrived at diocesan headquarters they were able to access the secret archives and rooms filled with cabinet files concerning priests accused of the sexual abuse of children.  The Report noted “Agents did not find a couple files in a drawer which alleged child molestation, but rather boxes and filing cabinets filled with the details of children being sexually violated by the institution’s own members.”

In spite of the fact that the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is a relatively small diocese with less than 150 diocesan priests, the Grand Jury investigation found evidence of child sexual abuse committed by 50 priests of the diocese.  The Report also noted that as each of the 50 priests came before the grand jury for questioning, each one stated that they had never spoken with any law enforcement official prior to their grand jury testimony. 

Laying culpability squarely at the feet of Bishops Hogan and Ademec, the Report concluded,

Bishops James Hogan and Joseph Adamec could have reported these matters to the police. Those same Bishops could have removed these child molesting priests from any and all ministry. Hogan and Adamec could have encouraged the fellow priests of these child molesters to report What they saw or heard of this sexual behavior involving children. The Bishops did nothing of the sort. Instead Bishop James Hogan and Bishop Joseph Adamec chose to shield the institution and themselves from scandal.  Because of their choices and failed leadership hundreds of children suffered.

The Grand Jury has learned that euphemisms like “sick leave” and “nervous exhaustion” were code for moving offending priests to another location while possible attention to a recent claim of child molestation “cooled off”. Diocese approved treatment centers like Saint Luke’s Institute in Maryland or Saint John Vianney Center in Downingtown, were used to provide cover for the Bishops as they left child predators in ministry. Reliant entirely on the cooperation and self-reporting of the sexual offender, these treatment facilities would often note that they had not diagnosed the offender as a “pedophile”. But when dealing with the safety of children, this language matters. The accused priest had not been cleared of being a child predator. A simplistic diagnosis had been offered that insufficient evidence existed to say that the accused was a sex offender; which was based almost entirely upon the self-reporting of the accused. Hiding behind that tissue thin layer of justification, the Bishops returned these monsters to ministry.”

One of the worst offenders was Fr. Joseph Bender who served in the diocese from 1957 until 1992.  During that time he sexually abused scores of children.  The Report describes him as a “serial pedophile”.   The Report notes,

Bender would take the boys on trips to include a cabin in Renovo. Bender was also active in camp activities through the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona, The boys were sexually abused almost constantly at any location at which Bender could have access to a child. One victim reported being kissed on the lips at the Cathedral and touched. Another victim reported that Bender ejaculated on the child after fondling the child’s genitals and anus.  Yet, another victim reported being molested while in bed on a trip with Bender. Victims often reported Bender making their bodies have contact with his erect penis. . . Father Bender had been in active ministry continually for 35 years, yet Bishop Joseph Adamec never contacted the police upon learning of the allegations or Bender’s damning admission to sexually abusing children. The Grand Jury finds that there were more than a total of three minors who were sexually abused by Father Bender. That error appears to be just one of the many made in Bender’s so-called evaluation or so our collective common sense leads us to believe. An inconvenient common sense Bishop Adamec conveniently ignored. Father Joseph Bender died retired but still a priest in 2000. His victims attempt to live on.”

In the case of Monsignor Harold J. Burkhardt, Bishop Ademec sided with the priest when confronted by the survivor about the abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest.  The survivor was not threatening a lawsuit, didn’t want money, but wanted the bishop to remove him so as to protect other children.  The Report notes,

“Father Harold Burkhardt perpetrated sexual child abuse on a 9-year-old boy. As an adult, the victim recalled being fondled through his clothes and being forced to suck Burkhardt’s penis. 0n subsequent occurrences: Burkhardt would pull down the victim’s pants and” insert a finger into his anus. Burkhardt asked the child a question, “What do you think God would say?” The victim didn’t respond. Burkhardt filled the silence stating, “God would approve.”

In 2005 this individual came forward and reported his victimization to the Diocese. The victim reported struggling with his effects of his victimization, and was concerned that people would think he was gay or know he was abused.  The victim stated he denied being an abuse victim for years and even struggled with thinking that Burkhardt stopped abusing him because he stopped liking him.

The Grand Jury notes the absurdity of the so-called investigation into this matter. Bishop Adamec, the Diocese, and the Allegation Review Board responded to this report by hiring private investigators to investigate the victim. They sought the victim’s school records. They interviewed Father William Rosensteel to obtain an opinion about the victim and his family. Rosensteel noted that the family didn’t attend church often and that he couldn’t imagine Monsignor Harold Burkhardt doing “anything like the allegation.” Finally, they looked at Burkhardt’s personnel file to see if there was any indication which would support the allegation.”

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Map of the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown

The Grand Jury found, as was the case in most sexual child abuse reports involving priests in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Diocese officials did not report the matter to the police. Instead, the church engaged in secrecy and an assessment of civil liability. The investigation of the victim and the reliance on the opinion of another priest, one who was a child predator himself, is galling and offensive to reason. However, from 1940 to 2011 such conduct on the part of Diocesan officials occurred regularly.”

After reading the Altoona-Johnstown Grand Jury Report, it’s evident why the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the relatively small Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown were singled out for earlier grand jury investigations.  The corruption, malfeasance, and abuse of children within the tiny diocese is appalling.