Diocese of Harrisburg

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Coat of Arms of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg

The Diocese of Harrisburg was established in the mid-19th century and covers the south central portion of Pennsylvania.  It has 89 parishes, 92 diocesan priests in the 15 counties of the diocese.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Dioceses of Greensburg and Harrisburg last year sought to shut down the statewide grand jury investigating sexual abuse by priests in six dioceses, including their own, contending that the creation of the grand jury lacked a legal justification.

The supervising judge of the 40th statewide grand jury dismissed the argument, according to newly unsealed records.

The Grand Jury Report singles out three individuals who were not bishops, who played significant roles in the handling of priest abuse in the Diocese of Harrisburg.  They are Monsignor Hugh Overbaugh, Father Paul Helwig, and Chancellor Carol Houghton. 

The Report states, “The evidence also revealed that Diocesan administrators, including bishops, had knowledge of this conduct and that priests were regularly placed in ministry after the Diocese was on notice that a complaint of child sexual abuse had been made. The Diocese’s actions enabled the offenders and endangered the welfare of children. Evidence also showed that the Diocese entered into settlements (since 2002) with victims and discussed with lawyers the sexual conduct of priests with children. Further, these settlements contained confidentiality agreements forbidding victims from speaking about the abuse they suffered under threat of some penalty, such as legal action to recover previously paid settlement monies.

Finally, the Grand Jury received evidence that several Diocesan administrators, including bishops, often dissuaded victims from reporting to police, or conducted their own deficient, biased investigating without reporting crimes against children to the proper authorities.”

The Report finds that the Diocese of Harrisburg had 45 priest abusers.  On August 1, 2018, the Diocese of Harrisburg released the names of 71 clergy members accused of in engaging in sexual abuse of children. The list included priests, deacons, and seminarians of the diocese, as well as clergy from other dioceses or from religious orders who had served in the Diocese of Harrisburg.

One egregious case involved Fr. Gus Giella who abused five young girls after transferring from the Archdiocese of Newark to the Diocese of Harrisburg.  In his second assignment in his new diocese, Giella began abusing the five girls who were sisters.  The abuse began soon after Giella was transferred to the girls’ parish in 1982.  The abuse included such deviant behavior as collecting their urine, menstrual blood, and pubic hair so he could consume them.  The Diocese was notified of abuse involving Giella in 1987.  The Report notes, “In approximately April 1987, a teacher at Bishop McDevitt High School received a complaint that Giella was insisting on watching a girl as she used the bathroom. The girl stated that Giella insisted on watching her go to the bathroom and that he did “wrong things” with children. The teacher reported the complaint to Father Joseph Coyne, who in turn made an immediate report to the Diocese. This former teacher testified before the Grand Jury on January 24, 2017. The former teacher’s testimony is corroborated by an internal memorandum from the secret archives of the Diocese of Harrisburg. In that memorandum, dated April 14, 1987, Overbaugh recorded the complaint, as well as an allegation that Giella engaged in similar conduct with one of the above-mentioned sisters.

The family also reported Giella’s abuse to police in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Police in Pennsylvania contacted the Office of the Prosecutor in New Jersey and law enforcement began an investigation. Upon serving a search warrant at Giella’s residence in New Jersey, New Jersey police confiscated the following: young girl’s panties; plastic containers containing pubic hairs identified by initials; twelve vials of urine; soiled panties; sex books; feminine sanitary products (used); numerous photographs of girls in sexually explicit positions; and some photos depicting children in the act of urination. Giella was arrested in August 1992.

Diocesan records do not indicate if Overbaugh, Helwig, Dattilo, or any Diocesan personnel ever reported the prior complaints against Giella or his confession to the police. The victims told the Grand Jury that this information was never relayed to them.”

Giella admitted his crimes to the police and was charged.  However, none of the families knew the extent to which officials in the Diocese of Harrisburg knew of Giella’s abuse and criminal behavior.

On October 12, 1992, an attorney for the family engaged the Diocese of Harrisburg in civil litigation via a letter of notice sent to the Diocese. Prior to reaching settlement terms, aggressive litigation resulted in the release of the victims’ psychological and academic records to Diocesan lawyers, the exchange of offers and counter-offers, the execution of confidentiality agreements, and prevention of a Harrisburg newspaper from obtaining information about the case. Letters between attorneys for the family and the Diocese haggled over whether the victim actually had a diagnosed condition as a result of the abuse. Diocesan lawyers argued that the Diocese was not responsible for the conduct of its agents.

On October 27, 1992, then Bishop Nicholas Dattilo wrote the family, and stated in part, “I share your shock, anger and hurt, and pledge full cooperation by the diocese in this unfortunate situation.” However, while Dattilo promised full cooperation, the diocesan lawyers continued to litigate and attempted to negotiate the family down from their approximately $900,000.00 demand to $225,000.00.

The Grand Jury notes this is a familiar pattern.  The Grand Jury observed this in numerous flawed Diocesan investigations across Pennsylvania. The Dioceses’ focus on secrecy often left even the Dioceses’ own investigators in the dark.

Giella never faced the criminal charges.  He died awaiting trial.  Bishop Keeler also got off unscathed.  He was later promoted to become the Archbishop of Baltimore.  However, the Report offers a scathing indictment of Keeler and his time in Harrisburg. 

The Report describes the emotional trauma Giella’s victims continue to suffer.  One attempted suicide while another suffered a panic attack during her Grand Jury testimony after seeing someone who resembled Giella.

Another example of priest abuse and the Diocese of Harrisburg’s conspiracy of silence involved a Jesuit priest assigned within the Diocese of Harrisburg, Father Arthur Long.  The Jesuit began his work in the Diocese in 1974. 

In 1987, Monsignor Overbaugh wrote a letter to Long’s Jesuit Superior stating that the Diocese had received numerous complaints about him.  “While this documentation contains numerous complaints, we seldom if ever receive word of all the good which Father Long accomplished during his years at the Geisinger Medical Center and for which we in the Diocese of Harrisburg are grateful.”

One of the nuns where Long was saying mass wanted the priest to leave.  Overbaugh wrote, “Sister Raymund wishes Father Long to be out of the home, certainly before the high school girls return to the Academy in the near future.”

The Report goes on, “Father David McAndrew of St. Joseph Church in Danville wrote a statement in November 1987 to Diocesan officials. McAndrew reported that a 21-year-old female and an 18-year-old female had approached him with concerns regarding Long. McAndrew wrote, “(REDACTED) said Father Long sought to have sex with her four years ago when she was 17 years old. (REDACTED) refused his advances.” McAndrew continued, “In conversation Father Long admitted to (REDACTED) that he has had sexual relationships with ‘four or five’ girls since he was stationed in Baltimore. Father Long told (REDACTED) ‘God wants us to express our love for each other in this [sexual] way.’ When, in response, (REDACTED) told him the Bible warns that such conduct will be punished by God, Father Long said, ‘there is no hell.’”

McAndrew’s letter details other sexual encounters with minor girls, including a 13-year-old, with whom the priest was sexually active.

Monsignor Overbaugh received McAndrew’s letter and reported it to Bishop Keeler who, in turn, wrote to the Jesuit Superior.  Overbaugh confronted Long and the priest admitted that he had a “relationship” with the girl but that it was over.  In his report back to the Diocese, Overbaugh was concerned about a “pedophilia suit”. 

The girl whom Long had solicited met with McAndrew and told him that it was more than solicitation and that the priest had forced her to have sex with him.  She was angry and broke the window of Long’s residence in retaliation.  The police began an investigation which concerned Diocesan officials since she may reveal the reason behind her destruction of property.  According to the Report, here’s how the Diocese reacted, “The Sister’s called the police and the police are seeking the perpetrator. If the police learn (victim) did the vandalism and arrest her for it, she will probably tell her attorney her reason. This could lead to a chain of legal actions far more damaging to the Sisters than a few broken windows. I think the time has arrived when it may be advisable to brief the Sisters as regards this entire situation. Otherwise, they may unknowingly take steps they may later regret.” Shortly thereafter, Long’ superior transferred him to another location.”

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Map of the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg

In early 1988, months after the Diocese received word about Long’s behavior, the superior of the nuns was told.  She asked why he wasn’t removed immediately.  Long was eventually moved, told not to return to the town, and stay away from the girls.  He disobeyed.  He eventually sought laicization (voluntary removal from the priesthood), but changed his mind.  He was eventually accepted as a priest in the Diocese of Scranton by Bishop James Timlin.

Helwig noted that, in 1991-1992, “Cardinal Keeler granted Long permission to work in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Shortly after his assignment reports were again received of inappropriate behavior on his part.” Long went on vacation and never returned to his community.

After all that happened with the priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Keeler, now the Archbishop of Baltimore welcomes him with open arms into the Archdiocese.