Kane: Altoona-area priests abused hundreds of children

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Bishop Joseph Adamec (left) and Bishop James Hogan.

In a scathing report that took aim at Catholic leaders, a Pennsylvania grand jury on Tuesday accused bishops of ignoring or hiding decades of sexual abuse by priests and religious leaders against hundreds of children in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

The panel recommended no charges against the 34 priests it named in its 147-page report, one that resembled, in tone and substance, a grand jury report that a decade ago lambasted the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

The abuse in Altoona had been so pervasive, the probe found, a bishop created a "payout chart" to guide how much money a victim deserved for offenses ranging from over-the-clothes fondling to sodomy.

Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane and aides stressed their probe was ongoing. "This is by no means the end of our investigation," she said.

The purpose in releasing the report Tuesday, Kane said, was to give victims their due in cases that could not be prosecuted. Some priests had died, the cases had grown too old to prosecute under state law (some dated to the 1950s), or victims were too traumatized to testify.

"Hundreds of children today . . . are still suffering those consequences." she said at a news conference at the Blair County Convention Center in Altoona. "Today is their day."

The report portrayed a powerful central Pennsylvania diocese using the same tactics revealed in dioceses worldwide since the scandal erupted a dozen years ago: Predatory priests targeting vulnerable children, and bishops and other leaders ignoring or concealing the misconduct and shuffling abusive priests from assignment to assignment.

Even police and other officials in the eight-county diocese stepped away when accusations involving priests came to their attention, the grand jury wrote. But the grand jury laid blame, first and foremost, on the diocesan leaders.

"Bishops James Hogan and Joseph Adamec could have reported these matters to the police," the report said. "Those same bishops could have removed these child-molesting priests from any and all ministry."

Instead, the two "chose to shield the institution and themselves from 'scandal,' " the grand jury found.

Hogan, who led the diocese until 1986, died in 2005. Grand jurors had no luck soliciting answers from his successor. Adamec, who left the post in 2011, asserted his Fifth Amendment right and refused to answer questions during the investigation.

The diocese said in a statement Tuesday that it had "cooperated fully with authorities throughout the investigation" but had no further comment except that it was "reviewing the report."

It was unclear when the investigation began. But officials said it started with a referral by Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan about a serial predator: Stephen Baker, a Franciscan friar who allegedly attacked dozens of students when he served as athletic trainer at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown. Baker killed himself in January 2013.

More than a year later, the diocese, its high school, and the Third Order Regular Franciscans paid $8 million to settle claims on behalf of 88 former students who said he abused them.

The grand jury made only a few glancing references to Baker. Instead, it outlined a culture within the diocese that allowed priests to abuse children with little fear of punishment.

"Predator after predator went before the grand jury," the report said. "Each indicated that it was the first time any law enforcement official had questioned them."

After a search last August of diocesan offices in Hollidaysburg, Kane's agents found handwritten notes from Hogan about abusive priests; letters and documents sent to Adamec; and, in a cabinet in the bishop's office, a safe under lock and key that contained one file pertaining to Baker.

"Agents did not find a couple files in a drawer which alleged child molestation," grand jurors wrote, "but, rather, boxes and filing cabinets filled with the details of children being sexually violated by the institution's own members."

Adamec kept a payout chart that guided how much money a victim should receive based on the type of sexual abuse.

For molestation or genital fondling above clothing: $10,000 to $25,000. If fondled under the clothes: $15,000 to $40,000. Oral sex: $25,000 to 75,000. Sodomy warranted payment of $50,000 to $175,000.

"The epidemic of priests offending on children was so significant that the bishop privately perceived a need for a scale of 'payments,' " the grand jury said.

A monsignor from the Hogan era described just how influential the diocese was in civic life.

"In Johnstown, I would basically pick the mayor; I would pick the chief of police," Msgr. Philip Saylor testified before the grand jury, the report said.

Former Altoona Police Chief Peter Starr reinforced this view.

"Politicians of Blair County were afraid of Msgr. Saylor," Starr told the grand jury.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese has been the subject of three clergy abuse grand jury reports since 2003 - the last of which led to the unprecedented suspension of more than two dozen priests and convictions against three current or former clerics.

In Altoona, five priests have been removed from ministry over roughly the past year - a move by Adamec's successor, and one Kane praised.

The grand jury echoed prior calls from other prosecutors to abolish the statute of limitations on sex-abuse crimes against minors and suspend the civil statute of limitations as well, so victims can sue their abusers.

"This is a no-brainer," said David Clohessy, leader of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "For the safety of children, legislators should pass these long-overdue, commonsense reforms now."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

610-313-8117 @Panaritism