THE CATHEDRAL OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT DOMINATES THE ALTOONA SKYLINE
Just when you think the Roman Catholic Church in America could not get more repulsive — and were’s talking the earthly and not the holy here — along comes yet another sex scandal that tops all the others.
A grand jury revealed in a report late last month that the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown engaged in an extensive, decades-long cover-up of abuse by as many as 50 church officials. The cover-up was orchestrated, in part, by two bishops who wielded enormous power in the central Pennsylvania railroad towns and was aided and abetted by pubic officials, some of whom remain in positions of power.
The stories told by the 250 victims of the abuse, which is only the number who have come forward so far, have a familiar ring. A prominent monsignor sexually abuses a 12-year-old organ player for two years. When she goes to another priest, he also abuses her, while a third suggests she comfort herself with a daily candy bar each day, and a fourth who merely tells her to see a counselor.
What is different about what happened in Altoona and Johnstown is that it was finally revealed after a succession of major clergy abuse and cover-up scandals in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and most prominently Boston as recently dramatized in Spotlight, the Oscar-winning movie.
And that despite those staggering scandals and the resulting prosecutions, bankruptcies of entire dioceses and closing of schools because of damages paid to thousands of victims, not to mention the betrayal, pain and the lives destroyed, church and public officials in the central Pennsylvania communities not only remained silent, but police, district attorneys and judges colluded with the bishops in the cover-up, ignoring the pleas of parents who tried to call attention to the priests who were sexually abusing their children.
The grand jury found that law enforcement agencies repeatedly blew what investigations there were: The state police dropped the ball in a 1982 case, Altoona police conducted a half-hearted investigation of a 1986 allegation, and two former county prosecutors are unable to explain why a 1985 case died. Meanwhile, two judges tried to find a job for one troubled priest, and a diocesan administrator told the grand jury he had influence in the selection of local police chiefs.
The grand jury report terms as "heroic" the efforts of Altoona businessman George Foster to investigate misconduct allegations on his own even though he had no duty to do so.
In 2014, Foster met state investigators at a hotel and turned over letters, files and other documents he had been compiling for 14 years. The report quoted him as being puzzled over the longtime inaction of civic and religious leaders.
"Where were the police and the bishops?" he asked.
Beyond the usual finger pointing and flurry of legislation to extend statues of limitation, which have expired in this instance, what is different about this scandal is the possibility that the perpetrators and their helpmates could be prosecuted under a Mafia-busting tool known as the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act, or RICO. That, however, will be difficult because of statutes of limitations, some abusers have died and some victims are too traumatized to testify.
State Representative Mike Vereb, a former Philadelphia cop, is leading the push for RICO prosecutions. RICO provides for extended criminal and civil penalties. It focuses on racketeering and permits prosecutors to try the leaders of a syndicate — in this case archdiocesan officials -- for the crimes which they assisted or abetted others in doing, closing a legal loophole that allowed people to escape trial because they did not actually commit a crime personally.
"This failure was colossal. It was nothing less than organized crime," Vereb said. "There was no chance, if you were a victim, that you were going to get justice."
The church in America has responded half-heartedly, at best, to the scandals and in recent years has recast its opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage as a struggle for "religious liberty" against a government and culture that are infringing on the church’s rights. Yes, the church is characterizing itself as the victim.
Benedict XVI spent most of his time as pope and previously as a cardinal covering for pedophile priests, while Pope Francis has moved aggressively — by Vatican standards — to excommunicate pedophile priests, as well as establishing a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. The current Altoona-Johnstown bishop, who unlike his two predecessors is not accused of any wrongdoing, has recently suspended a few priests named as alleged abusers in the report.
Catholics and others in the deeply religious area wonder how much the fallout from the years of abuse has to do with a pressing contemporary problem: An epidemic of drug abuse, suicides and drunken driving arrests. The answer surely is that there is a connection, and people need to look no further than decay in their church to trace the roots of decay in their community.