Abuse scandal has cost Altoona-Johnstown diocese $21.5 million, bishop says

Bishop Mark Bartchak, wrote in the Dec. 20, 2018, edition of The Catholic Register that the clerical child sexual abuse scandal cost the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown $21,491,052 from July 1, 1999, until Dec. 1, 2018. Tony DeGol, center, the diocese’s secretary for communications, said many Catholics have asked about the costs. Shaun Dougherty (right), a victims’ advocate who was allegedly abused by a priest within the Altoona-Johnstown ranks as a child, would like to see a more detailed breakdown of what the diocese paid to victims.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has made what could be considered its most in-depth public statement concerning clerical child sexual abuse within its organization, since the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General issued a grand jury report in 2016 outlining an alleged systemic effort to protect predator priests within its ranks.

A Dec. 10 edition of The Catholic Register, the diocese’s official publication, included multiple stories about the subject, a “special message” from Bishop Mark Bartchak and a chart showing that the expense of the scandal cost the diocese $21,491,052 from July 1, 1999, until Dec. 1, 2018.

The attorney general’s report provided information about how the diocese — then under the guidance of bishops Joseph Adamec and James Hogan — allegedly protected at least 50 religious leaders accused of abuse. Altoona-Johnstown has often declined to comment on subjects concerning clerical abuse, citing a policy of not discussing matters that could deal with ongoing litigation.

Bartchak also issued a mea culpa for the diocese.

“I apologize to all who have suffered from sexual abuse, especially perpetrated by some members of the clergy,” Bartchak wrote. “I apologize to your families and loved ones. I apologize to all who feel shock, disgust, anger, confusion, disappointment, and betrayal.”

The letter comes after years of questions about how the costs of the child sexual abuse scandal has financially affected the diocese.

“The information we have provided is something that many Catholics have been requesting for some time,” Tony DeGol, the diocese’s secretary for communications, said. “It is important that all of the faithful be assured that this diocese has a long history of supporting the victims and survivors of sexual abuse, and we will continue to assist them in any way possible. At the same time, we strive to be good stewards of the financial resources so generously entrusted to us.”

Expenses consisted of $15,755,988 in settlements/awards, $4,313,253 in legal fees and $514,422 in survivor counseling. Altoona-Johnstown also paid $907,389 in clergy compensation, which included payments for salaries, benefits and counseling to clergy members, who were removed from ministry, while awaiting outcomes of Canonical investigation.

Excluding insurance recoveries, the diocese was directly responsible for paying $17,011,626.50.

More than 290 individuals have received settlements and/or counseling assistance through the diocese, according to the bishop’s letter, which did not provide specifics about cases.

“It’s a little light on the data,” said Shaun Dougherty, a victims’ advocate who was allegedly abused by a priest within the Altoona-Johnstown ranks as a child. “As we were taught in Catholic school, show the work, show the numbers, show the math. How did you come to those numbers? Show the list.

“ ‘Victim 1, this abuse happened, this is what we paid, this is what the result was. Victim 2, Victim 3, Victim 4, Victim how many ever there were.’

“They have the records. They know what they paid for each act. Let’s see.”

Forty-eight percent of those expenses were paid for through the property and casualty insurance fund, 40 percent with diocesan savings, 7 percent by selling the diocese’s administration center and 5 percent from the sale of the bishop’s residence.

“Many have asked where we get the money to pay for all of this. Parish savings and funds designated for specific needs have not been used. This includes, for example, cemetery funds and designated contributions made by individual donors to a specific cause such as Catholic Charities,” according to Bartchak.

“As you know, after consulting with the diocesan finance council and college of consultors, I ordered the bishop’s residence to be sold and later approved the sale of the Diocesan Administration Center.

“The proceeds from the sale of these properties were largely applied to the expenses outlined above. The funding for settlements and counseling has otherwise been from savings of the diocese and insurance.”

Looking toward the possibility of future claims, Bartchak wrote, “Other dioceses have recently announced the establishment of programs that will involve tens of millions of dollars to provide services and compensation for victims. Our diocesan savings is insufficient to settle remaining requests for compensation at this time.

“However, we are in the process of seeking additional funds from past and present insurance plans in order to assist victims.”

To deal with the issue, the diocese initiated a victim assistance program in 2004, responding to two legal matters – a case to settle abuse accusations made against the Rev. Francis Luddy and a settlement with 21 claimants that, combined, cost the diocese almost $8.9 million in settlements/awards, legal fees and survivor counseling costs.

Since the 2016 report, the diocese has also established a full-time Office of Youth Protection and reorganized the Diocesan Review Board.

An independent oversight board was created to monitor how the diocese is fulfilling its obligations to protect children, per standards set in a memorandum of understanding with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania in 2017. The Independent Oversight Board for Youth Protection of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown recently issued a report in which it stated the diocese “has made significant and measurable progress towards developing a comprehensive program,” but noted that “full implementation and enforcement of the policies and procedures” is important.

“The plans moving forward, it’s a mixed bag,” Dougherty said.

“Protections for kids are good. But who really needs to be told that you shouldn’t be touching kids? This is a lot of theater to just get better at protecting kids. Truly, the way to protect future generations of kids is to expose the known abusers that you have and expose the cover-up that allowed it to happen. And then it will stop moving forward.”

Richard Serbin, a Blair County attorney who has represented dozens of victims of predator priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, thinks Bartchak’s letter is “a step in the right direction,” but also raised questions about how claims and information were handled.

Bartchak wrote that the “much publicized case involving the former priest Francis Luddy in 1999 marked the beginning of this long and painful time that we have been going through in our diocese.” But the two-decade case – in which Serbin represented the plaintiff – started in 1987, leaving him to wonder how information from that 12-year period was processed in the diocese’s recent report.

Serbin also represented several individuals who presented their cases to the diocese.

“A number of my clients appeared before the compensation program – called the allegation review board – and were denied compensation,” Serbin said. “I was prohibited from attending with my clients by the diocese. Nevertheless, the predator priests had, as part of the allegation review board, a canonical lawyer looking out for his interests.”

He added: “They’ve offered counseling in exchange for a release of all legal claims. How do you tell someone whose life is one of torment, as a result of being sexually abused repeatedly as a child, that they can get counseling, which the Diocese placed a dollar, time and visit limit on, in return for signing a release giving up the right to file any claims in the future. I don’t call that a compassionate response, rather a legal response.”

Serbin, a supporter of creating a retroactive window during which alleged victims could bring cases against their abusers even if the state’s statute of limitations have expired, also spoke critically about the more than $900,000 the diocese paid in clergy compensation.

“My response is that if they were in jail it wouldn’t be the burden of the diocese to pay for their upkeep,” Serbin said. “It would be up to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These child molesters and rapists should have been in jail instead of with the honor of retiring with the title of monsignor or priest.”

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