Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown details sweeping changes for child sex abuse

JOHNSTOWN – The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown announced sweeping changes Monday aimed at protecting children from sexual abuse and ensuring that all allegations are immediately reported to law enforcement.

The diocese also will provide sexual abuse victims with access to counseling and support services.

“One case of sexual abuse is too many,” Bishop Mark L. Bartchak said during an afternoon news conference. “We need to repent in that and make sure it doesn't happen again."

The new reforms include:

• The creation of an independent, multidisciplinary oversight board that will include a former U.S. attorney and a Lutheran clergyman;

• The retention of an outside expert to develop a new, comprehensive child abuse prevention program;

• A reporting protocol that requires the diocese to report allegations of child sexual abuse to law enforcement within 12 hours after receipt;

• Taking immediate steps to prevent any contact with minors by the suspected perpetrators;

• Placing clergy on personnel or administrative leave within 24 hours of notice of a credible allegation of child sexual abuse;

• Counseling and support services for victims by qualified and independent mental health professionals chosen by the victims.

“This is a memorandum of understanding, it is not a court document,” acting U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song said. “What we found is that the diocese was a willing partner.”

The memorandum is the product of a collaboration between the diocese and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“These unprecedented reforms put victims first, providing them with access to needed support and counseling,” Song said. “Through this agreement, allegations of sexual abuse will be immediately reported to law enforcement and suspected offenders removed from contact with children.”

This news conference came more than a year after a grand jury report shed light on decades of alleged child sex abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane released a 147-report a year ago based on secret diocesan records and other evidence that detailed abuse by more than 50 priests and clergy against hundreds of children.

The report criticized Bartchak's predecessors, James Hogan, who headed the diocese from 1966 to 1986 and died in 2005, and Joseph Adamec, who succeeded Hogan and retired in 2005.

“Since the release of the grand jury report last year, I have focused on strengthening our commitment to children and youth protection and providing continued support to survivors of sexual abuse,” Bartchak said.

“The framework announced today represents the culmination of those efforts. As we look to the future, I believe these comprehensive and unprecedented reforms will make the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown a leader in the safety and protection of young people.”

The following is a statement from Judy Jones of St. Louis, Midwest Associate Director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests:

“We are grateful that Bishop Mark Bartchak of the Altoona-Johnstown diocese is making changes. We agree with him the one case of abuse is too many. This is a small step forward but the grand jury report came out over a year ago and we are still only seeing words and promises we are not seeing any actions that make children safer today than they were a year ago.

“Last year SNAP recommended that Bishop Mark L. Bartchak fire Father John Byrnes, who was singled out in the grand jury report, as well as every member of the Allegation Review Board. Byrnes took the Fifth when summoned before the grand jury and refused to answer its questions.

“The group also pointed out that the grand jury report identified more than 50 priests and religious leaders who had sexually abused children in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. Last year the bishop pledged to post the names on the diocesan website. However, while a list has been posted, SNAP noted that it contained only 28 names, and no other information helpful to victims and to the public, such as photos, work histories, and current locations.

“We ask that people judge the success of this plan by its actions and not by the words. Actions protect kids not words.”

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