6 NEWS INVESTIGATES: The loophole that could keep abusers hidden
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (WJAC) —
Their stories of abuse at the hands of Catholic clergyman are horrifying to hear. But their accusations were never prosecuted by the proper authorities.
Attorney Richard Serbin has been representing victims of alleged sexual abuse at the hands of those in the Roman Catholic Church for more than three decades. He tried to prosecute cases under mandatory reporting laws.
Those are people required under law to report suspected child abuse to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services ChildLine if they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of any kind of active abuse.
"The diocese through their attorneys hung their hats on, 'We don't have a duty to report the sexual abuse of a child,'" Serbin said.
Laws regarding mandatory reporting have existed since 1976, but those in the church were not listed as mandatory reporters. Serbin said that made getting the truth into the open difficult.
Serbin lamented, "Who would believe that a priest would sexually violate, assault, or rape a child?"
Recent Grand jury reports into the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, and dioceses in the state outside of Altoona-Johnstown and Philadelphia showed that course of silence persisted. They documented times the church conducted its own investigations into alleged abuse but didn’t report them to anyone outside the church.
One of those responsible for investigating claims within their diocese was current Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown Bishop Mark Bartchak.
The 2018 grand jury report detailed his role in the Diocese of Erie investigations into claims against Father William Presley and Rev. Dennis Chludzinski.
Chludzinski’s case led to a referral to the District Attorney's office in 2004, though he was never prosecuted and was not publicly known until the grand jury report came out this year.
In Presley’s case: the report says the then-Monsignor Bartchak’s 2005 investigation led to “numerous additional victims or potential victims.” In a memo to Bishop Donald Trautman, Bartchak asked,
Is it worth the further harm and scandal that might occur if this is all brought up again? I am asking you how you want me to proceed. With due regard for the potential for more harm to individuals and for more scandal, should I continue to follow up on potential leads?
Bartchak later noted that Trautman had told him not to interview additional potential victims.
Bishop Trautman decided that in order to preclude further scandal, these additional witnesses should not be contacted, especially given the fact that is not likely that they will lead to information concerning delicts involving minors under 16 years of age.
The grand jury report shows Presley was defrocked in 2005.
After the 2018 grand jury report came out, Bartchak said in a statement,
Any inference that I was seeking to cover up any misconduct by a priest who had been removed from ministry is simply not accurate.
Bishop Bartchak declined our invitation for an interview to ask him further questions.
"Those that saw what was happening who had a responsibility to protect children were far worse in my mind by staying silent and enabling these child predators to continue to abuse children," Serbin said.
Even those that authorities knew about were given deference.
"I repeatedly saw police and even child services and judges looking the other way simply because it was a priest or the church that was involved," Serbin said.
The 2016 Altoona-Johnstown report showed that local and state police investigators knew about allegations of abuse. Instead of criminally charging them, prosecutors would allow the diocese to help the accused priests by allowing them to seek mental health treatment or simply move them out of the area.
In 2006, revelations from a grand jury report into the Archdiocese of Philadelphia inspired lawmakers to change mandatory reporting laws to strengthen the rules for clergyman, priest, rabbis, and ministers as those who must report abuse claims to DHS. It ensured they must report allegations regardless of the source of the allegations.
Bartchak’s investigation did not legally require him to report his findings, since it happened before the 2006 law change and could be covered under rules that excluded confidential communications.
But as the further grand juries would show, the damage was already done.
"The grand jury report unveiled systematic cover-up in the church and these victims never had a chance at justice," said Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria County.
In the recent state grand jury report: one of their four recommendations called for improvements to mandatory reporting laws.
"The grand jury report has shed some light on some grey issues when it comes to reporting," Burns said.
The grand jury members said the following about mandatory reporter laws,
Third, we want improvement to the law for mandated reporting of abuse. We saw from diocesan records that church officials, going back decades, were insisting they had no duty to report to the government when they learned of child abuse in their parishes. New laws make it harder to take that position; but we want them tighter. The law penalizes a “continuing” failure to report, but only if the abuse of “the child” is “active.” We’re not sure what that means and we don’t want any wiggle room. Make it clear that the duty to report a child abuser continues as long as there’s reason to believe he will do it again – whether or not he’s “active” on any particular day, and whether or not he may pick a different kid next time.
A bill with bi-partisan support was put forward in September to change those laws.
"Those who failed to report the repeated and likely continuing abuse of children should be held accountable for their crimes and suffer the more serious consequences they deserve," said Rep. Todd Stephen, R-Montgomery County.
The bill was tabled in the house in October during the battle in the state legislature over passing other reforms recommended by the grand jury, and amid concerns of unintended consequences that strengthening the laws could bring about.
Serbin worries abuse and cover-ups could still be happening. He hopes more is done at the state level.
"It doesn't take a legal scholar to recognize that the rape and sodomization of a child is a crime," Serbin said. "It's a crime in any civilized society."
If you have information about child abuse, you can call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313 or visit their website.