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Despite outrage toward alleged abuse by Catholic priests, legislation fails

Warning: The following story features disturbing descriptions and allegations of sexual abuse.

November 19, 2018

Father Augustine Giella began serving at St. John the Evangelist Church in Swatara Township, Dauphin County in 1982. There he was embraced by a family that included nine children (eight girls and one boy). Giella began abusing these children right after he started serving at the Swatara church. He physically exploited five out of the eight girls in the family and even a few other relatives. He also “regularly collected samples of the girls’ urine, pubic hair, and menstrual blood,” and would “ingest some of the samples he collected.”

Suspicions within the church rose about Father John G. Allen in 1970. Allen had been reported by Lancaster City Police to have solicited an undercover officer. Later, he attended a meeting of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, where he was heard to have an “obsession with young boys.” In 2002, a man reported to the Harrisburg Diocese that Allen had abused him from the ages of 14 to 18 years old. Allen had picked up the boy along State Street in Harrisburg and was found to have abused him ten to fifteen times.

Father Thomas Skotek served as the pastor of St. Casimir of the Scranton Diocese from 1980 to 1985. During that time he sexually abused one minor female, who became pregnant. He then assisted her in getting an abortion. The Bishop was aware of this by the following year and admonished Skotek for aiding in abortion, but not for assaulting the young girl.

These horrifying stories and in-depth explicit details come from an exhaustive two year investigation by Pennsylvania Attorney General, Josh Shapiro. These three priests are a few of the more than 300 priests detailed in a 800+ page report, published by a Pennsylvania Grand Jury on August 14, 2018, that documents abuse from as far back as the 1940s. The report has members of the Catholic Church questioning everything they’ve come to know as lawmakers push for legislation in both the House and the Senate.

Grand Jury report

“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this.”

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report opens with this line.  What follows is a scathing description of decades of abuse and cover-ups.  A group of legally qualified jurors selected to examine the validity of an accusation before trial, the grand jury investigation into Catholic clergy abuse has lasted for two years, with more cases pending. It examined the actions of over 300 Catholic priests, past and present, spanning all six Pennsylvania dioceses.

The report has given a sense of urgency to citizens and their elected officials alike as they work toward measures that would better prevent and punish similar abuses in the future.

Due to some investigations still in progress, a great deal of information was redacted in the report.

However, as the statute of limitations for many crimes alleged in the report has run out some details were included.

Currently, victims of these crimes in Pennsylvania can only file civil suits until age 30.  Criminal charges are only viable until the victim reaches age 50.

In the Grand Jury report they identified 45 alleged offenders who served at one time or another in the Harrisburg Diocese. Of the 45 offenders recorded, the names of two priests have been redacted from the report.

The Grand Jury’s investigation alleges members of the diocese were aware of the abuse and allowed the priests to continue practicing ministry and further endangering children’s welfare.

During the investigation of the Grand Jury discovered the Diocese entered settlements with victims and their families. The settlements included agreements such as confidentiality agreements, ensuring the silence of the victim and the abuse they suffered.

The Grand Jury also received evidence the Diocese would dissuade victims from reporting to the police and conducted their own “biased investigation.”

Were priests from St. Joan of Arc involved?

At least six priests on the report served at Saint Joan of Arc (SJA) parish in Hershey at some time in their career.

In 2004, the Harrisburg Diocese received a report from a girl saying that a priest has abused her when she was about ten years old in 1979, according to an the York Daily Record. The victim had told the principal of SJA school—whose name was redacted— Reverend Timothy Sperber had touched her in inappropriate ways.  The grand jury report states the principal responded that the girl was making indefinite accusations, and she was a “devil-child.”

Sperber, who served at SJA from April 1978 to April of 1983, is the only priest in the report who allegedly sexually abused students during his time as SJA.

Aside from Sperber, five other clergy-members appearing on the list were shown to have previously served at SJA in Hershey. Reverends Daniel Mahoney, Charles Procopio, and Carl J. Steffen all worked at the local parish in the 50s and 60s, while Reverends Herbert Shank and Francis Bach served there a bit later in the 70s.

Saint Joan of Arc parish declined to make a statement or answer any questions regarding the Grand Jury report.

What the church is doing now

In the wake of the grand jury report, the Church is taking steps to improve the personal security and well-being of all its members.

They are working to improve and refine their background checks, which, according to the the Harrisburg Diocese Executive Director of Public Relations, Rachel Bryson, have been working well for fifteen years. Once people have gone through these checks, they are given an ID badge to signify that they have been cleared.

Rachel Bryson is the Executive Director for Public Relations for the Diocese of Harrisburg. She joined the Diocese of Harrisburg at this newly created position on July 30, 2018. (The Diocese of Harrisburg)

Bryson also said if there is any report of abuse, law enforcement is informed and the individual in question is immediately suspended from their role in the diocese, whatever that may be, until the investigation is concluded.

The Diocese is also trying to atone for the church’s past.  

“We’re going to work to make amends to the survivors of child sexual abuse and to do what we can on our part to help the survivors heal,” Bryson said. “We are a support system for them and we want to do our part to help them through the healing process.”

Additionally, the Church wants to keep young people and their parents assured of their safety and to retain active members in the church.

We have a range of programs and it kind of depends on where they are coming from,” Bryson said. “We are actually reaching out to them at a younger age when they are in grade school and trying to build their love with the church at that age, so that they will continue on with the church.”

As for what they’re doing to assure the parents of their child’s safety, the Church intends to reiterate every change that they have made. Bryson said the diocese wants the public to be aware of all the improvements they have made to their system and what they are doing to ensure the safety of the Catholic youth.

Some of the changes coming to the Catholic Church may be imposed upon them by future legislation.

In an official statement by Harrisburg Diocese Bishop Gainer, he states, “As various alternatives and programs are proposed, we will support all reasonable and constitutional efforts focused on helping survivors and their families on a path toward healing.”

Government response

There are several ways the state government is responding to these terrible stories of abuse. Starting with Governor Tom Wolf’s official statement, released in response to the Grand Jury report on August 31, “The horrifying abuse endured by an unimaginable number of victims demands swift and substantial action. Let’s be clear: many victims were coerced and suppressed from coming forward by an institution they felt obligated to respect.”

Even though the State is reaching the end of its two-year session, there are many bills in regards to these abuses still slated for debate. One of these is House Bill 1844 (HB 1844), which would, “Develop an age-appropriate child exploitation awareness education program and incorporate such program into the school entity’s existing curriculum for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.”

The three-paged bill gives an outline of how one can set up the programs and add them to the curriculum in a number of ways. Mauree Gingrich, the original sponsor and author of HB 1844, said the bill was created so that children know what is going on and how to get the help they need to deal with it.

Representative Mauree Gingrich is the original sponsor of HB 1844, but has since retired. Gingrich served in State House of Representatives for 14 years before retiring in 2017. (PA House of Representatives)

What is different about HB 1844 is that it is totally preventative which isn’t a common thing to find in most sexual abuse legislature.

One thing that I saw that was missing was helping children themselves understand what was happening to them,” said Gingrich, “because in 90 some percent of the time where there is child sex abuse involved it’s done by somebody the child knows, respects, many times loves them, and many times is afraid of them.”

As Gingrich is no longer a Representative of the House, Representative Kathy Watson was asked to sponsor the bill. Watson has been involved with the bill for two years; however, she is not running again next election. And again new sponsor will have take up the fight.

A version of this bill, titled Act 71, has already been passed into law. And Act 71 creates the option to include abuse education in the curriculum, whereas HB 1844 will make educational instruction mandatory.

Despite the support for 1844, it died in the current session. There simply was not enough time in the session left or support for this bill to pass.

Something similar happened with Senate Bill 261, created by Senator Joseph Scarnati.  SB 261 would have changed the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases.  The bill would move the upper age limit for civil actions from age 30 to 50. Additionally, the bill would remove the statute of limitations for criminal charges to be filed in sexual abuse cases.

According to PennLive, “Scarnati said he sought to deliver a mechanism to thousands of victims who are timed out of the court system, so they could seek justice and perhaps monetary compensation.” However, Scarnati’s legislation also failed to pass in the current session.

Even though both bills have died, plans for them to be revisited next session are apparent.  Watson said she is already considering a new sponsor for HB 1844, “He and I have already talked about it. He will reintroduce the bill and take up the cause.”

Representative Kathy Watson is the current sponsor of HB 1844. Watson has served in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives for 17 years. (Pennsylvania House of Representatives)

As for Scarnati, he said he will revisit his legislature next session, in January 2019.

The Grand Jury report’s widening impact

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation drove Florida, Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Vermont to begin inquiring about the occurences of alleged abuse in their own Catholic churches.

Now the federal government has taken action. The US Department of Justice has begun its own inquiry into the crimes of the clergymen. According to CNN, “There has never been a federal investigation of this size into the abuse of children by priests and the cover-up of those crimes by Catholic leaders.”

“Senate leaders prioritized the church over the victims,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Shapiro said as he stood with victims in front of Capitol building, pledging his support to them on October 18, 2018.

“Now, through each and every investigation taking place,” Shapiro said. “They are being held accountable for what they did and subsequently covered up.”

These abuses impact all the victims’ lives for decades. In a video on the Attorney General’s website, three of the sufferers talk about their experiences. One of them, Shaun, says that he has never wanted to have kids since it happened, while another, Robert, said the abuses hindered him from showing affection to his wife or children.

The final victim in the video, Carolyn, said that this has altered her mind in numerous ways and that she still thinks about it today.

“It’s very lonely,” Carolyn said, “especially when it’s your word against God’s.”

If you are a victim of or hear any reports of abuse, ChildLine is a hotline to contact for help. The toll-free intake line, 1-800-932-0313, is available 24 hours/7 days a week to receive reports of suspected child abuse. Also included on the ChildLine website is a step-by-step protocol for reporting abuse electronically and additional steps to take regarding the abuse allegation.

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    Isabella WhiteDec 4, 2018 at 5:50 pm

    The subject matter of this article is so outrageous and I’m so glad you two have brought this scandal to light!