Uncovering Decades of Sexual Abuse in a Pennsylvania Diocese

A report on hundreds of “staggering and sobering” incidents in Altoona-Johnstown shows a pattern of abusive priests being taken out of circulation only to be placed back in.


On Tuesday, two days after a film about a massive Catholic sex-abuse scandal in Boston won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Pennsylvania’s attorney general released a grand jury report chronicling “staggering and sobering” accounts of sexual abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

The report alleges that, dating back to the 1970s, “hundreds of children have fallen victim to child predators” in abuse cases that involved over 50 priests and religious leaders in the area:

As wolves disguised as the shepherds themselves—these men stole the innocence of children by sexually preying upon the most innocent and the most vulnerable of our society and of the Catholic faith.

But there at the heart of the report isn’t just the criminal behavior, but criminal callousness in the desire of high-level officials to “avoid public scandal” by keeping abuse quiet and even allowing known predators to remain in commission as members of the clergy.

The information uncovered by the report had previously been kept in files to which only top diocese leaders had access. The documents show that several priests were reprimanded, reassigned, or otherwise briefly sent off to treatment programs or vacations, only to return to serving their original communities or new ones. Others retired and a few were eventually kept from the ministry.

As the Catholic News Service notes, the report, which includes testimony from victims, initially came about after the state’s attorney general was approached by “local law enforcement officials and district attorneys of several counties” with information about the abuse.

Last month, a commission created by Pope Francis to combat such abuse declared it “a moral and ethical responsibility” to report suspected incidents to authorities outside the church, eschewing a longtime dynamic by which denials by clergy have been taken at face value and matters have been kept internal.

But given the prevalence of these scandals and the cover-up culture, it’s difficult to imagine that Altoona-Johnstown will be the last community to have this kind of reckoning. On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane reiterated that the grand jury report into the diocese was just a first step and that investigations are ongoing.