As Pennsylvania confronts clergy sex abuse, victims and lawmakers act

By Laurie Goodstein

Maureen Powers

Maureen Powers, who said she was sexually abused by a priest as a child, decided to finally report her case.

Nearly 15 years after Boston suffered through a clergy abuse scandal dramatized in the movie “Spotlight,’’ Pennsylvania is going through its own painful reckoning.

From the state Capitol in Harrisburg to kitchens in railroad towns, people say they have been stunned to read evidence that priests they knew as pastors, teachers, and confessors were secretly abusing children — findings a grand jury report called “staggering and sobering.”

Victims are coming forward for the first time to family and friends, and alumni of parochial schools are pulling out their yearbooks, marveling at how smiling faces hid such pain.

By the age of 12, Maureen Powers, the daughter of a professor at the local Roman Catholic university, played the organ in the magnificent hilltop Catholic basilica here and volunteered in the parish office.

But she said she was hiding a secret: Her priest sexually abused her for two years, telling her it was for the purpose of “research.”

By her high school years, she felt so tied up in knots of betrayal and shame that she confided in a succession of priests. She said the first tried to take advantage of her sexually, the second suggested she comfort herself with a daily candy bar, and the third told her to see a counselor. None of them reported the abuse to the authorities or mentioned that she could take that step.

So when a Pennsylvania grand jury revealed in a report in March that the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which includes Loretto, engaged in an extensive coverup of abuse by as many as 50 church officials, Powers, now 67, decided to finally report her case.

She called the office of the Pennsylvania attorney general and recounted her story, including the name of her abuser, a prominent monsignor who was not listed in the grand jury report.

“I just felt like now, someone will believe me,” said Powers, who retired after 30 years in leadership positions at the YWCA in Lancaster.

She was not alone. Powers was among more than 250 abuse survivors and tipsters who called a hotline set up by the Pennsylvania attorney general, Kathleen G. Kane. Twenty agents were needed to answer the phones, and a voice mailbox was set up to handle the overflow.

Multiplying the outrage, the grand jury report supplied evidence that the police, district attorneys, and judges in the Altoona and Johnstown area colluded with bishops in the coverup, quashing the pleas of parents who tried to inform on priests who sexually abused children. Some of those officials are named in the report, and some still hold public office.

“It really hit home for me when I realized that these victims are my friends, my classmates,” said state Representative Frank Burns, a Democrat, whose district includes part of Johnstown and who attended Bishop McCort High School, where the grand jury found that the abuse was rampant.

“Our region is devastated by drugs, suicide, alcoholism, and then you wonder — is this abuse tied into all of this?”

In the state capital, calls for full disclosure and accountability suddenly have new momentum. State Representative Mike Vereb, a Republican and a former police officer from Philadelphia, wrote a letter recently to the US attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania calling for an investigation under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO.

“This failure was colossal. It was nothing less than organized crime,” Vereb said in an interview in his office, where he keeps his old nightstick on his desk. “There was no chance, if you were a victim, that you were going to get justice.”

A flurry of negotiations has begun over bills that had been stalled for years to extend the statute of limitations for both civil and criminal cases of child sexual abuse. Abuse victims and their advocates have long argued that just as there is no statute of limitations on murder, there should be none on the sexual abuse of children.

The legislator leading the charge to extend the statute of limitations is state Representative Mark Rozzi, a Democrat from Berks County. Still boyish at 44, he is haunted by memories of being raped by a priest in middle school — a priest he later learned went on to sexually abuse some of his friends.

He said he decided to run for office in 2013 after the second of those friends committed suicide. On Good Friday a year ago, a third friend also took his own life.

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