“If there is a letter to the diocese that we heard father so-and-so had done this thing and this information, if it were made public, would taint this priest,” Diocese lawyer Ernest J. Mattei told Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis.
It’s been more than 10 years since the diocese paid more than $15 million to more than two dozen people who claimed they were abused by priests when they were children. And then there was the award-winning movie “Spotlight,” about the abuse cases in Boston that many thought had closed the door on the whole abuse scandal.
But for more than two years, three local lawyers, Jason Tremont, Cindy Robinson and Douglas Mahoney, who represent five alleged victims of four priests, have been battling with the lawyers for the diocese in Superior Court here.
All the priests are on a list of “Credibly Accused Diocesan Priests,” on the diocese’s website.
In 2004, Bishop Lori released a study about the problem of sexual abuse of children in the Diocese of Bridgeport. Bishop Lori is quoted as saying “The John Jay analysis for the Diocese of Bridgeport represents an important step in our desire to let everyone know what took place,” Mahoney said. “In 2016, there is a new bishop and we are once again faced with motions seeking confidentiality similar to what we saw in the 1990s under Bishop Egan. As we have learned, it is only by shining a spotlight on the issue of clergy sex abuse can we make our children safe.”
None of the lawyers for the diocese nor the Congregation of Holy Cross would comment on the case.
The lawyers for the diocese had already been ordered by Judge Bellis to turn over all the documents regarding abuse allegations against the four priests, but then filed a motion to prevent Tremont, Robinson and Mahoney from making any of the documents public.
“The Diocese has agreed to and has spent many, many hours satisfying Tremont and Sheldon’s discovery demand to review and disclose any and all information found in priest personnel files, including priests not accused of anything,“ the Diocese said in a statement late Thursday. “Their request has been extremely broad and has involved the personnel records of numerous priests with long and successful careers who have never had an allegation brought against them. These priests are not in any way implicated in the current cases, and the Diocese has complied with the request, producing the documents. However, it is seeking to limit the use of this information outside of the current cases at issue.”
“This information is not intended to titillate the public,” argued Gina Bonoehsen, the lawyer for the Congregation of Holy Cross, an international society of more than 1,200 brothers and priests.
But Mahoney pointed out that many of these so-called secret diocese documents include letters to the editor and magazine articles about the abuse scandal.
“I don’t see any reason to protect these documents,” the judge agreed.
Bellis gave the diocese’s lawyers until Sept. 26 to give the plaintiffs’ lawyers documents it doesn’t think the public should see.
Tremont, Robinson and Mahoney then have until Oct. 3 to disagree with what the diocese submitted and then the judge would make a decision on Oct. 11.
“Who is going to save our Church? Do not look to the priests. Do not look to the bishops. It’s up to you, the laity, to remind our priests to be priests and our bishops to be bishops.”
– Archbishop Fulton Sheen
Archbishop Sheen was right, as usual. Our pastors cannot lead us out of the current crisis in the Catholic Church, because they, as a group, do not recognize the nature of the crisis. In fact, despite the abundant evidence all around us, they are not prepared to admit that there is a crisis. They do not see the problem, because they are the problem.
The crisis is—let’s speak plainly—a crisis of clerical corruption. Our priests and especially our bishops have failed as Church leaders, because they adopted the wrong standards of leadership. They are using the wrong yardsticks to measure success and failure. And this clerical system tends to perpetuate itself: bishops train and promote priests who adopt the same skewed standards.
(It should be obvious, I hope, that I am making sweeping generalizations. There are many exemplary priests, and some of them become fine bishops. But the most energetic and evangelical clerics, I would argue, rise to leadership despite a system that rewards timidity and complacency. Individual priests may be holy men, but the clerical system is corrupt. By that I mean that while there are both good men and bad men in the system—as in any human institution—the good men are unable to establish control and institute reform.)
In June 2002, I was one of the scores of reporters covering the historic Dallas meeting of the US bishops’ conference. With the sex-abuse scandal at its peak, and ugly new stories exploding across the headlines every day, the atmosphere crackled with a sense of urgency, if not outright panic. The American bishops were under intense public pressure to take decisive action, and they did; the “Dallas Charter” was born. Even before they left Dallas, the bishops were proclaiming the Charter a great leap forward in the handling of sexual abuse, congratulating themselves for their achievement.
But the reporters who covered that event had a very different perspective. Because of the unprecedented media interest, the scores of journalists were set up in a separate hotel ballroom, watching the proceedings of the bishops’ meeting on a video screen. As the bishops’ discussions ran on, reporters naturally talked to each other, exchanging thoughts on the event. We quickly found that we all essentially agreed. Never in my career as a journalist have I seen such unanimity among the reporters covering a controversial event. Writers from conservative or liberal publications, from Catholic or secular media outlets, experienced hands and newcomers to the religion beat—all were saying the same thing. We were all shaking our heads and telling each other: “They don’t get it.”
Now think about that for a moment. Today the Dallas Charter is touted by Church leaders—not just in the US but in Rome as well– as the gold standard for handling sexual abuse. Bishops in other countries are advised to establish similar policies and procedures. The US bishops’ advisers, who framed those policies and procedures, are invited to address international seminars. Yet when the Dallas Charter was being devised and approved, the reporters watching the process were saying, “They don’t get it.”
What the bishops “didn’t get” is the simple, stark reality that they were the problem. Yes, certainly the priests who molested young people were a huge problem. But the secondary shock—the scandal that rattled public confidence in the Catholic hierarchy—was the realization that many bishops had covered up the scandal. Worse: that many bishops had lied to their people. And not just the bishops: during the “Long Lent” of 2002, Americans had learned about a culture of omerta in the clergy, a habit of mendacity. In Dallas the bishops talked about how to discipline wayward priests; they said very little about how to restore trust in their own leadership.
Is it any surprise, then, that the public still has not regained confidence in the Catholic hierarchy? That part of the sex-abuse scandal has still not been addressed. Consequently the rest of the Dallas Charter can be viewed with a jaundiced eye, by cynics who note that the polices and procedures are devised, supervised, and enforced by men who have not proven trustworthy in the past.
Media interest in the crisis of clerical abuse has subsided gradually during the past decade. The stories no longer command front-page headlines. There is no longer a frontal assault on the citadels of the Catholic hierarchy; it is now a cleaning-up operation, with lawsuits and the resulting bankruptcies filling space at the bottom of the news feed.
For the secular media, the sex-abuse scandal has lost its initial excitement since those wild days in 2002; there are no longer Pulitzer Prizes to be won on this beat. For the “official” Catholic media—the diocesan outlets and the publications sold in church vestibules—the topic is an unpleasant one, and prudence suggests adherence to the party line that the Dallas Charter has been a success.
Within weeks after that June 2002 meeting in Dallas, Bishop (now Archbishop) Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, then the president of the US bishops’ conference, placidly announced that the scandal was past history, and unquestioning Catholic journalists have been echoing that claim for years. The clerical culture, though badly shaken by the scandal, regrouped and recovered its own confidence. But the “new normal” is set at a distinctly lower level, as measured by Mass attendance, confidence in the hierarchy, Catholic influence on public affairs, and clerical morale. The events of 2002 are history, but the lingering effects are evident to anyone who looks for them.
Many bishops and priests recognize how far and how fast the situation has deteriorated in recent years. But the champions of what I have called the “clerical culture” do not. As parishes and parochial schools close, as childless families are destroyed by divorce, as prominent Catholic politicians endorse the “Culture of Death,” they continue to insist that the faith is “vibrant,” the future is bright. They will not initiate the needed reforms, because they see no need. They don’t get it.
If reform from within the clerical ranks is improbable, what hope do we have? The hope that Archbishop Sheen offered us: the realization that the future of the Church is in our hands, that the laity must come to the rescue. Earlier this week Jeff Mirus explained how lay people and lay movements have responded to the crisis:
The point is that the crisis of faith experienced by bishops and priests, which made life so difficult for lay people who really care, actually led to an astonishing contribution to Catholic renewal precisely by the laity themselves.
Archbishop Sheen predicted that the laity would save the Church. Jeff Mirus reports that the laity are saving the Church. The reform has already begun.
This does not mean “the fight is o’er, the battle won.” On the contrary, the struggle is only beginning. But loyal lay Catholics, formed in the crucible, have emerged with a stronger faith, a deeper commitment; they will not be satisfied with timid leaders. We will “remind our priests to be priests and our bishops to be bishops.” In the long run, the young bishops and younger priests will be our own sons and grandsons. And you can count on this: they will “get it.”
A lawsuit by a church employee who was fired after getting engaged to his male partner will move forward after a federal judge rejected the Chicago Archdiocese’s motion to dismiss the suit.
Colin Collette asserts in his lawsuit that his civil rights were violated when he was terminated in 2014 as music director at Holy Family Catholic Community in Inverness, where he had worked for 17 years. Collette sued both the archdiocese and Holy Family, claiming his firing amounted to “intentional” discrimination and seeking reinstatement of his job, lost wages and damages.
In its motion to dismiss the suit, the archdiocese cited what’s called the “ministerial exception,” which restricts employment discrimination claims by church ministers. The motion notes that Collette’s job titles were “director of worship” and “director of music.”
But Judge Charles Kocoras cited case law indicating that a title alone doesn’t determine whether a church employee should be defined as a minister. He ruled that further legal arguments would be needed to determine whether the ministerial exception applies here.
Collette previously told the Tribune that he was “not trying to be anti-Catholic,” in filing the suit.
“This is an issue the church needs to deal with. There are a lot of good people that are hurting,” he said.
Collette’s firing divided the parish. Many members spoke out in support of him; others said the church should not be forced to employ someone who enters into in a marriage not sanctioned by the church. Collette’s suit asserts that many employees, both homosexual and otherwise, are in nonsanctioned marriages.
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said the church does not comment on pending litigation.
Update:This article has been revised to include a response from the Vatican that was received after the article’s initial publication.<
The Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States quashed an independent investigation in 2014 into sexual and possible criminal misconduct by Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis and ordered church officials to destroy a letter they wrote to him protesting the decision, according to a memo made public on Wednesday.
The detailed memo was written by an outraged priest, the Rev. Dan Griffith, who was working in the top ranks of the archdiocese and was the liaison to the lawyers conducting the inquiry. He wrote that the ambassador’s order to call off the investigation and destroy evidence amounted to “a good old fashioned cover-up to preserve power and avoid scandal.”
The document offers a grave indictment of the conduct of the Vatican’s ambassador, and will probably put pressure on Pope Francis to discipline him and Archbishop Nienstedt. The former ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, served as Pope Francis’ representative to the church until he retired in April.
With sexual abuse victims clamoring for Francis to take action against negligent bishops, the pope recently announced that an array of Vatican departments should keep bishops accountable.
“All roads of concealment and cover-up lead to Rome,” said Jeff Anderson, a lawyer who represents 350 suspected victims of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul. He spoke at a news conference on Wednesday in which he made the memo public.
This memo, and many other documents, were made public Wednesday as the result of a legal agreement between the archdiocese and the Ramsey County attorney, John Choi.
Mr. Choi agreed to dismiss the criminal case against the archdiocese in exchange for its admission that it failed to protect three children from sexual abuse by a priest, Curtis Wehmeyer. The archdiocese and the county attorney had reached a civil settlement in December, but on Wednesday it was amended to say, “The Archdiocese failed to keep the safety and well-being of these three children ahead of protecting the interests of Curtis Wehmeyer and the Archdiocese.”
Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda, who replaced Archbishop Nienstedt last year, apologized in a letter on Wednesday, and said: “I know that words alone are not enough. We must do better.”
The archdiocese agreed to an additional year of oversight of its child protection efforts by the county attorney’s office and the court, until the year 2020.
In 2012, Father Wehmeyer pleaded guilty to child molestation and possessing child pornography, and it later emerged that diocesan officials had known for years of concerns about his sexual conduct. But he was not only retained, he was promoted, in 2009, to pastor of a parish.
The case brought new scrutiny to the archdiocese and prompted other people to come forward with abuse allegations. And it led indirectly to the archdiocese’s commissioning an inquiry of its own leader, Archbishop Nienstedt.
Father Griffith’s startlingly frank 11-page memo on the history of that investigation was addressed to two bishops in the diocese: Lee A. Piché and Andrew H. Cozzens. In a brief statement released Wednesday, Father Griffith said: “My memo speaks for itself. I stand by it.” He also said he had confidence in Archbishop Hebda.
The memo states that after the investigation uncovered embarrassing evidence about the archbishop, the pope’s representative in Washington ordered it cut short. It says that when bishops sent a letter objecting to that decision, the nuncio told them to destroy the letter. Father Griffith said in his memo that “destruction of evidence is a crime under federal law and state law.”
In February 2014, the archdiocese hired an outside law firm, Greene Espel, to investigate Archbishop Nienstedt. The existence of the investigation did not become public until July 2014, after it ended, and the memo was written a few days later.
The purpose of the inquiry, the memo said, was to investigate allegations of sex and sexual harassment by the archbishop, primarily with other priests or seminarians. But it was also to look into what the memo depicts as a close relationship with Father Wehmeyer, “which may have affected his judgment regarding Wehmeyer’s past misconduct.”
“Given the significant judgment errors in the Wehmeyer case, I believed this to be one of the most serious issues of the investigation, a conclusion also reached by our investigators,” the memo says.
The Greene Espel lawyers took affidavits from 11 credible witnesses who had known the archbishop, the memo said, containing evidence of “sexual misconduct; sexual harassment; reprisals in response to the rejection of unwelcome advances.” The lawyers “stated they had at least 24 more leads to pursue.”
The memo also said that many of the witnesses mentioned that Archbishop Nienstedt may have had sexual relations with a Swiss Guardsman in Rome.
Efforts to reach Archbishop Nienstedt were unsuccessful.
Bishops Piché and Cozzens, with Archbishop Nienstedt, traveled to Washington in April 2014 to discuss the initial findings with the papal nuncio, Archbishop Viganò. The memo offers the first account of what took place in that meeting to be made public, albeit secondhand, because the memo’s author was not present. The nuncio “ordered you to have the lawyers quickly interview Archbishop Nienstedt and wrap up the investigation,” it says. “The nuncio said that the lawyers were not to pursue any further leads.”
A spokesman for the Vatican, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in an interview on Thursday, “This is a very complex issue and we need more information before we can make any comment.”
Father Lombardi said it was too soon to know whether the new Vatican protocols for judging bishops accused of negligence would apply to Archbishops Viganò or Nienstedt.
That page – one of 147 pages in the report detailing accusations against more than 50 religious leaders, priests and teachers – begins the account into the investigation of George Koharchik, a longtime priest, who among other diocesan assignments, was pastor at St. Clement Church in Johnstown for a decade.
That’s where Dougherty, then an altar boy, attended school and Mass with his parents.
The second youngest of nine kids, Dougherty was 10 and a fifth-grader at St. Clement School when he met Koharchik in 1980. Koharchik was his basketball coach and his religion teacher. The priest spent an inordinate amount of time with the boy.
By the time the priest had finished “grooming” him, Dougherty was allowed to “drive” the priest’s car. Koharchik would sit the boy close to him — or on his lap — and give him control of the steering wheel. Whether Dougherty, or one of his friends in the car, whoever had his hands on the wheel could count on Koharchik’s hands to grope their body and eventually their penis, Dougherty said.
“My first erection was at the hands of Koharchik,” he said. “My first memory of an ejaculation was with Father Koharchick.”
Dougherty played racquetball, cycled and played soccer with the 40-something priest.
“Any activity that required a shower afterward,” Dougherty said. “He bathed me. He cleaned my entire body.”
What began as tickling led to fondling and by the time Dougherty was 13 to digital penetration, he said.
“I remember shooting him a look,” Dougherty said. “But nothing was said, nothing was ever discussed about it.”
Koharchik sexually molested him for three and a half years, Dougherty said.
A preferential sex offender
Koharchik on March 17, 2015, testified before grand jury investigators that he had sexually molested boys while at St. Clement. In a contentious exchange, Koharchick told investigators how he had for years slept and showered with minors, how he had children sit on his lap and how he “patted” the buttocks of young boys.
Koharchik offered only clipped answers to the aggressive questions from investigators.
“I didn’t think of it certainly as predatory,” he told the investigators. “I don’t know that I would speak of it as acts of love.”
Investigators in March concluded Koharchik was a “child predator” who molested children after “desensitizing” them to sexual topics for his own sexual gratification.
A special agent from the FBI assigned to investigate the allegations designated Koharchik as a “preferential child sex offender,” who was able to use the trust and authority of the priesthood to “secretly engage in molestation, digital penetration and anal sex with children.”
Koharchik had normalized the conduct, nudity and contact to “confuse and condition” the boys for sexual assault, investigators concluded. Koharchik also groomed their families. He bowled with Dougherty’s parents every Thursday night for years.
Now 46, Dougherty is married and a successful chef and owner of the Crescent Grill in Long Island City, N.Y. He splits his time between homes in New York and Johnstown.
Gone is the mop of red hair that framed his freckled face as a boy. Gone is his faith in his religion, and most of his faith in God.
Dougherty says he is no different than other victims of child sexual abuse. He has endured the pain, the trauma, substance abuse, a suicide attempt. But he counts himself among the lucky ones who have negotiated the ravages of abuse to forge a life.
The torment and the pain are just beneath the surface, though.
In recent months, the venom of his abuse has resurfaced amid the reports from the investigation by the Attorney General’s Office into systemic child sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Investigators combed the secret archives of the diocese and heard testimony from victims, as well as church officials and priests, concluding that hundreds of children across the diocese had been sexually molested by priests and church officials from the diocese starting as far back as 1950.
The grand jury report could not recommend criminal charges against any individuals associated with the diocese as all criminal statute of limitations had expired. The same was true for civil cases.
“None of them are registered sex offenders. None of them,” Dougherty said. “They can move next to anybody. They can move next to any school. Plus the Senate just gave them a green light said: ‘Here you go. Here you go. You are free. We are on your side.'”
‘We have them…..today’
Dressed in jeans, a Polo plaid shirt and blue jacket, Dougherty was in Harrisburg this week, primarily to try to understand the looming fate of a bill that could, after 36 years, allow him to seek justice against his predator.
For the past several months, Dougherty has been following the reports on House Bill 1947, the reform legislation that is poised to overhaul Pennsylvania’s child sex crime laws. The bill – which sailed out of the House in April by a 180-15 vote – passed the Senate last week, but only after being stripped of the retroactive measure that would have allowed Dougherty to seek legal recourse against Koharchik.
“Whoever is in this report that’s molesting a child today, we won’t know about it for 20 years,” says Dougherty slamming his hand on the thick grand jury report. “We have them … today. We have the system, today. We have them admitting it, today. We’re just going to open the door and let them all out. ‘Here you go.’ No sex offense charges.”
Like almost all victims of clergy sex abuse, Dougherty blames the church for the fate of the bill. He said the church, and its powerful legislative arm, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, have the ear of lawmakers in the General Assembly .
“I struggle with a belief in God but I have a belief in our government system,” Dougherty said. “I don’t believe it was fairly done.”
Dougherty railed against Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, who introduced the amendment to stripped the retroactive measure from the bill. Scarnati argued that it was unconstitutional to revive expired statute of limitations, the conclusion delivered by the state Solicitor General Bruce Castor during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill.
“That is his interpretation,” Dougherty said of Scarnati’s opinion on the constitutionality of the bill. “He is not a judge. He is a legislator. It should have gone to the Senate floor clean. Let the courts decide.”
PennLive submitted a request to interview Scarnati. The request has not been granted.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference notes that the Catholic community “has consistently enforced strict safe environment policies” and offered assistance to survivors and their families. To date, dioceses across the state have spent more than $16.6 million on victim/survivor assistance services to provide “compassionate support to individuals and families.”
“The Catholic Church has a sincere commitment to the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed,” reads the conference’s official statement.
A priest defrocked
In 2012, contacted by detectives investigating allegations of child sex abuse against Koharchik, Dougherty provided information to the Cambria County law enforcement officials. Dougherty is convinced his responses were read to Koharchik in front of the grand jury.
“I believe with all of my heart that my name is one of those redacted,” Dougherty said. One week after speaking with detectives, Dougherty was contacted and told the information was being turned over to the state.
Koharchik was placed on leave in August 2012 amid accusations of sexual misconduct involving minors dating back more than 30 years. At the time, he was pastor at St. Catherine of Siena in Mount Union, Huntingdon County.
“At that time those accusations had just been presented. It was not like an old case that was being reviewed,” Tony DeGol, the spokesman for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown said. “When accusations were brought, (Bishop Mark Bartchak) immediately placed George Koharchik on leave.”
On Jan. 22, 2016, Koharchik was defrocked.
“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome requested that George Koharchik seek laicization,” DeGol said, reading from the former priest’s file. “When he did, it was granted by Pope Francis.”
Koharchik lives in Johnstown as a private citizen. His home is less than a 5-minute walk from Johnstown Public Middle School on Garfield Street.
PennLive on Thursday reached Koharchik at his home. He declined to answer any of the questions to put to him. “I have no comment,” he repeated on the phone.
Dougherty, who retains a youthful spark in his eyes and fills a room with his voice, succumbs to tears recalling how his father told him he finally believed him before he died. He chokes up recounting the call from his mother, now 83, a few years ago telling him she believed him. Koharchik was all over the local paper. The diocese was taking action against him amid accusations of child sex abuse.
Koharchik bears no hard feelings for his parents. They were devout Catholics living within the teachings of the church, he said.
“Give us our shot”
On Monday evening, Dougherty read PennLive’s report on the suicide death of Brian Gergely, who like him, was one of hundreds of victims of clergy child sex abuse from the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
Dougherty said that even though he never met Gergely, he felt as if he had lost a relative. He checked into a hotel and bawled his eyes out.
“I felt so absolutely defeated and so absolutely pissed off,” Dougherty said. “Just exactly the way Brian felt. They are doing it again … except this time they did it blatantly in the paper. They publicly (expletive) us again, they just did it publicly.”
A successful businessman, Dougherty said he would not sue to seek money, but rather for moral principle.
“If I was a sitting senator for 30 years, I would be standing on my Senate desk on the floor screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Help me please! They have duped all of us. The children in my district are being raped by people who were supposed to teach them the teachings of Jesus Christ … show some teeth, senator.”
He implored lawmakers to salvage the retroactive measure of the bill, which moved from the Senate last week back to the House for a concurrence vote. If, down the road, the courts rule the bill unconstitutional, Dougherty said, he’ll take that loss and move on.