A Roman Catholic diocese accused of a decadeslong cover-up of child sex abuse by clergy has reached an agreement with federal prosecutors on reforms to prevent future abuse and to provide better help for victims, including new reporting requirements and the creation of an independent oversight board.
The reforms announced on Monday by Acting U.S. Attorney Soo Song and Bishop Mark Bartchak of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese also requires the church to hire an outside expert to develop a new sex abuse prevention program for its priests, which it already has done.
Former U.S. Attorney David Hickton, who retired in November, had threatened to pursue a possible racketeering lawsuit against the eight-county central Pennsylvania diocese that is home to nearly 100,000 Catholics.
Song said that was not necessary, stressing the reforms were not derived due to a court action.
"What we found in the bishop and the diocese was a willing partner," she said.
Such collaborations, mostly with state prosecutors, also have been undertaken in other dioceses around the country.
A year ago, Pennsylvania's attorney general issued a scathing grand jury report that detailed abuse by more than 50 priests and other clergy against hundreds of children going back decades while the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese was under different leadership. The grand jury did not accuse Bartchak of wrongdoing, but said it was "concerned the purge of predators is taking too long."
Bartchak said he has been working since that day to strengthen the diocese's effort to protect children, and the reform plan is a culmination of those efforts.
"One incident of sex abuse is too many, and we moved to right that and make sure it doesn't happen again," the bishop said.
Under the new agreement, the diocese will report all credible abuse allegations to law enforcement within 12 hours. It also will immediately take priests accused of abuse out of positions where they have contact with minors, and place them on leave within 24 hours.
The diocese will also publish the names, photos and assignments of diocesan priests who are subject to credible allegations. It also will publish their current status with the diocese. Bartchak said that initiative already is in the works.
The new independent oversight panel will audit diocesan compliance with the reforms for 10 years and issue annual reports. A retired federal prosecutor will serve on the board.
The Diocesan Review Board, which fields allegations of abuse by priests and must exist under church law, will also be revamped with new members.
Victims' advocates have argued these boards, their members hand-picked by bishops, have done little to curb abuse and may even discourage credible accusers.
The revamped board will include a psychological expert who screens applicants for Protestant seminaries, a priest from the Orthodox Church, a child therapist, an attorney, and a retired state police investigator, Bartchak said.
The diocese also agreed to pay for victims to see mental health professionals of their choice, and to hire a contractor to staff a 24-hour abuse hotline.
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who helped expose the Boston clergy abuse scandal in 2002 and has represented abuse victims in Pennsylvania, said he is skeptical about the agreement.
"The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown should immediately release all names of pedophiles and all documents relating to those pedophiles. Establishing a committee or board is not necessary for the diocese to do that," Garabedian said. "The question remains how effective is this board going to be? Is it going to have any teeth and act freely and voluntarily without answering to the diocese?"
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