Another journey into the hell of sexual abuse by priests: Two Altoona-Johnstown questions

Trust me. I understand that it would be almost impossible to write a daily news report about the hellish subject of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy that would please all readers. However, someone has to do this work and do it well.

It's hard to talk about this story having "two sides," unless you get more specific about the actual topic of a given report. After decades of reading this coverage -- some of it courageous, some of it rather shoddy -- I think it's crucial for reporters to make it clear that there are multiple issues being discussed linked to these horrible crimes against God and innocent children and teens.

First, there is the issue of secrecy among high church officials. At this point, you will encounter few people anywhere in Catholicism who have the slightest interest in openly defending what cannot be defended. Maybe behind the scenes? If so, nail them.

However, this brings us to a more complex, and related, issue. How, precisely, should predators in the past be prosecuted and punished? The biggest issue is whether to lift the statute of limitations -- which imposes deadlines on when victims can bring civil suits or state prosecutors can press charges against alleged abusers. In some cases, lawmakers have attempted to target the clergy, alone, in these legal efforts, even exempting, to name one example, teachers in public schools from facing new accusations.

The second question is also linked to the prosecution of priests. Should it be assumed that accused priests are guilty until proven innocent, if that can be proven? How do reporters handle cases in which memories have faded, or the details in stories have become muddled?

With these questions in mind, let's look at today's report in The New York Times -- "As Pennsylvania Confronts Clergy Sex Abuse, Victims and Lawmakers Act." To my eyes, this is pretty solid. Still, there are two points at which I think editors should have added at least one or two sentences for the sake of clarity.

At the heart of the story is a victim who has become a state representative who is shaping current debates on this subject. The leader of the diocese in this case, Bishop Mark L. Bartchak of Altoona-Johnstown, has cooperated with the grand jury’s investigation, but declined to be interviewed by The Times team.

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. ...
He ran for office campaigning to change the statute of limitations, which imposes deadlines on when victims can bring civil suits or prosecutors can press charges.

This brings us to a summary of the law being considered. Can you spot the three vague, but crucial, words in some of this paraphrased material?

Victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania can file civil suits until they turn 30, and criminal cases until they are 50. But Mr. Rozzi says it can take even longer than that for abuse victims to come forward. Shame, confusion, fear and denial are all factors that can inhibit them from speaking out, so Mr. Rozzi and his allies are pushing for several bills to address this problem.
One bill, scheduled for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, would remove all time limits for filing civil or criminal suits relating to child sexual abuse -- but this would apply only to people abused after the law is passed. Mr. Rozzi also wants to pass a temporary “window” in which adults victimized years ago could file suits no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. ...
These window laws can leave the church and other institutions open to legions of suits. Lobbyists with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the insurance industry have pressed lawmakers to hold the line, and they were working the Capitol’s corridors last week.

If you followed the logic of what I said earlier, the key words are "and other institutions."

Here is the question that must be clarified. It sounds like the legislation that Rozzi and others are backing does not single out the church for prosecution. But does the bill EXEMPT any specific institutions, especially those that are linked to the state (such as public schools)? One extra sentence would have handled this question.

My second question concerns a paragraph that was -- to the credit of The Times -- clearly inserted to remind readers that not all abusers wear clerical collars.

... Pennsylvanians and their legislators say they are asking themselves why their state has been in national headlines so often over sexual abuse, and not just in the church. The state has seen the conviction of a former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, for sexually abusing boys; two grand jury reports on child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; the first-ever conviction of a high-ranking Catholic official -- Msgr. William J. Lynn -- for covering up child abuse; and now, the prosecution of Bill Cosby on charges that he drugged and sexually abused a woman who worked at his alma mater, Temple University.
Despite all of that, it was not until the recent grand jury report, and the attorney general’s subsequent indictment of three superiors of a Franciscan order in Hollidaysburg, on charges of covering up child abuse, that legislators who were siding with the church began to rethink their positions.

My question: Should the Times team have added one sentence about recent revelations -- which made headlines in secular media -- about the key witness in the case that led to Lynn going to jail? Here is a summary via Crux:

Did a Philadelphia priest die in prison, falsely accused of sexual abuse by an unreliable witness who was desperate to please overzealous prosecutors?
That’s the suggestion of a Newsweek cover story whose author obtained a psychiatric evaluation of Daniel Gallagher, who in 2011 said two priests and a Catholic schoolteacher had raped him in the late 1990s.
His testimony led to a child-endangerment conviction for the Rev. William Lynn, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s former secretary of clergy and the first Church official to go to jail for child endangerment. It also led to the imprisonment of the teacher and the two priests.
One of those priests, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, died in prison in 2014 after being denied a heart operation.
Gallagher was the subject of a 2011 Rolling Stone story written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the reporter who wrote the now discredited story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.

There was a flurry of new coverage of "Billy Doe" Gallagher after the Newsweek story. There have been quite a few inconsistencies in the details of his troubled life, but that cover story -- referencing a psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Stephen Mechanick -- also noted that:

... Gallagher had also provided “conflicting and unreliable information” about his history of sexual abuse, as well as “conflicting and unreliable information” about the specifics of the alleged attacks by the two priests and schoolteacher, Mechanick wrote. “It is not possible to conclude to a reasonable degree of psychiatric or psychological certainty that Mr. Gallagher was sexually abused as a child,” Mechanick added.
The psychiatrist isn’t the only person deeply skeptical of Billy Doe and his stories. The detective who led the Philadelphia district attorney’s investigation into Gallagher’s allegations against the priests and teacher also has some disturbing doubts. In a confidential deposition obtained by Newsweek, retired Detective Joseph Walsh was asked on January 29, 2015, about nine significant factual discrepancies in Gallagher’s story. The detective testified that when he questioned Gallagher about those discrepancies, Gallagher usually just sat there and said nothing. Or claimed he was high on drugs at the time. Or told a different story.

Now, I realize that the Philadelphia case does not play a major role in this Times story about the Altoona-Johnstown scandal. But there is now, according to journalists, at least one crack in the state's most famous clergy sexual abuse case, one that spotlights how difficult it is to prosecute cases that are built primarily on human memories, as opposed to damning testimony from the past that has been hidden in church files.

Might this crack in the Lynn case have been worth one additional background reference? Maybe one extra sentence?

Please respect our Commenting Policy