[POSTED AUGUST 14 @4:50 PM]
Bishop Mark L. Bartchak is deeply saddened by the grand jury report released on August 14 regarding the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton. The Bishop is reaffirming his commitment to unprecedented youth protection reforms here in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and to offering support and counseling to the victims/survivors of abuse.
“We learned a great deal as a result of the statewide grand jury investigation of our Diocese more than two years ago and from our subsequent interaction with the United States Attorney’s Office,” Bishop Bartchak noted in his initial comments. “We have made tremendous accomplishments, and we will continue moving forward in our efforts to ensure the safety and protection of all children and youth.”
Since 2002, the Diocese has followed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Among other things, the Charter directs action for creating a safe environment, the healing and reconciliation of survivors, making a prompt and effective response to allegations, and cooperating with civil authorities.
In a renewed commitment to ensuring the safety of all young people, Bishop Bartchak, in partnership with the United States Attorney’s Office, announced a Memorandum of Understanding in 2017. The MOU outlines concrete steps the diocese is taking to protect children and reduce the risk of sexual abuse by diocesan personnel.
In announcing the MOU, Acting U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song commended the agreement and the diocese’s willingness to take these steps.
“These unprecedented reforms put victims first, providing them with access to needed support and counseling,” said Song on March 6, 2017. “Through this agreement, allegations of sexual abuse will be immediately reported to law enforcement and suspected offenders removed from contact with children.”
Added Bishop Bartchak on that same date: “As we look to the future, I believe these comprehensive and unprecedented reforms will make the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown a leader in the safety and protection of young people.”
Since the announcement of the MOU in March of 2017, the diocese has taken many steps to fulfill the agreement, including the creation of the Independent Oversight Board. Members include a former U.S Attorney, a retired law enforcement officer, a nationally recognized Ph.D. expert in child abuse, a survivor of sexual abuse, and a 30-plus-year public servant who serves as chair. The Board is supervising the implementation of the MOU and providing ongoing review of the Diocese’s enhanced child protection efforts.
Bishop Bartchak also announced all new members of the Diocesan Review Board, which examines allegations of sexual abuse. Their expertise includes pastoral care, education of children (including a teacher who served in a special school for at-risk children), safe environment for children and young people (a licensed psychologist with experience in screening applicants for ministry and a licensed clinical social worker whose primary care involved children), and retired state police criminal investigator. In the interest of providing objectivity and transparency, two of the Review Board members are from other Christian churches. This arrangement exceeds the requirements in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People for all dioceses in the United States.
On the Diocesan website, https://www.dioceseaj.org/list-of-priests/, the names and photos of Diocesan priests who were the subject of credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors are listed along with their status. Also on the website is a list of names of priests on leave from public ministry following the receipt of an allegation. Their status will be determined.
The Diocese has created the Office of Children and Youth Protection and hired Mrs. Cindy O’Connor as the Director. The office is responsible for implementing and overseeing the full diocesan response to the USCCB Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and compliance with the law. Through online and in-person educational training programs, presentations, and resource materials, the office is assisting Church personnel in responding to the mandates of the Diocese’s safe environment policies. Additionally, the office is overseeing required background screenings and training of diocesan personnel and volunteers consistent with the diocesan safe environment policies.
As Director of the Office of Children and Youth Protection, Mrs. O’Connor’s responsibilities include creating safe environments, reviewing organizational structures for maximum efficiency, increasing and coordinating communication efforts, implementing best practices for record keeping, and ensuring all compliance measures are being met.
As noted in the MOU, the Diocese retained the expert consulting services of R.L. Nichols and Associates, which has resulted in a new, comprehensive child sexual abuse prevention program. Mr. Les Nichols is working closely with Mrs. O’Connor and the diocese in updating policies, processes, and programming. Policies include Code of Conduct, Reporting Protocol, Training, Audit Compliance, Safe Environment, and Technology/Social Media.
It is the intent of the Office of Children and Youth Protection to increase communication, awareness, and support by offering in-person and interactive youth protection training sessions. The training platform is now upgraded to VIRTUS® with both on-line and live workshop options. VIRTUS® is the brand name that identifies a state-of-the-art, web-based platform that provides best practice resources 24 hours a day/seven days a week. Mandated Reporter training is required and continues to have an on-line option for employees and volunteers, however, Mrs. O’Connor has been trained as a certified trainer to present the mandated reporter training within the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
The Diocese, in partnership with Nulton Diagnostic and Treatment Center – a neutral party independent of the diocese, has secured a toll-free and confidential helpline. The number is (833) 685-8661. The scope of the helpline includes providing guidance on managing incidents of sexual abuse or other issues of concern, providing consultation on general best practices concerning abuse, and assisting callers with a report of abuse and/or providing them the appropriate resources.
The Diocese’s commitment to the survivors of sexual abuse is ongoing. The Diocese has consulted with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) and local county victim service agencies to raise awareness of sexual abuse in society and encourage victims/survivors to seek support. PCAR and local agencies continue to be available resources for the diocese in our mutual efforts to assist victims/survivors.
Mrs. O’Connor is affiliated with the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) in Cambria County, Family Services, Incorporated in Blair County, and the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, all of which offer prevention education, training, and survivor support in the community. She has also communicated with the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency Office of Victims’ Services. Additionally, Mrs. O’Connor contributes regular educational columns that are published in the Diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Register.
Under the leadership of the Office of Children and Youth Protection, the diocese plans to take further steps to increase communication and implement an awareness campaign. Such steps will include the development of a website dedicated to youth protection and the victims/survivors of sexual abuse. As the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown continues to rebuild the trust of the Catholic faithful and the community at large, raising consciousness will remain a priority with an ultimate goal of encouraging everyone to be proactive, not reactive.
Bishop Bartchak is calling on everyone to join him in the diocese’s ongoing commitment to youth protection. He asks for prayers and support for all victims/survivors of abuse and their loved ones.