‘No surprise to us’: Grand jury investigates Harrisburg diocese

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Some Midstate churches are under the microscope six months after a critical report about child sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

The state attorney general’s office is now investigating at least two more Catholic districts, including Harrisburg.

The investigation first came to light in the Allentown Morning Call thanks to state Rep. Mark Rozzi. He told ABC27 by phone Friday afternoon he testified in front of a grand jury in Pittsburgh last month about abuse he suffered as an altar boy in Allentown.

That diocese is now also under investigation.

“It came as no surprise to us,” said Nate Foote, an attorney with Andreozzi and Associates, a law firm that handles sexual abuse cases.

Foote said they’ve been contacted by a number of people who say they were abused at either the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg or Allentown.

“I can tell you it’s a handful” of people, he said. “I’m not really comfortable saying specifically how many, but it’s certainly more than one.”

They’re all ages, and he thinks it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers are comparable to those in Altoona,” he said.

That grand jury report, released in March, found some 50 priests and other religious leaders in Altoona-Johnstown abused hundreds of kids over a period of decades.

Harrisburg’s diocese, for comparison, covers nearly twice as many counties.

“I want to say that we’re shocked,” Foote said, “but we’re not.”

Joe Aponick, a diocese spokesman, said the AG’s office sent a subpoena for their records and that they’re cooperating. He declined to speak on camera, but late Friday afternoon emailed a statement to media outlets.

“The protection of our young is important to the Diocese and we have many safeguards and policies in place and an extensive program committed to helping abuse survivors find healing and recovery,” the statement reads.

“If you have knowledge of anyone, anywhere who was hurt by a priest, employee or volunteer of the Diocese of Harrisburg,” it continues, “please report the abuse immediately to the proper authorities and to our victim assistance hotline. We will support their healing no matter how long ago the abuse took place.”

(You can contact the state’s ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313 or the church’s victim-assistance hotline at 1-800-626-1608 to report abuse or suspected abuse.)

“This is a community problem,” said Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, “and institutions have a responsibility to the people they serve and to the community at large to be a part of the solution.”

Although the legislative battle over the statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse is ongoing, Houser said a survivor is never too old to contact one of the state’s rape crisis centers for support.

Houser said it’s time for the state’s awful history of institutional abuse to end.

“This is a reminder to schools, to youth activity clubs, to civic institutions that you need to do due diligence and you need to follow the law,” she said.

The attorney general’s office says they don’t discuss “grand jury matters and investigations the office is undertaking.”

It will likely take months — or longer — until any findings are released.

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