Local bishop probed Erie allegations
Report says Bartchak ‘played important role’
The latest grand jury report on sexual abuse by Pennsylvania priests in six dioceses released Tuesday indicated Altoona-Johnstown Diocese Bishop Mark Bartchak “played an important role in the Diocese of Erie’s handling of priest sexual abuse.”
Bartchak served as a judicial vicar for the Diocese of Erie from 1992 until he was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in 2011. He investigated several priests accused of abuse who were named in the new grand jury report, which also includes correspondence between then-Monsignor Bartchak and then-Bishop Donald Trautman. The report, released Tuesday, appears to paint Bartchak as reluctant to track down all of the victims of one suspected priest — William Presley.
Bartchak denies that was the case. In a statement released Tuesday evening by diocese spokesman Tony DeGol, Bartchak said: “There have been inquiries made regarding reference to my efforts to fully investigate and successfully seek laicization (removal from the priesthood) of one particular priest in the Diocese of Erie.”
“In keeping with my promise to maintain the transparency that I have insisted upon since I became Bishop, it is appropriate that I briefly respond,” the statement reads.
“The grand jury report discusses communications between myself and Bishop Trautman as part of the laicization of a priest (William Presley) in the Diocese of Erie in 2005. As reported, I was assigned to conduct the process.
“I sought guidance from the bishop on whether it would be necessary to interview additional witnesses despite my firm belief that we had more than sufficient information to successfully and promptly proceed with the laicization of this priest. That priest was in fact laicized by the Vatican in 2006.
“Any inference that I was seeking to cover up any misconduct by a priest who had been removed from ministry is simply not accurate,” Bartchak’s statement reads.
A full copy of the bishop’s statement is included with this story online at altoona mirror.com.
The grand jury report states that in 2008, Bartchak wrote in a confidential memo to Trautman: “I was not surprised to learn from other witnesses from the Elk County area, that there are likely to be more victims … several more witnesses who could attest to the brutality that they were subjected to by Father Presley.”
Bartchak asked Trautman, who stepped down in 2012 as bishop at the required age of 75, “It is likely that there may be others who were also of age for the offenses to be considered delicts, but to what ends is it necessary to follow every lead?”
The latin term “delicts” means the violation of civil law.
“Is it worth the further harm and scandal that might occur if this is all brought up again?” Bartchak wrote. “I am asking you how you want me to proceed. With due regard for the potential for more harm to individuals and for more scandal, should I continue to follow up on potential leads?”
According to the grand jury, Bartchak documented a meeting with Trautman four days later indicating, “Bishop Trautman decided that, in order to preclude further scandal, these additional witnesses should not be contacted, especially given the fact that it is not likely that they will lead to information concerning delicts involving minors under 16 years of age.”
In 2006, Trautman submitted a formal request to the Vatican to defrock Presley, and it was in this request that the brutality of Presley’s actions is laid out.
“Presley is a violent man. … He managed to work his will and way by fear, intimidation, charm and deception, all the classic signs of a hardcore predator. How he managed to escape for so many years defies reason and understanding,” a summary of Presley’s case sent to the Vatican said.
Presley’s abuses had first come to the attention of the church as early as 1987, the grand jury report notes. That case involved two victims and spanned about 16 years.
Presley’s case is just one in the more than 1,300-page report. The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, which was the subject of a separate grand jury report in 2016 is not included in Tuesday’s presentment.
“Today, the most comprehensive report on child sexual abuse within the church ever produced in our country was released,” Shapiro said of the report detailing how the grand jury concluded sexual abuse by 301 “predator priests,” more than 1,000 victims and senior church officials who knew of the abuse and helped cover it up.
“Pennsylvanians can finally learn the extent of sexual abuse in these dioceses,” Shapiro said, “For the first time, we can all begin to understand the systematic cover-up by church leaders that followed. The abuse scarred every diocese. The cover-up was sophisticated. The church protected the institution at all costs.”
Shapiro added he was not pleased that the report contained redactions and said he agreed with the recommendations of the grand jury that changes in the law were necessary, including eliminating the statute of limitations for child sexual assault, expanding the window for civil action, clarifying penalties for not reporting abuse and making sure confidentiality agreements that come with settlements do not hamper law enforcement investigations.
In all but two of the cases looked at by the grand jury, the statute of limitations for criminal charges had passed.
Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown spokesman Tony DeGol put out a statement on behalf of Bartchak on Tuesday and noted the bishop and others in the diocese were still reviewing the grand jury report.
“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,” Bartchak said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “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.”
In 2016, the Attorney General’s Office announced the findings of a grand jury investigation into the alleged abuse committed by 50 priests and religious leaders over 40 years and the cover-up within the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
The statement released Tuesday outlined steps taken by the local diocese to protect children and support victims of sexual abuse, including creation of the Diocesan Office of Children and Youth Protection, creation of an independent oversight board, a public listing of credibly accused priests posted on the diocese’s website, ongoing victim assistance, establishment of a third-party helpline, youth protection training and continued contact with agencies dedicated to helping victims of sexual assault.
“Bishop Bartchak is calling on everyone to join him in the diocese’s ongoing commitment to youth protection,” DeGol’s statement noted. “He asks for prayers and support for all victims/survivors of abuse and their loved ones.”
Mirror Staff Reporter Greg Bock is at 946-7458.