Carroll responds quickly
Troubling new allegations, questions and suspicions still abound in regard to the Jerry Sandusky child-sexual abuse scandal that thrust Penn State University into a nightmare of horrendous scope in the fall of 2011.
Meanwhile, the child-sexual abuse scandal involving priests of the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese over four decades – sexual abuse that two former bishops allegedly hid rather than properly address – has, since being disclosed earlier this year, shaken the faith and trust of many members of the diocesan flock.
Now there’s a new, similar allegation that has stunned the senses of good people in this part of Pennsylvania, who wonder what new safeguards might be necessary to protect children and their innocence.
Beyond that, many are questioning whether foolproof safeguards even are available.
But Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg, the entity at the center of the latest scandal, offers a measure of hope by its good judgment and speed of response in regard to an allegation that a school employee working as a “house parent” for international students had sexually assaulted one of those students.
After that initial allegation, the employee – 28-year-old John Bowman Thornberry – was accused of having attempted a similar assault on a second student, and authorities reportedly were trying to locate a possible third victim who returned to his home country after an alleged attack by the same man.
The alleged assaults are not only a Bishop Carroll problem. They must be construed as a basis for stepped-up caution by other entities near and far, religion-based or otherwise.
Bishop Carroll apparently had adhered to all of its pre-employment guidelines and safeguards prior to hiring Thornberry. He had passed all of the required state clearances and also had completed a diocesan Youth Protection Training Program before his hiring in August 2014.
The school thought it had an employee upon whom it could depend to keep track of the international students’ whereabouts when they weren’t in a classroom, provide guidance in regard to homework and also provide transportation as needed.
While Thornberry, like all criminal-case defendants, is innocent until proven guilty – he has denied the allegations – the case has become one of the most disturbing chapters of the school’s history.
However, what isn’t damaging to Bishop Carroll is how school officials responded to the first indication that something was seriously amiss.
According to school CEO Jerome Stephens, Thornberry was removed from the school campus and suspended without pay on Feb. 9, the same day as the first student’s allegation.
Police were notified quickly, as well as Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan.
Because of the state Attorney General’s Office’s investigation of the diocese scandal, Callihan referred the Carroll case to that office for prosecution. The school has a connection with the diocese, although it is run by Stephens and a board of trustees.
Stephens made the point of emphasizing that Carroll’s first priority is the safety of every student at all times, and school officials’ response regarding Thornberry raises no doubts about their commitment to that goal.
Still, people of this area are justified in being disturbed that the region again finds itself dealing with allegations so despicable.
If the allegations are true, it’s clear that the victims’ innocence and lives have been forever damaged.