Harrisburg Catholics seeking answers after clergy sex abuse scandal pack ‘listening session’

“Why was this allowed to go on for so long and how can it get better?”

  • Christine Vendel, PennLive

(Harrisburg) — About 250 people attended a town-hall style meeting at a Harrisburg Catholic parish night to hear what their church was doing differently after revelations that thousands of children were molested by priests over decades.

Parishioners asked tough questions at the 7 p.m. meeting at the Saint Catherine Laboure Parish at 4000 Derry Street. It was the first in a series of planned “listening sessions” by Bishop Ronald W. Gainer across the Harrisburg Diocese, which covers 89 parishes.

The Harrisburg Diocese last year was one of six at the center of a grand jury investigation led by Attorney General Josh Shapiro that unearthed widespread clergy sex abuse spanning seven decades, as bishops and church officials turned a blind eye to the crimes.

Some parishioners said they planned to withhold their financial offerings to the church until they felt more trust and saw more transparency from the diocese, said Carolyn Fortney, one of five sisters who were sexually abused as children by the same priest in Dauphin County. All five sisters attended the two-hour meeting.

Harrisburg Bishop Ronald W. Gainer addresses fallout after clergy sex abuse grand jury report

Patty Fortney-Julius said she thought Gainer spoke from his heart at the meeting but that he remained “disconnected” and still “doesn’t get it.”

As long as the church withholds names of some accused priests and fights the two-year retroactive window that would allow victims to sue the church even after the statute of limitations, Fortney-Julius said, then some people are going to struggle to fully reconnect with the church.

“Everything that was brought up, every issue,” she said, “He came up with an excuse. He could never just let it be what it was and accept that there are huge faults that they can’t excuse.”

Saundra Fortney-Colello said she felt the meeting was perfunctory, like slapping a band aid on a gaping wound.

News reporters weren’t allowed to attend the meeting but were allowed to interview parishioners afterward.

Patrick Scott, 50, of Lower Paxton Township, said he attended mass for nearly 20 years, but as of late, he doesn’t go as often.

“I came here because I wanted to find out some answers,” 50-year-old Patrick Scott said. “Why was this allowed to go on for so long and how can it get better?”

The sex abuse scandal hurt his faith, Scott said.

Marc Levy / The Associated Press

FILE PHOTO: Carolyn Fortney, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her family’s Roman Catholic parish priest as a child, awaits legislation in the Pennsylvania Capitol to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg.

“It disappoints me that both the church and the priests are supposed to preach the word of the Lord, and they weren’t doing that,” he said. “They weren’t helping the children who needed help from abuse.”

It would take years before Scott said he would consider donating toward any financial fund, regardless of the financial position the church has found itself in.

Despite the “heart-wrenching” stories Ellen Bretz heard, she said she still would contribute toward the church’s causes. She said she drove from Linglestown to hear for herself how other parishioners are doing.

“I still attend church regularly,” she said. “This has nothing to do with the Catholic religion. It has to do with revamping the church.”

Gainer took questions from reporters after the meeting and addressed the church’s lack of support for a retroactive window for victims to sue the church.

“It’s a question really for the Legislature,” he said. “The Senate pretty much feels that its unconstitutional as well as some members of the House so there’s a whole question that has to be debated and decided.”

When asked if he was concerned about the diocese’s financial stability should a two-year window be granted by the Legislature, Gainer noted that dioceses in other states that have passed similar legislation have filed for bankruptcy “without exception.”

Gainer said he hoped the diocese’s new compensation fund could help make amends to victims with financial settlements.

The fund will allow victims to receive compensation faster than going through the courts, he said, but receiving an award from the fund would preclude a victim from trying to collect later through the courts.

Money to pay the “awards” will come from investments and assets the diocese has, including insurance recoveries, Gainer said. In addition, the church will borrow money if needed and sell Diocesan assets to fund the program.

Creating the fund was one of several new actions the church has taken since the grand jury report was revealed. Gainer said he opened the meeting with eight points, including the fact that they no longer do their own internal investigations into sexual abuse allegations.

“That was a big mistake,” he said. “Some of our worst problems came from that. Immediately now investigations are turned over to the proper law enforcement agency.”

The church also tightened up how it vets seminary candidates and the process that men must go through to become priests. The diocese also hired a former state police captain to provide independent oversight of the diocese’s new youth protection programs.

Gainer said he welcomed the chance Thursday night to see parishioners and hear their stories.

They were able to “talk about their frustration, anger and disappointment with the way their situations were handled,” he said. “It’s one step forward for a better, safer Catholic church.”

The next meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Adams Saint Joseph Parish, 5055 Grandview Road in

Hanover, and another one is set for 7 p.m. Jan. 21, at the Saint Joseph Parish, 410 East Simpson Street in

Mechanicsburg. A full schedule is available on the diocese website.

Staff Writer Jana Benscoter contributed to this report.

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