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Pennsylvania prosecutor fights clergy sex abuse as she maintains Catholic faith

Bishops attend the second day of the Vatican’s conference on dealing with sex abuse by priests, at the Vatican, on Feb. 22, 2019.  (Giuseppe Lami/Pool Photo via AP)

EBENSBURG, Pa. (RNS) — When allegations of past sexual abuse were first made against a priest at St. Clement Catholic Church in Johnstown, Pa., Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan recognized the name immediately. The Rev. George Koharchik had been her family’s pastor for the decade he served at St. Clement’s, from 1974 to 1984.

When each of her four eldest siblings got married, “he had such a connection with us that he came back to do the weddings,” Callihan, the sixth of nine children, recalled in a recent interview at her second-floor courthouse office.

But Callihan, 50, knew the victims, too: They were friends and former classmates in this western Pennsylvania county — a farming and coal-mining area hit hard by the steel industry’s decline and the opioid epidemic.

District Attorney Kelly Callihan in her second-floor office at the Cambria County Courthouse in Ebensburg, Pa. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

“I didn’t falter for a second in believing and understanding” the stories of abuse, Callihan told Religion News Service. “You could just hear the pain that they were going through.”

Callihan ended up referring Koharchik’s case, as well as separate sex abuse claims involving a Franciscan friar, to Pennsylvania’s attorney general. “I knew that I didn’t have the resources in a small prosecutor’s office to take on an investigation of this magnitude,” Callihan said. Also, she said, “I was too close to home with knowing a lot of these victims.”

Her decision proved monumental. Her referrals resulted in a state grand jury investigation, which in 2016 reported that 50 priests in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had abused hundreds of children over four decades while bishops covered up their actions.

Those findings in turn provided the impetus for a wider grand jury investigation into six other dioceses across Pennsylvania, culminating in a report — released this past August — that detailed abuse by more than 300 clergy against more than 1,000 children over 70 years.


RELATED: Opinion: Pennsylvania grand jury report is a new low for Catholic Church


“I think the fact that she’s a Catholic and still pushed this investigation forward shows that she did it at great cost,” said Jimmy Hinton, a Pennsylvania minister who is a certification specialist with the advocacy organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment).

Victims advocate Jimmy Hinton, left, with his mother, Clara Hinton, and sister Alex Howlett at the Somerset Church of Christ in Pennsylvania. Their father and husband, John Hinton, a longtime minister, is serving prison time for sexually abusing young girls. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

It helped, Callihan said, that Altoona-Johnstown Bishop Mark L. Bartchak alerted her about the allegations against Koharchik after victims brought diocesan officials stories of abuse they said occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“I think that was a big step in and of itself,” Callihan said of the call from Bartchak. “It wasn’t covered up. It was brought directly to me.”

Callihan said she had no personal recollections of strange behavior by Koharchik. But she said, “I didn’t doubt for one second, once I heard and saw the pain of the victims, that this occurred.”

An undated photo of the Rev. George Koharchik. Photo courtesy of bishopaccountability.org

Koharchik, now 70, escaped criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired, but he has been defrocked and is reportedly living as a private citizen in Johnstown.

In the past, Altoona-Johnstown bishops had failed repeatedly to file police reports on abusive priests.

“In fact, where police did appear deals were brokered to avoid prosecution,” the grand jury report said.

The report cited one case where two assistant district attorneys knew of a priest named Francis McCaa, who was accused of engaging in sex acts with multiple altar boys. The prosecutors, described as “pretty strict Catholics,” called the allegations a “delicate situation” and filed no charges. One of those former prosecutors, Patrick T. Kiniry, is now a Cambria County judge.

“You have to understand, this is an extremely Catholic county,” Kiniry told investigators in 2015, recalling a 1985 meeting in which an agreement was made with former Bishop James Hogan that McCaa would be transferred to another location. McCaa died in 2007.

“DA Callihan didn’t defuse anything. She turned it up,” said Shaun Dougherty, 49, who reported that he was sexually abused by Koharchik from age 10 to age 13, when the priest was Dougherty’s basketball coach and religion teacher at his Catholic grade school.


RELATED: Pope Francis calls for ‘all-out battle’ against child sex abuse


Like Callihan, Dougherty grew up in a Catholic family as one of nine children. Now an advocate for victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse, he attended last week’s Vatican summit on the church’s response to the crisis.

In a Johnstown Tribune-Democrat column last year, Dougherty praised his childhood friend: “Kelly, words can’t describe the love and gratitude that I have for you, as proof by the tears rolling down my cheeks as I write this section. You have changed the lives, for the better, for so many of us, by turning this over to the state attorney general. I am forever grateful.”

District Attorney Kelly Callihan in her second-floor office at the Cambria County Courthouse in Ebensburg, Pa. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

But while Dougherty abandoned his faith as a result of the abuse, Callihan remains a practicing Catholic.

“I like to think that positives have come out of this,” said Callihan, a mother of two who now attends Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church in Johnstown.

“Our local diocese has changed the way they handle child abuse,” she added. “They’ve come up with guidelines. They seem more victim-sensitive and victim-friendly.”

For her part, Callihan spearheaded the 2015 launch of the Cambria County Child Advocacy Center, a nonprofit with a goal of minimizing the trauma suffered by child abuse victims.

Rather than force children to undergo multiple interviews with school officials, police officers, state caseworkers and mental health providers, the center is a child-friendly environment where victims can be interviewed once by all the agencies involved.

Amid the renewed attention to the Catholic sex abuse crisis spurred by Pennsylvania’s grand jury report, Callihan has noticed that people are talking openly about the problem.

“It’s not this secret society anymore,” she said. “I hope the message is out that ‘It’s not your fault if you suffered that abuse. Your community is going to help and support you. You can be open about it and come forward and get help because no one likes that this happened.’”

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Bobby Ross Jr.

11 Comments

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  • “It helped, Callihan said, that Altoona-Johnstown Bishop Mark L. Bartchak alerted her about the allegations against Koharchik after victims brought diocesan officials stories of abuse they said occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s.”

    The bishop did the right thing and she carried it forward. Neither one dropped the ball, which is what had happened in the past, when bishops hid what they knew or “negotiated” silence from civil authorities who should not have allowed it.

    There is hope.

    Thanks, Bobby Ross, Jr., for a story of when it went the way it should, when truth mattered more than institutional reputation, when victims mattered more than the powerful.

  • I didn’t know they had a word for “someone who sticks his fingers in his ears and alternates between sing lalalalala at the top of his voice and yelling ‘what about them public school teachers?!??!?”

    English is such a wonderful language.

  • Usually, when there is a remotely credible accusation of a crime being committed, the first thing to do is to call the police. Apparently, in this dioscese, the proper response is to broker a deal with the police to avoid prosecution.

  • Ben, notice that this time it was done right. The bishop alerted the DA of the allegations against the priest. This time the local DA took the issue to the state attorney general because she realized: “… I didn’t have the resources in a small prosecutor’s office to take on an investigation of this magnitude,” … Also, she said, “I was too close to home with knowing a lot of these victims.” She removed it from local investigation because it was all too close to home. She didn’t let this get settled in a quiet agreement between civic and church authorities to just hide the whole thing.

    Yes, it was all hidden, secret, cover-up in the past. But this time it wasn’t. This story needs to get spread into every Catholic parish and diocese iso that lay people know what they should expect from their bishops and their fellow Catholics in law enforcement and so the bishops and law enforcement know what is expected of them.

    No more hiding. But the lay people also have to let their bishops know they are being watched.

  • Prosecuting successfully and fairly the clergy of one’s own faith is tricky. One could be either too lenient or too harsh.

  • OT1H, it’s impressive that DA Callihan was able to get past her religious beliefs to refer the matter for prosecution.

    It’s also sadly impressive–a testimony to the brainwashing ability of the church– that she’s able to maintain her faith, knowing all she knows.

  • It was her religious beliefs that led her to refer the matter for prosecution.

    She apparently knows that there is good and bad and they intermingle.

  • That’s a good point–an excellent point, in fact–, and I am happy to be corrected.

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