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.
“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.
“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).
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.”
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.
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.”
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.’”