The Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has agreed to take more steps to protect children from sexual abuse.
Outlined Monday with Acting U.S. Attorney Soo Song, the Memorandum of Understanding comes after a former priest of the diocese was convicted last year of sexually exploiting several boys. A grand jury report detailed more systemic abuse and cover-ups.
Song said the diocese agreed to a comprehensive plan with specific requirements, including "very tight time frames" for suspected abuse.
“So all allegations of good faith suspicion of child sexual abuse (will be) reported to law enforcement in 12 hours," she said. "Immediately removing suspected offenders from contact with children (and) putting clergy on leave within 24 hours following a credible allegation of child sexual abuse.”
The diocese will also implement an independent oversight board, develop new sexual abuse policies and fund a 24-hour hotline service to receive complaints of assault.
One year ago, then-Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane released a 147-page report based on secret diocesan records and other evidence that detailed abuse by more than 50 priests and clergy against hundreds of children. The report criticized Bishop Mark Bartchak's predecessors, James Hogan, who headed the diocese from 1966 to 1986 and died in 2005, and Joseph Adamec, who succeeded Hogan and retired in 2005.
Adamec cited possible self-incrimination in refusing to testify before the grand jury Kane convened.
Adamec's attorney argued in court filings that allegations of a cover-up by the now 81-year-old cleric are unfounded, noting Adamec suspended or removed nine priests from ministry, and that five others ordered to undergo psychological counseling never re-offended.
Kane's report did not accuse Bartchak of wrongdoing, and he had suspended several priests named as alleged abusers in the report in the months leading up to its release. Still, the grand jury said it remains "concerned the purge of predators is taking too long."
The clergy sex abuse crisis erupted in 2002, when The Boston Globe reported that the Boston Archdiocese had transferred child-molesting priests from parish to parish to protect them. Similar scandals involving hundreds of offenders and victims have since erupted across the U.S. and beyond.
Kane's investigation began when she was asked to review the diocese's handling of abuse allegations at Bishop McCort Catholic High School against an athletic trainer, Franciscan Brother Stephen Baker, who worked there from 1992 to 2001. Baker killed himself in 2013 after abuse settlements with an Ohio diocese where he formerly worked were publicized.
Eighty-eight former McCort students settled claims against the diocese for $8 million in 2014.
A molestation suit against since-defrocked priest Francis Luddy that went to trial in 1994 also exposed many of the problems outlined in the grand jury report. The case led to a verdict of more than $2 million in damages and an appeals court finding that Hogan's oversight of pedophile priests had been "outrageous."
Song said she hopes this plan can act as a model for other institutions.
“So that other dioceses in particular can look at this, study it and ... assess if it’s going to help them to keep children safe,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.