Pa. diocese IDs priests, bishop, laypeople in abuse probe

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, on Friday made public the names of 34 priests or other members of the clergy who faced credible allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct over the years, including their bishop in the 1970s, who they say failed to stop abuse that was reported to him.

In an unusual step, the diocese also identified 17 lay men and women facing similar claims, including a Catholic high school teacher who went on to become a college president.

It's the first time the sprawling 13-county, 202,000-member diocese in the state's northwest corner has put out a comprehensive list of those accused of abuse, which ranged from providing children with pornography to sexual assault.

"As Catholics, we believe the Lord has infinite mercy and absolution for those who are contrite and sincerely seek forgiveness," Bishop Lawrence Persico said. "But that does not mean they are free from the ramifications of their behavior."

The allegations reach back seven decades. Twenty-one of the priests and two of the laypeople on the list are deceased. None are now serving in any capacity with the church.

The document put out by the diocese lists where most of those named are believed to be living, and any punishment they have received, from being removed from the priesthood to being sent to prison, which was the case for a handful of the laypeople.

Bishop Alfred Watson, who led the diocese until the early 1980s, is cited for allegedly failing to act to stop abuse that was deemed to have been credibly reported to him. He died in 1990.

William Garvey, who died last year, had faced accusations he abused minors while he was a lay high school teacher and basketball coach. He would go on to become president of Mercyhurst College in Erie.

The diocese's decision to put out the list came as the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office is wrapping up a grand jury investigation into how the Erie diocese and five others in Pennsylvania have handled abuse and other allegations over the years.

The church said it is tightening its policies to protect children from future abuse, including increasing the clearances needed to work with youth.

Law enforcement is currently investigating three people not on the list of 51, including two priests who were identified by the diocese back in February and have either resigned or been removed from the church, the diocese said.

Diocesan spokeswoman Anne-Marie Welsh said staff had begun looking into allegations dating as far back as 1944 even before the grand jury investigation began in 2016.

She said Persico, who became bishop in 2012, invited local prosecutors to look at the diocese's files early in his tenure but that process was suspended once the state investigation began.

The Erie diocese's list is different from most of the other lists released by dioceses around the country because it includes the names of laypeople who worked with Catholic schools or as volunteers with churches or affiliated agencies, the bishop said.

About 35 of 145 dioceses in the U.S., or roughly 25 percent, have released names of credibly accused priests, including two others in Pennsylvania, according to the group

Terry McKiernan, its president, said naming laypeople was unusual.

"There are various ways the dioceses reduce the number on their list, so increasing the number by including laypeople is a positive step and might be unique in these lists," McKiernan said, adding that his group has called on the dioceses to include comprehensive work histories for the accused as well.

Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minnesota, lawyer whose firm only handles cases of abuse survivors, said the diocese has made a "pre-emptive minimal effort" in light of the grand jury investigation.