When local district attorney Kelly Callihan referred an abuse claim against her family’s erstwhile pastor to state authorities, she initiated a series of investigations that renewed the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis nationwide.
By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service
EBENSBURG, Pa. — 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.
Religion News Service is a national wire service whose media partners include The Associated Press, USA Today and the Washington Post.