“The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown announced the creation of a new office dedicated to protecting children, but clergy abuse victims are worried about its leadership.
The Diocese hired Cindy O’Connor, of Johnstown, to be the director of the new Office of Children and Youth Protection, according to a release.
“We already have many policies in place, and she’s going to be working to make sure they are being carried out correctly, and she’s also going to be looking at what other policies we should have or what more can we be doing,” Diocese Communications Secretary Tony DeGol said.
The original release said, “Additionally, the office will oversee required background screenings and training of church personnel consistent with the Diocesan safe environment policy and assist in the internal investigation process relating to child abuse allegations involving church personnel.”
O’Connor declined to answer questions Thursday, but DeGol said that she is a parishioner at the Church of the Resurrection in Johnstown.
The office’s creation and the decision to have O’Connor as the director have victims including John Nesbella concerned. He thinks that her being both Catholic and a member of the same diocese might be a conflict of interest.
“Looking at the track record of the church in dealing with the sexual abuse and protection of children, we really don’t have any reason to have any kind of confidence because we trusted the church and its leaders to protect children and bring the perpetrators to justice in the past, and they have failed miserably,” Nesbella said.
Shaun Dougherty is another clergy abuse victim. He agreed.
“They should have independent people there for the oversight to ensure to people like me that independent thought is being introduced as well,” he said.
DeGol said that the diocese does work with independent consultants for these reasons, such as Leslie Nichols, based in Georgia.
Nichols has worked for 22 years as the lead youth-safety and facility expert for Boys and Girls Clubs of America, according to his website. The site also says Nichols is a certified protection professional through ASIS International.
A group called Faithful Catholics Against Pedophilia released a statement Thursday saying its members were optimistic about this announcement from the Diocese.
“We are looking forward to a meaningful relationship with Mrs. O’Connor and wish her much success in cleansing the diocese of any remaining pedophiles who have managed to avoid detection, as well as anyone who has covered up their crimes. We encourage Mrs. O’Connor to be proactive with the community and victims,” the statement said in part.
The group also encouraged O’Connor to work toward having the Franciscan Monastery closed, and the group has called the monastery a “painful reminder” of abuse for victims and their families.
DeGol responded Thursday, saying that the Franciscans, though Catholic, are a separate entity from the diocese, and the diocese could not make such a decision.
DeGold would not answer whether or not the diocese had considered hiring someone outside of the church for the director position, but said that the diocese chose the applicant that best fit the position, regardless of his or her Catholicism.
The diocese’s professional summary of O’Connor shows that she has prior experience working with children and youth programs.
According to the summary, she was most recently a youth mentoring program manager and youth services coordinator at Goodwill of the Southern Alleghenies. She also facilitated two programs called “Bridges out of Poverty” and “Getting Ahead.”
The summary shows O’Connor also worked as a development director for The Learning Lamp, a nonprofit childcare organization, as well as district executive for the Penn’s Woods Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
Nesbella said it’s difficult for him to trust the diocese to protect children.
“If they would reach out to these people (victims) who are out there right now suffering, I would say, ‘Yeah, maybe they have changed their ways, maybe they have repented,’ but I don’t see that happening. I think they’re doing a lot of this just to save their image and recover trust in the church. They haven’t really changed the way they’re dealing with this (abuse),” he said.”