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Investigation into clergy sex abuse expands to Harrisburg diocese, maybe more

A state grand jury probe into clergy sex abuse that began three years ago in Altoona-Johnstown has expanded to others across Pennsylvania, according to people with knowledge of the investigation.

A state grand jury probe into clergy sex abuse that began three years ago in Altoona-Johnstown has expanded to others across Pennsylvania, according to people with knowledge of the investigation.

A spokesman for the Harrisburg Diocese confirmed Friday that it had received a subpoena in connection with the case.

"We are cooperating fully," spokesman Joe Aponick said, declining to elaborate.

Investigators have sought the names of known abusers in all eight Catholic dioceses statewide, Altoona-area victims' lawyer Richard Serbin said Friday.

The Allentown Morning Call reported late Friday that four other Catholic dioceses - Erie, Scranton, Greensburg, and Pittsburgh - had received subpoenas for personnel files and testimony as part of the probe. The newspaper had previously said agents and prosecutors are examining alleged misconduct in the Allentown Diocese.

In a written statement Friday, that diocese did not confirm or address the report, but said its policy was "to cooperate with law enforcement."

"We have zero tolerance for offenders and report allegations of abuse to the appropriate authorities," the statement said.

A spokesman for Attorney General Bruce Beemer on Friday declined to discuss the probe except to say an abuse hotline established in the wake of the Altoona cases this year had logged hundreds of calls. "Some of them have involved other dioceses," spokesman Jeffrey A. Johnson said. "We are doing our due diligence to follow new investigative leads."

Developments in the case were foreshadowed earlier this summer by Beemer's predecessor. In June testimony to a Senate panel considering statute-of-limitations changes so more victims could sue, then-solicitor general Bruce L. Castor Jr. said the probe that resulted in a scathing grand jury report and charges in Altoona and Johnstown had not ended.

"Our office is continuing its investigation by branching out to other parts of the state in an effort to ascertain the scope and breadth of efforts by church officials to conceal allegations of sexual assault by members of the clergy against children, or, perhaps, against adults as well," Castor told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He did not elaborate.

Serbin, a longtime lawyer for victims, said he met with state prosecutors on the case about six weeks ago.

"They contacted me," he said, "to see if they can prosecute responsible parties for the victimization of children. Which is my goal as well."

Serbin said he gave them a list he compiled of all known abusers - one he said included people from every Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania.

The probe marks the latest phase of an investigation that began when a Johnstown prosecutor sent the Attorney General's Office information about a predatory Franciscan friar who had committed suicide at a Hollidaysburg monastery in 2013.

Brother Stephen Baker was accused of abusing more than 100 minors over two decades - many at a single Catholic high school in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, in central Pennsylvania.

After two years of investigation, a state grand jury in March excoriated Altoona's top clerics and civil authorities for their role in concealing cases of abuse over the course of decades in the diocese.

But while the 147-page grand jury report named 34 priests and recounted abuse against hundreds of children, no charges were filed. That was due, in part, to an expired statute of limitations on the crimes.

Prosecutors did, however, file criminal conspiracy and endangerment charges against three former leaders of the Altoona-area Franciscan order that supervised Baker. Their alleged crime: Keeping the brother in positions that gave him access and opportunity to abuse scores of children in multiple states.

That case is pending.

Serbin said he has been in contact with investigators several times this year. Some of his clients have been in touch with investigators, too, but he said he did not know how many, if any, had appeared or been asked to testify before the Pittsburgh grand jury overseeing the investigation.

Rep. Mark Rozzi, a clergy-abuse victim and Democratic lawmaker from Reading who crusaded for the statute change that the Senate rejected this summer, said Friday that he had referred several dozen victims from the Allentown and Harrisburg Dioceses to state investigators in recent months.

"A dozen have called [me] to say they've already testified," Rozzi said. Others "are just waiting to be called to go before the grand jury."

The grand jury subpoena in Harrisburg affects a diocese that encompasses 15 counties surrounding the state capital and stretches south to the Maryland border.

The Allentown Diocese serves Catholics in a five-county region in the former steel-town hub north of Philadelphia.