Diocese: Diocese of Harrisburg
From Report I of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:
Father Augustine Giella was ordained in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey on June 3, 1950. After twenty-nine years of ministry in New Jersey, Giella suddenly decided to seek ministry elsewhere. In November 1979, Giella wrote Bishop Joseph Daley of the Diocese of Harrisburg to request an assignment. On December 7, 1979, Archbishop Peter Gerety of the Archdiocese of Newark wrote a letter to confirm that Giella was a priest in good standing and stated that Giella “has always shown himself to be [an] excellent priest giving himself only for the greater honor and glory of God and the people of the Catholic Church.” Gerety gave Giella full permission to seek service outside of the Archdiocese. Though Giella was still an incardinated priest of the Diocese of Newark, an agreement to serve in another diocese was permissible with the concession of his home Bishop and the approval of the Bishop of the receiving diocese.
During the interview process with the Diocese of Harrisburg, Giella told Father William H. Keeler that he sought to have his own parish, which was unlikely to occur in the Archdiocese of Newark due to an abundance of priests. Keeler conducted the interview because he was acting in his capacity as Auxiliary Bishop. This interview was recorded in a memorandum prepared by Keeler and sent to Bishop Daley and Monsignor Hugh Overbaugh. The Diocese of Harrisburg accepted Giella and assigned him to St. Joseph’s in Hanover, York County, in 1980.
Thereafter, Giella was assigned to St. John the Evangelist Church in Enhaut, Swatara Township, Dauphin County, in 1982. In 1983, Bishop Daley died and Keeler was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg.
At St. John the Evangelist Church, Giella met a family who warmly embraced him as their parish priest. The family included eight girls and one boy. Giella began sexually abusing the girls almost immediately upon his appointment to the parish. Giella sexually abused five of the eight girls. Giella also abused other relatives of the family. His conduct included a wide array of crimes cognizable as misdemeanors or felonies under Pennsylvania law.
In August 2016, the sisters that Giella abused testified before the Grand Jury to the criminal sexual acts Giella perpetrated upon them. The Grand Jury learned that Giella regularly collected samples of the girls’ urine, pubic hair, and menstrual blood. Giella utilized a device he would apply to the toilet to collect some of these samples. Giella would ingest some of the samples he collected. The abuse occurred in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where Giella invited the family for visits.
Giella’s abuse had a lasting effect on the sisters. The sisters testified to the challenges they have faced in overcoming Giella’s sexual abuse. The emotional, psychological, and interpersonal damage to the sisters is incalculable. Most of the sisters refrained from sharing any details of their own abuse with their siblings for fear of what they might learn. The Grand Jury learned that Giella’s tragic abuse of these girls could have been stopped much earlier if the Diocese of Harrisburg had acted on a complaint in the 1980’s.
In approximately April 1987, a teacher at Bishop McDevitt High School received a complaint that Giella was insisting on watching a girl as she used the bathroom. The girl stated that Giella insisted on watching her go to the bathroom and that he did “wrong things” with children. The teacher reported the complaint to Father Joseph Coyne, who in turn made an immediate report to the Diocese.
This former teacher testified before the Grand Jury on January 24, 2017. The former teacher’s testimony is corroborated by an internal memorandum from the secret archives of the Diocese of Harrisburg. In that memorandum, dated April 14, 1987, Overbaugh recorded the complaint, as well as an allegation that Giella engaged in similar conduct with one of the above mentioned sisters. The witness, the reporting victim, and the family of the sisters are all recorded and identified by name. Overbaugh wrote:
“[REDACTED], a teacher for the Intermediate Unit, was informed by one of her students, [REDACTED], that while she was a student last year at Bishop Neumann School in Steelton, she was in Saint John’s rectory, Enhaut, and expressed to Father Giella, the pastor, her need to go to the restroom. Father Giella is reported to have said that he would like to go with her and watch, that he does this whenever the [REDACTED] girl goes to the restroom.”
Overbaugh noted at least one other complaint by a girl who reported to her teacher that Giella had “acted improperly towards her.” Overbaugh concluded his memo, “Father Coyne was instructed to do nothing in the case until the matter had been discussed with diocesan legal counsel. [REDACTED] was present for this entire discussion between Father Coyne and Msgr. Overbaugh.”
This complaint was consistent with the type of deviant interests Giella pursued with the sisters he victimized. The Grand Jury uncovered another document related to this report in the secret or confidential archives of the Diocese of Harrisburg. An undated document addressed to Keeler regarding “Report on Gus Giella” noted:
“I spoke with Father Coyne on the pastoral concerns:
A.) Approaching Fr. Giella
B.) welfare of the student
C.) satisfying the ire of the teacher.
I said we would consult you on these matters.
In spite of the detailed memorandum and this note, Giella remained in ministry and neither Keeler nor the Diocese attempted to remove Giella from ministry. Giella voluntarily retired in 1988. However, in the approximately five years that followed the Overbaugh memorandum, Giella continued to sexually abuse the girls identified in the Overbaugh memorandum, which included a reference to the family of girls.
Keeler left the Diocese in 1989 to become Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Nicholas C. Dattilo became Bishop of the Diocese in 1990. Giella continued to steal the innocence of children. In 1992, one of the victims came forward and disclosed what Giella had been doing. The family initially reported the conduct to the Diocese. Father Paul Helwig wrote a memorandum to Dattilo dated July 18, 1992, regarding the complaint against Giella. Helwig documented the information he received from the reporting victim’s family at various meetings in attached supplemental memoranda. The documents detailed the events leading up to the 12-year-old girl’s disclosure, and described the event believed to have finally triggered the girl to disclose her abuse, the discovery of nude or partially nude photos of the girl in Giella’s residence.
Helwig wrote that he interviewed Giella on July 30, 1992. Among other admissions, Giella stated that he began having contact with the girl in the bath and that “as time went on they became more comfortable with each other the embraces became more intense and involved some fondling on his part.” Giella also confessed that he took pictures of the girl.
The family also reported Giella’s abuse to police in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Police in Pennsylvania contacted the Office of the Prosecutor in New Jersey and law enforcement began an investigation. Upon serving a search warrant at Giella’s residence in New Jersey, New Jersey police confiscated the following: young girl’s panties; plastic containers containing pubic hairs identified by initials; twelve vials of urine; soiled panties; sex books; feminine sanitary products (used); numerous photographs of girls in sexually explicit positions; and some photos depicting children in the act of urination. Giella was arrested in August 1992.
Diocesan records do not indicate if Overbaugh, Helwig, Dattilo, or any Diocesan personnel ever reported the prior complaints against Giella or his confession to the police. The victims told the Grand Jury that this information was never relayed to them.
Giella admitted his actions to the police. According to the police report, after Giella was charged and arrested for child pornography and sexual abuse, numerous calls were received from women reporting that Giella fondled and abused them in Hackensack, New Jersey. These women stated they had been afraid to come forward given Giella’s position in the church. Additionally, the reporting victim’s sisters began to disclose Giella’s sexual abuse of them.
Having learned that her child had been sexually abused by a priest, the mother of the family of child victims confronted Overbaugh. The family considered Overbaugh a friend and highly respected his role in the church. At the time of the confrontation, the family did not know that Giella’s conduct had ever been reported to Overbaugh or the Diocese. However, further evidence of Diocesan officials’ knowledge of the danger Giella posed to children was demonstrated to the Grand Jury when the victim’s mother described the confrontation. Overbaugh stated, “I wondered why you were letting them go to the rectory.” The victims’ mother stated that she later received a phone call from Helwig. Helwig stated, “You can relax. Father said that [REDACTED] just took his intentions towards her wrong,” and “that he loved her, and he would never hurt her.” This account bears some semblance to Helwig’s July 1993 memorandum, where he wrote, “Father is very remorseful that his affection for [REDACTED] has affected her in this way and that he would be willing to help in any way that he can. He expects that the family will be ‘sore’ with him and readily agreed to refrain from contacting the family.” Lost in this characterization is the reality that child sexual abuse is not affection or care, but the criminal violation of innocent children.
On October 12, 1992, an attorney for the family engaged the Diocese of Harrisburg in civil litigation via a letter of notice sent to the Diocese. Prior to reaching settlement terms, aggressive litigation resulted in the release of the victims’ psychological and academic records to Diocesan lawyers, the exchange of offers and counter-offers, the execution of confidentiality agreements, and prevention of a Harrisburg newspaper from obtaining information about the case. Letters between attorneys for the family and the Diocese haggled over whether the victim actually had a diagnosed condition as a result of the abuse. Diocesan lawyers argued that the Diocese was not responsible for the conduct of its agents.
On October 27, 1992, Dattilo wrote the family, and stated in part, “I share your shock, anger and hurt, and pledge full cooperation by the diocese in this unfortunate situation.” However, while Dattilo promised full cooperation, the diocesan lawyers continued to litigate and attempted to negotiate the family down from their approximately $900,000.00 demand to $225,000.00. The Grand Jury notes this is a familiar pattern.
In October 2017, Chancellor Carol Houghton testified before the Grand Jury. Houghton was the long-time Chancellor for the Diocese; Dattilo appointed her to that position. As Chancellor and a canon lawyer, Houghton maintained many Diocesan records. Houghton is not a member of the clergy. Houghton had been tasked with a file review and was extremely knowledgeable as she maintained notes of her work. Houghton was shown the 1987 Overbaugh memorandum and questioned regarding the Diocese of Harrisburg’s failure to inform the family or law enforcement of its contents. Houghton testified she had never seen the 1987 Overbaugh memorandum concerning Giella. She had no prior knowledge that the Diocese of Harrisburg had warnings about Giella’s behavior in 1987. Houghton did not have access to the secret archives; only the Bishop had access pursuant to the Canon Law of the Church. The Grand Jury observed this in numerous flawed Diocesan investigations across Pennsylvania. The Dioceses’ focus on secrecy often left even the Dioceses’ own investigators in the dark.
Ultimately, Giella never faced a jury concerning his alleged criminal conduct. He died while awaiting trial. His criminal actions, and the criminal inaction of Keeler, resulted in continued victimization and trauma for the family of girls described earlier. The trauma was so fresh that the youngest sister, the one who finally reported Giella’s criminal conduct, suffered a panic attack while in the Grand Jury suite after seeing an older gentlemen who bore some resemblance to Giella. In explaining why she came forward, she testified:
“Because it doesn’t have to happen to anybody. They don’t have to live a life like I have to. I continually have to battle. The man out there is a very nice man. He is old like Giella and I can’t — it makes me — it makes me think about what happened and he is nice and he doesn’t deserve me to think that. But I can’t — I can’t walk through there and see him because it makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t — I don’t know. I believe in God. I don’t go to church. My son is the only reason I’m alive. Thank God I had him because, if I didn’t have him — I probably would have killed myself a long time ago.”
This survivor of sexual assault attempted to take her own life in the months after her testimony before the Grand Jury. In recovery, she requested to speak with the attorney for the Commonwealth and special agent involved in this investigation. Even though she had almost lost her own life, the victim’s primary concern was a fear that in the intervening months since her testimony, the Grand Jury’s investigation may have stopped and that the truth would never be told to the public. She was assured it was still an active investigation.
Additional information regarding the widespread sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Dioceses of Pennsylvania and the systemic cover up by senior church officials is compiled in the Pennsylvania Diocese Victim’s Report published by the Pennsylvania Attorney General following a two-year grand jury investigation. A complete copy of the Report is available on the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s website.