Former U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh applauds federal Catholic clergy abuse probe, reveals what he witnessed as a child
As the top federal prosecutor in Western Pennsylvania, David Hickton tried a Somerset County priest for molesting children at a Central American orphanage and later invoked federal organized crime statutes in an inquiry into the Altoona Johnstown diocese.
He said he had reason to be suspicious of the Catholic church.
In a lengthy interview with USAToday published Thursday, Hickton, 63, revealed that he personally witnessed teammates on his 6th-grade basketball team at St. Anne’s School in Castle Shannon singled out by a coach who was fondling children. Though the former altar boy said he was never abused, he said he saw the team’s coach select a child to shower with him after every game.
“It was like Russian roulette,” Hickton, the former U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, told USAToday. “Everybody was looking at each other, worried that they might be next.”
Like many children, Hickton remained quiet, wondering why the priest who oversaw the coach’s ritual did nothing to protect the boys. Later, he learned priest — the Rev. Charles J. Chat — was among 99 priests in the Pittsburgh diocese identified by a statewide grand jury as a “predator priest” who repeatedly abused children himself.
The grand jury’s report detailed abuse and cover-ups in six Pennsylvania dioceses, including the three covering Western Pennsylvania — Erie, Greensburg and Pittsburgh. The nearly 900-page report cited one victim’s account years later of Chat’s indifference when told that members of the basketball team were being abused.
Hickton, who oversees the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, said he remains firm in his Catholic faith. Nonetheless, he questions the church’s handling of abuse complaints and said he applauds Philadelphia federal prosecutor William McSwain for launching a sweeping federal investigation of allegations of sexual abuse in Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania.
“Had I not left office, that’s where I was going next. Had I stayed in office, I would have proceeded through Pittsburgh, Greensburg and Erie,” said Hickton, who served from 2010-16 as U.S. attorney of the Western District of Pennsylvania, which is based in Pittsburgh but covers 25 counties.
Hickton first broached the concept that federal racketeering laws might apply to the Catholic church in 2016, on the heels of a state grand jury report that examined allegations of clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.
Although most cases highlighted in the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury report were outside the Pennsylvania statues of limitations, as were almost all of the cases highlighted in the grand jury report released in August, Hickton said federal law provides prosecutors with tools that might be effective.
The federal Racketeering, Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, law typically used to target organized crime has no statute of limitations for civil actions, Hickton said.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.