In 2016, a Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed widespread sexual assault by Catholic priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. One of the accounts in that report came from Shaun Dougherty who is from Johnstown, PA and survived sexual abuse by his priest when he was 10 years old.
“I’m here to share my story so it is not repeated again,” Dougherty said to an small audience in the HUB’s Ohio Room. Dougherty came to IUP as part of the University’s Six O’clock Series which are a series of guest lectures open to the public. He does not want his story to be “heavy.” Instead, he wants his story to be an inspiration for others to speak up and act.
Dougherty began his story in 2012 when he was working on building a restaurant in New York City which was one of his childhood dreams. He received a call from his mother to apologize. 18 years before, in 1994, Dougherty returned home from bootcamp and felt compelled by his military oath to tell his parents that he was abused by their priest.
His parents did not believe him as Dougherty said, “This was the guy they bowled with every Thursday night.”
In 2012, however, allegations against their priest, George Koharchik, surfaced and the District Attorney of Cambria County at the time, Kelly Callihan, wanted people who had been abused by Koharchik to come forward.
Dougherty called his childhood friend, Brian Sabo, who was also abused and who he had not seen in 10 years. Brian Sabo had told no one what happened, but they agreed to share their stories as part of the investigation of their former priest.
After 4 years, a grand jury concluded that George Koharchik sexually abused children in his parish and his priesthood was revoked.
Unfortunately, the statute of limitations ran out when Dougherty, Sabo, and many others turned 18 so, they could not press charges against Koharchik.
On Oct. 17, 2018, Dougherty and Sabo confronted Koharchik at a New York restaurant while cameras from CBS were secretly recording their conversation. Koharchik admitted his crimes and apologized. Dougherty said the purpose of this was to give courage to other survivors so they could confront their abusers and retake control of their lives.
“I remember being concerned,” Olivia Wanat said (history, sophomore).
Wanat grew up in a Catholic family just outside of Pittsburgh, and she participated in many Church proceedings and programs with her family. She remembers seeing the news of the Catholic priests who sexually abused children.
“What if any of my peers experienced that?” she remembers asking herself. Her father knew someone as a kid who was named as a survivor in the grand jury report, and it was suddenly a lot more real.
Following the grand jury investigation, Dougherty said he began reading about PA State Representative, Mark Rozzi.
Rozzi was elected in 2012, the same year allegations against Dougherty’s priest surfaced and was similarly abused by his priest when he was a child. Dougherty and Rozzi began working together to change PA’s laws to end the statute of limitations on bringing charges against sexual abusers and making it easier for survivors to come forward.
“I pretty much acted as my own lobbyist,” Dougherty said as he was often seen running around the state capitol to different state legislators to try and get them to support reform. He faced a lot of pushback and was laughed out of the office of former State Senator Mike Folmer.
Folmer, coincidentally, was charged with possession of child pornography in 2019.
Dougherty and Rozzi were successful in lobbying for the elimination of the statute of limitations in 2019.
“Anyone here think they can’t accomplish anything politically?” Dougherty asked. He then said he has a high school diploma, is from Johnstown, and only has “a couple of college credits.”
Dougherty believes anyone can accomplish great political change and that all they have to do is “just show up” and “make factual points and stick with them.”
Dougherty also acknowledged that “it’s not easy.” He said he has been called “a sellout” and other horrific things.
Dougherty concluded his talk by explaining that he is not trying to “church bash” or destroy the church that his mother served faithfully.
Dougherty wants to help the thousands who cannot tell their story like he could. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted before they are 18.
“Stories continue to come out,” Dougherty said.
The church is not the worst offender as only one or two percent of cases are committed by clergymen. The majority are committed by people familiar to the survivor such as family members, coaches, teachers, troop leaders, or pediatricians.
Dougherty mentioned a recent example of a girl who came out and said that her pediatrician had sexually abused her. Despite his admission and conviction, the town still rallied behind him, showing how difficult it is to come out against abusers who are well liked in their community.
Shaun Dougherty is currently the president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). As a part of that role, Dougherty organizes support meetings at his New York restaurant once a month. Dougherty believes it is good to be able to talk to other survivors.