EBENSBURG, Pennsylvania — Donald Dusza, Tony Stopka, Frank Wyland, Shari Stopka and Sam Piccioni grew up together, attended Bishop Carroll High School together, traveled together and shared life’s joys and sorrows together.
And now, the longtime friends are standing together as one of them faces a serious, life-changing, potentially damning accusation.
Dusza was pastor of Prince of Peace parish in Northern Cambria until late last month, when Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown Bishop Mark Bartchak placed him on leave from public ministry. An allegation of sexual abuse – reportedly to have taken place in the 1980s – had been made against the 63-year-old Twin Rocks native.
The Stopkas and Wyland met at Piccioni’s house in Ebensburg to talk about the allegation they say is incompatible with the person they have known for decades.
“Over 50 years, we retained a friendship,” Tony Stopka said. “That’s a friendship that’s lasted through going to separate colleges, either staying local or leaving the area for significant times.”
“Through none of that – and in any social setting from whatever happens to 13- and 14-year-old boys and whatever trouble they get into or as men who are former military guys, or just former buddies traveling the world together or friends from high school – we’ve never seen anything that indicates any sort of inappropriate behavior.”
Piccioni said: “There’s never been any inkling to any of this” in Dusza’s behavior.
‘Quite a shock’
Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown officials, as is their standard procedure, declined to specifically comment on an ongoing legal matter.
So Dusza’s friends do not know the details of what is alleged to have happened.
Nor had they heard any talk about allegations before a few days ago.
“When this comes out, it’s quite a shock to all of us,” Tony Stopka said. “Our reaction is, it’s a kick in the stomach. Seemingly, regardless of what the diocese’s standard operating procedures are, there is a lack of due process. He’s co-celebrating a funeral on Tuesday, getting the call (from the diocese) on Wednesday, (Friday) it’s in the paper.”
Dusza is the ninth priest placed on leave by the diocese as a result of receipt of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor, pending a final determination. Twenty-two other priests whom the diocese has identified as having credible allegations made against them are either deceased, laicized, removed from public ministry or incarcerated.
And, while the diocese did not comment about the legal matters involved with the Dusza investigation, Tony DeGol, Altoona-Johnstown’s spokesman, offered a statement on the broader issues affecting individuals involved in this case and the Church as a whole.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the alleged victim, as well as Prince of Peace parishioners during this difficult time,” DeGol said. “I understand that many Catholics throughout Altoona-Johnstown are disheartened to once again learn of an accusation against one of our priests. I urge the faithful to remain strong in their faith and never lose hope in God. As challenging as these times are for our diocese, parishioners can be assured that Bishop Bartchak remains committed to supporting the victims and survivors of sexual abuse and ensuring the safety of children and youth and other vulnerable individuals in our church.”
‘Despair and determination’
Although Dusza is only under investigation, his friends said that having the accusation announced publicly has harmed Dusza.
“His name’s ruined,” Wyland said. “No matter what happens, his name’s ruined.”
Tony Stopka said his friend is experiencing “despair and determination, all in one.”
Stopka added: “I think he feels absolutely in his heart that he’s innocent, and he’s going to be cleared and that’s the way this is going to transpire. He is determined that he’s going to get his name cleared.”
Dusza graduated from Bishop Carroll in 1973.
He earned a master’s degree in church history from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland before getting ordained in 1983.
Dusza then served as an Air Force chaplain, a period in his life that Piccioni said enabled his friend to provide comfort to his own family when the Piccionis’ son spent time in the military.
“Because of Don’s experience and service to our country in the Air Force, he really helped (my wife) Adele, and I and my daughter-in-law to get through two combat tours, so this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” said Piccioni, a member of Holy Name Catholic Church in Ebensburg.
After leaving the Air Force, Dusza received assignments at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona, Cresson and Johnstown.
In 1995, Dusza was profiled in a Tribune-Democrat article after writing a book – “The Legacy of Prince Gallitzin: A History of the Altoona Johnstown Diocese.”
Dusza said his interest in church history traced back to his youth.
“As a child, I used to visit Loretto,” he said in the article. “I saw the memorials to Prince Gallitzin, and seeing them I wondered how he ever accomplished all the things he did. That’s when I got bitten by the bug for church history.”
‘Fearful for priests’
The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese got shaken to its foundation in 2016, when the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General released a grand jury report that provided details about how the diocese – under the oversight of Bishops Joseph Adamec and James Hogan – allegedly covered up the sexual abuse of children for decades.
Dozens of accused predator priests were mentioned. Information from “secret archives” was revealed. A pay chart – listing monetary amounts to be given for different types of abuse – was brought to light.
Since then, the diocese has removed several priests from public service when accusations have arisen, including Monsignor Robert C. Mazur, rector of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, earlier this year.
“The diocese is reacting like they didn’t before,” Piccioni said. “Unfortunately, our friend has been in the crosshairs.”
Piccioni continued: “My opinion and observation, which is supported by court documents, previous bishops within the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, I think they failed to address a very serious problem. And I respect Bishop Mark now. It’s almost as though they’ve embraced policies and guidelines to address anybody that would make an accusation against any priest today. I’m very fearful for priests and I sympathize with them.”
In December, Altoona-Johnstown revealed that it spent $21,491,052 from July 1, 1999 until Dec. 1, 2018 for settlements/awards, legal fees, survivor counseling and clergy compensation for religious leaders awaiting outcomes of Canonical investigations.
Last year, the attorney general’s office released a report showing similar alleged patterns of abuse and cover-up within six other dioceses – Allentown, Scranton, Erie, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Greensburg.
Those dioceses, along with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, have all established compensation funds for victims.
“The thing is now with the dioceses, they’re throwing all these guys under the busses,” Wyland, a Lilly resident, said. “I know they’re throwing money out. Anybody comes with an allegation, they’re throwing money at them to get rid of them because they want to get all this cleared up from the past, which isn’t good. And I can see that point of it.”
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