Altoona businessman's crusade exposes 'conspiracy of silence'
March 2, 2016 5:48 AM
By Joe Smydo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As a small-town businessman, George Foster has immersed himself in civic causes over the years, serving as president of the Rotary, as a director of the Blair County Arts Foundation and as an advocate for Catholic schools at risk of closing.
But his greatest community service may be his dogged, 14-year-long crusade against sexually abusive priests. According to a grand jury report Tuesday, the Altoona businessman became a “novice detective” who painstakingly kept files on priests suspected of sexual abuse, hounded church officials who were reluctant to address abuse claims and, in 2014, turned over his trove of material to state investigators.
“His efforts to expose the conspiracy of silence within the diocese are nothing short of heroic,” said the report, which Attorney General Kathleen Kane released in laying out what she described as a half-century-long scandal involving the abuse of hundreds of minors by priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
Mr. Foster, 55, president of a foundation set up to promote the Catholic faith through a radio station and television ads, put it this way: “God allowed the curtain to be pulled back because this is his church, and he’s trying to clean it up using us.”
He lamented the sweeping impact of the misconduct, saying it not only anguished the victims and their families but undermined the sermons the abusers preached, polluted the advice they gave to parishioners and sapped the diocese’s ability to sustain parochial schools. ”It infected every level of Catholicism in this diocese.”
By the time Mr. Foster showed up for his weekly Rotary meeting Tuesday, friends and business associates knew of the grand jury’s findings and the role he had played.
“He just kind of smiled. He didn’t say much,” said Katherine Shaffer, executive director of the arts foundation.
Over the years, the father of six and general manager of Lamar’s Altoona-Johnstown operations, had been anything but quiet even though his brother, James, was a diocesan priest. He told the grand jury that he acted with a parent’s clarity of mind.
“You don’t have to ask a parent twice what do with a child molester,” he said. And yet the church hierarchy declined to act against abusive priests, he said, even though it had evidence of a widespread problem.
His involvement started in 2002, with a piece he wrote for a local newspaper offering a blunt solution — “throw ’em out” —to the sexual abuse scandals rocking various dioceses. Later, he said, a man walked into his office to confide that he had been victimized by a local priest, and attorneys called him to discuss victims they had met. Eventually, police officers called with tips and to say he was on the right track.
Before long, according to the grand jury report, Mr. Foster “found himself in an avalanche of humanity ... claiming that priests were molesting young boys.” He gathered letters from the accusers, interviewed victims, studied civil court records, built files on suspected abusers, took his evidence to the diocese, publicly criticized the church’s inaction and shrugged off those who said it was dangerous to be outspoken.
“I only answer to God. ...Bishops don’t bother me,” he told the grand jury.
Ms. Shaffer was not surprised by her friend’s persistence. ”He would do anything to protect children,” she said, noting that Mr. Foster and his wife, Katie, have two grown children and four younger children — all siblings — adopted from foster care.
In 2014, Mr. Foster met state investigators at a hotel and gave them the materials he had gathered and held on to because of the diocese’s intransigence. He told them, ”I’m glad someone is finally doing something.”
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