Pa. sex abuse victim joins N.Y. fight to fix kid-rape law

Father George Koharchik made Shaun Dougherty feel special.

The Roman Catholic priest let the boy sit on his lap and steer his car as they drove through the streets of Johnstown, Pa., where Koharchik was the pastor at St. Clement Church.

He took Dougherty to ballgames and treated him to meals at fast-food restaurants. He played soccer and racquet ball with the boy, a red-headed 10-year-old with a splash of freckles across his face when he met Koharchik in 1980.

Dougherty, now a 46-year-old Queens restaurateur, says Koharchik “groomed” him — methodically gained his trust and broke down his defenses — before he sexually abused him for three years. Koharchik was one of at least 50 clergy members who abused hundreds of children in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown during a 40-year period, according to a horrific grand jury report released by the Pennsylvania attorney general's office in March. Police and prosecutors, the report says, worked with Church leaders to cover up the abuse and protect the predators.

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Koharchik, testifying before the grand jury in 2015, acknowledged that he abused as many as 12 children. Dougherty says he was one of those kids.

“One of the things I've learned since the grand jury report came out was that Church officials knew all about these predators in the 1980s and they did nothing about it,” Dougherty says. “There was a network of predators and they did nothing about it. If you resided in western Pennsylvania in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, you most certainly know somebody who was sexually abused by priests.”

The pain from the abuse, Dougherty says, still haunts him decades later. He has struggled with depression and substance abuse. He has attempted suicide and abandoned his religion. But he has also learned to transform his pain into action: Dougherty has become a powerful voice for victims in New York and Pennsylvania, tirelessly lobbying lawmakers to reform their states’ statutes of limitations that curb victims’ power to pursue justice against sexual predators and the institutions that shield them.

While New York lawmakers are in a battle over changing the statute of limitations here, Dougherty is focusing on the state where he was abused, putting thousands of miles on his car to do lobbying in Pennsylvania.

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A group of New York lawmakers wants to extend or eliminate the time limit for victims to launch cases against their abusers. In Pennsylvania, a law from state Rep. Mark Rozzi would allow victims to pursue civil litigation until they turn 50. As with a New York proposal, the legislation also includes a window of time for victims abused years ago to pursue lawsuits, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.

“I can't stop until this gets passed, and when it does, I'll focus on getting the law in New York changed,” Dougherty said, the second-youngest of nine children in a big, rowdy Irish-American family. "Every day I get messages from people I know who say they were molested. Why aren't these guys registered as sex offenders?"

Dougherty has become deeply involved in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the national victims support organization. "He's moved from being a victim to being a survivor and even further, to being a compelling advocate for vulnerable kids by pushing to repeal predator-friendly laws in two states," says SNAP spokesman David Clohessy. "He's an inspiring, brave man who is working hard to turn his severe trauma into something positive — preventing more crimes and cover ups."

Dougherty spoke Friday at a SNAP-sponsored press conference outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, where he expressed wariness about Dolan's attempt to heal the rifts caused by the decades-old abuse scandal. "For survivors, this is too little too late," Dougherty says. "This should have been done in the 1980s."

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Dougherty is pushing for these reforms at the same time he is trying to turn his Crescent Grill, a farm-to-table restaurant he opened with his brother Daniel in a gentrifying Long Island City neighborhood, a success.

"It is hard to pursue your dreams," Dougherty says, "when you are confronting your nightmares."

The grand jury report says Koharchik, who did not respond to emails requesting comment, is a "preferential child sex offender" who used his parishioners' trust to "secretly engage in molestation, digital penetration and anal sex with children." He bowled with Dougherty's dad and devout mother Thursday nights for years. He was a frequent visitor at the Dougherty's home.

Dougherty didn't tell his family about the abuse until the early 1990s, when he returned from boot camp after enlisting in the Navy. His mother told him she didn't believe the allegations, Dougherty says. It felt like a kick in the gut.

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Dougherty reported the abuse to Cambria County victim services in 2012. He was interviewed later that year by local law-enforcement officials. The case was turned over to state investigators and Dougherty believes the information he provided to the local authorities was read to Koharchik last year when the former priest — defrocked in January — appeared before the grand jury.

But by then, Dougherty had already found a measure of peace. When the Church suspended Koharchik in 2012, his mother called him and apologized.

"She told me it was on the front page of the Johnstown Tribune Democrat," Dougherty says. "She said she was sorry. She told me she believed me."

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