Flagler Beach priest named in Pennsylvania probe into child sex abuse cover-up

Msgr. Michael Servinsky accused of knowing about sex abuse allegations, failing to tell police

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.Editorial note: News4Jax wants to warn readers that this article contains content that some may find disturbing.

The Diocese of St. Augustine has worked since 1989 to reform their reporting policies for sexual abuse hoping to avoid the pain that other dioceses across the country have experienced as lists of credibly accused priests have become available.

But church records show the Diocese of St. Augustine has also welcomed a priest accused of covering up some of the very same abuses, News 6 sister station WJXT reports.

Msgr. Michael Servinsky was ordained in 1970. He spent most of his service to the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in Pennsylvania as a member of the Bishop’s Office. He began as a notary and eventually acted in the capacity as tribunal judge. He was appointed the Judicial Vicar in 1989 and later became Vicar General. He’s now a priest in residence at Santa Maria Del Mar Catholic Church in Flagler Beach.

In 2016, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania released a report detailing how more than 50 priests allegedly molested and raped kids within the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. The accounts date back as far as the 1950s and stretch into the 90s.

Servinsky is not accused of raping or molesting anybody, but the report does allege he, the then Bishop Joseph Ademec and others working in the bishop’s office knew about priests raping and molesting children in the church and neglected to report it to police.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s investigation stated Servinsky was involved in “numerous sex abuse investigations” in the Altoona Diocese.

Msgr. Michael Servinsky (WJXT)

According to the report, in 2001, a victim told Servinsky and another priest that Father Martin McCamley would touch his genitals when spending the night at the victim’s home. This happened in 1997 and at the time the victim was 13 years old.

In 2002, investigators said Servinsky and another church leader interviewed accused priest Father Joseph Strittmatter. According to the attorney general’s report, Servinsky and the other church leader listened as Strittmatter admitted to molesting an 8-year-old girl.

According to the report, in that interview, Fr. Strittmatter told them “In her mind, she might think it was appropriate” and “I can’t remember the exact acts. But I was trying to learn about sex.”

Investigators say neither Servinsky nor the other church leader called police.

Father Strittmatter was accused of masturbating to a female parishioner while in confessional between 1987 and 1992, according to the report. The parishioner reported that she became unable to go to confessional and contacted Msgr. Flinn and Servinsky after the alleged incident. The report details after that Fr. Strittmatter went on “medical leave.”

According to the report, in September 2015, Servinsky was relieved of his duty as vicar general. In December 2015, when Servinsky was asked to testify about his role in the alleged scheme to cover-up sexual abuse, Servinsky pled the fifth, meaning he asserted his Fifth Amendment rights against providing testimony that might incriminate himself.

Ultimately, because of the short statute of limitations – prosecutors say they were unable to charge anyone named in the grand jury report -- including Servinsky -- with any crime.

“He knew the problems of the diocese, and whether it was his job or whatever, he helped cover it up,” Claar told the I-TEAM. “You're just as guilty as the person who did it.”

“Well, you know, he (Servinsky), he’s older now and I think he is thinking he pled the fifth so he doesn’t have to answer to nobody and I’m sure he will live out his days with nothing happening to him,” added Schenck.

Survivors of sexual abuse

Investigators detail in the 2016 Pennsylvania Grand Jury report how hundreds of young boys and girls were sexually abused by priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese in Pennsylvania.

While in Pennsylvania, the I-TEAM spoke to Paul Claar and Stanley Schenck – two survivors who say as children, they were both sexually abused by priests.

“I was 13 years old,” Claar said. “We were very dedicated to our religion. Our Catholic faith was the core value of our being.”

Paul Claar

Claar explained he was an altar boy in 1978, and that’s when the abuse started.

“He was the one that got me involved with cutting the grass. He knew that cutting the grass was is something I loved to do,” he said about an associate pastor of his Parish. “That was sort of like a set-up. He knew that he could get me down to the church and no one else would be around.”

Claar said his abuse went on for four years, starting gradually before escalating.

“It was just like a, ‘come over here and sit with me for a while in the rectory,’” he said about the when the abuse started. “Everyone in the parish is thinking here, we have this new priest in the parish, new energy, and I’m thinking, this is odd. I know it was wrong – even then.”

“He would do fondling, kiss. I don’t want to kiss a guy. I’m a kid and stuff like this is happening.”

“When he knew that I was feeling uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to do this, it was like, ‘Well Paul, I need love too,’ and he also put in at times, ‘Hey if anybody finds out about this you don’t know what they will do to me.’”

“See, what they are trying to do is make the victim the cause of what is happening. Then it’s my fault that this was happening when in actuality, it wasn’t my fault. It was his fault. He’s the adult. I’m the juvenile.”

“In his car…,” Claar started to say before fighting tears. “Yeah, but in the cars was usually the worst.”

“The thing is, when you’re a kid, the fear is if you went and told somebody and they didn’t believe you, it makes it that much worse. ‘You’re making it up.’ ‘That’s the priest.’ You’re a liar.’”

“Everybody loved him because we had this new priest. Young, fun to be around, the kids liked him,” he said. “Come to find out later, I wasn’t the only victim. But at the time, I didn’t know that. The big question was, what did I do to deserve that?”

Stanley Schenck

Stanley Schenck said even though decades have passed since he was abused, he could never forget what happened.

“It was terrible. You would go numb.”

“It was a molester’s heaven here.”

“It changed a lot of lives in town. Kids, families moved out of town because of it. Some kids’ lives were ruined, destroyed. Suicides.”

“It just boggles your mind when you think about how many years it went on that it never came out or the diocese never talked about it.”

The 2016 Pennsylvania Grand Jury report

The report was based on information developed by the Office of the Attorney General. According to the report, it took witness testimony and generated thousands of pages of testimony transcripts.

The introduction of the report states the initial concerns were “a failure to report child abuse or related issues with the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the Johnstown Police Department, and the Bishop McCort Catholic High school.”

The report states investigators found a room containing “a filing cabinet marked “confidential litigation files. This filing cabinet was also four drawers and contained files labeled by the victim’s names.”

The report went on to state “as Special Agents of the Office of Attorney General stood inside an organization devoted to the tenets of scripture and morality, they found themselves surrounded with evidence of an institutional crisis of child sexual abuse. Agents did not find a couple of files in a drawer which alleged child molestation, but rather boxes and filing cabinets filled with the details of children being sexually violated by the institution’s own members,” the report stated.

Msgr. Servinsky hired by the Diocese of St. Augustine

The Diocese of St. Augustine, which covers more than 17 Florida counties, made the decision to let Servinsky work at its church in Flagler Beach -- Santa Maria Del Mar Catholic Church.

The I-TEAM was granted an interview with the principle assistant to Bishop Estevez, Deacon David Williams. Deacon Williams says he is tasked with vetting priests who are coming in.

“Were you all aware of the report?” we asked.

“We were certainly aware of the Pennsylvania reports. The investigations and all of that,” he answered.

“The investigation report states he failed to report sexual abuse, and you guys do have this policy that you expect people to report, my question is, do you have confidence that he would do that given what the grand jury has said happened?” we asked.

“Based on my knowledge of him, I have confidence in him,” Williams answered.

“What makes you say that?” we asked.

“Just in the way he has served and what I could gain in my discussions with him, the pastors who have served with him, the parishioners who have been there with him where he’s been involved, he’s a very appreciated priest,” he answered.

The St. Augustine Diocese says they were told Servinsky was in “good standing” by the current Bishop of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown Mark Bartchak. Deacon Williams says Bishop Bartchak’s good recommendation meant a lot to the Diocese of St. Augustine in their decision.

“For us to cast a shadow against him – when his diocese, the state of Pennsylvania saying there is nothing they can do essentially,” Williams added. “We could have said no, but we had no reason to say no based on anything except an opinion.”

The grand jury report wasn’t just an opinion. The 2016 grand jury report was the result of a two-year-investigation which included a review of records the diocese kept of interviews, allegations and confessions from accused abusers.

At the end of that report, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General wrote:

"The grand jury finds the acts of predator priest and their enabling bishops to be criminal. However – they cannot be prosecuted at this time. The statute of limitations for many of the loathsome and criminal actions detailed in this report has expired."

“It's very frustrating,” said Claar. “My molester didn't do one second of jail time. I got a life sentence for that.”

“There is no accountability. They don't have to do anything for their actions,” Claar added.

The men’s alleged abusers could not be charged because of the short statute of limitations in Pennsylvania. The report advocated changing laws so cases that come up in the future can be prosecuted.

In Florida, the statute of limitations for serious felony sex crimes is 10 years or less. The Diocese of St. Augustine told us regardless if the statute of limitations has run out, it will investigate allegations of abuse when brought forward, which could mean investigating itself.

The Office of Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is looking into sex abuse in the church across the state, something that could take years to complete. We don't know if Servinsky is even a consideration in that investigation.

The Diocese of St. Augustine says it has already changed a lot when it comes to how it handles credible allegations of abuse. Director of Communications, Kathleen Bagg, says the Diocese has audited its system and plans to release the findings of the audit when Florida’s Attorney General releases hers.

“We’re here to protect people. Our organization is about people and we need to ensure the safety of everybody we serve,” said Kathleen Baag, Communications Director with the Diocese of St. Augustine. “So, how do we go about protecting people? Well, if people want to serve within our diocese, they have to go through background checks with FDLE and with the FBI. We make them go through protecting God’s children training so that they are understanding of some of the issues around abuse and what to look for.”

It's worth noting the St. Augustine Diocese has a reputation of having had far fewer complaints of abuse compared to other dioceses. Learn more about the church’s policies and procedures for reporting abuse at https://protect.dosafl.com/.

You can report sex abuse to Florida’s Attorney General here: http://myfloridalegal.com/contact.nsf/stopabuse

The I-TEAM has reached out to Servinsky to give him an opportunity to give his side, and that invitation stands if he chooses to speak with us.

How did we learn about this?

We received an email telling us about a priest who was accused of not reporting abuse in the 2016 Investigating Grand Jury report. It was a report that came out of an investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General.

What was our process to investigate?

We first reached out to the Attorney General of Pennsylvania to see if they would comment on their findings. They declined, letting us know they felt the report speaks for itself. Then, we reached out to an attorney who represented several of the victims of the priest implicated in the report. He reached out to his clients and helped us connect with two men who say they were the victims of sex abuse within the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. We wanted to hear from the victims. Investigative Reporter Kelly Wiley and Investigative Photojournalist Joe Owens flew to Pennsylvania where they interviewed and spent time with the victims. We listened to their stories and visited the churches they attended while growing up. Then, we reached out to the Diocese of St. Augustine. After speaking over the phone, the communications director and deacon decided to interview with us. The Communications Director let us know Msgr. Servinsky did not want to participate. We also reached out to the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown while in Pennsylvania and back in Florida. They asked us what we were inquiring about, but as of publication they have not reached back out to us. We are still investigating and our invitation to hear from Msgr. Servinsky, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is still open.

Why did we do the story?

Florida’s Attorney General is looking into sex abuse, not just in the Catholic church, but in faith institutions across the state of Florida. Representatives of the Diocese of St. Augustine, which hasn’t had many revelations about sex abuse, say they have actively worked to reform policies around reporting abuse and investigating allegations of abuse. We wanted to ask diocese officials why they allowed a priest tied to and accused in a cover-up of this magnitude to work inside a system they are actively trying to fix. We also wanted to know if they are confident that he will follow their policies of reporting sex abuse in their diocese.

About the Authors:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.