The Rev. Basil John Hutsko remembers that the attacker was wearing gloves.
It was Monday morning, about 9 a.m., and he had just finishing praying at the altar of St. Michael Byzantine Catholic Church in Merrillville, Ind., as his longtime friend and fellow clergy member, the Rev. Thomas J. Loya, told The Washington Post. Hutsko stepped inside the sacristy, the little room near the altar where religious supplies are stored. He thought he was alone.
But then he felt the hands. They tightened around his neck from behind, according to Merrillville Police Chief Joseph Petruch. Then, the attacker threw the 64-year-old priest onto the ground and “immediately starting slamming his head against the floor,” Petruch told CBS Chicago.
Distinctly, Petruch said, before Hutsko blacked out, he remembered hearing: “This is for all the little kids.”
Hutsko was left unconscious for 15 minutes inside his church, said Loya, who visited with him after the attack. Hutsko never saw the man’s face.
Petruch told CBS Chicago that he had enough information to call the attack a hate crime and has alerted the FBI. As of late Wednesday, no suspect was in custody. Neither police nor the FBI could immediately be reached for further comment.
The assault comes in the wake of a sweeping Pennsylvania grand jury report released last week describing alleged sexual abuse by more than 300 Catholic priests that had been concealed by church officials for decades. Hutsko was not among the priests identified in the report, and multiple priests, including Loya, say he has never been accused of any wrongdoing.
Commander Jeff Rice, a spokesman for the Merrillville Police Department, confirmed to the Chicago Tribune that Hutsko’s attacker referred to reports of clergy sex abuse during the assault. He said these comments led police to consider the attack a hate crime, but he declined to elaborate. Petruch told CBS Chicago that police are investigating the priest’s past.
“As we have been saying, Father Basil is not guilty of any abuse or any accusations. He was just an innocent priest,” said Loya, who added that he has known Hutsko for 40 years. The attacker, he said, “was apparently enraged by [the report], but why he chose Father Basil, we have no idea. We have not even a clue.”
Hutsko could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
The attack Monday coincided with the release of Pope Francis’s 2,000-word letter acknowledging the child sex abuse, addressed to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. As The Washington Post reported, the unprecedented letter came as the Catholic Church faces mounting pressure to correct systemic problems within its hierarchy that have allowed clergy sex abuse to fester behind closed doors for decades.
“With shame and repentance,” the pope wrote, “we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
The Rev. Steven Koplinka of St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Parish in Munster, Ind., told the Chicago Tribune that “it’s a shame” Hutsko ended up being targeted.
“It’s just like they’re targeting the wrong guys, you know?” he said. “The rest of us try our best to be good priests, and unfortunately, this happened.”
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