EBENSBURG, Pa. (AP) — By MICHAEL RUBINKAM
A former Pennsylvania pediatrician was sentenced Monday to at least 79 years in prison for sexually assaulting 31 children, most of them patients, as his now-adult victims blasted not only their abuser but the system that let him get away with it for so long.
Dr. Johnnie Barto of Johnstown was sentenced on dozens of criminal counts, including aggravated indecent assault and child endangerment. Prosecutors said he spent decades abusing children in the exam room at his pediatric practice in western Pennsylvania and at local hospitals, having opted to become a pediatrician so he'd have a ready supply of victims.
He typically abused prepubescent girls. One was an infant.
"I grieve for the little girl I should have been, for the childhood I should've had. ... I grieve for all the children you hurt," Erika Brosig, who was sexually abused at age 13, said at Barto's sentencing.
Brosig and 18 other people gave victim impact statements Monday, both in person and through a prosecutor, describing their pain and hurt.
Barto's wife, Linda Barto, was among them.
"He has been lying to me about everything for all of the 52 years I have known him. ... He spent his whole sinister life lying and sneaking around, so he could carry on his abuse uninterrupted," she said. She said her heart was heavy for the victims.
Authorities had a chance to stop Barto in 2000, when he appeared before the Pennsylvania Board of Medicine on administrative charges that he molested two young girls in the 1990s. But regulators threw out the case and allowed him to keep practicing medicine, saying the allegations were "incongruous to his reputation."
Barto was a beloved pediatrician in Johnstown - and an elected school board member - with hundreds of supporters who flatly disbelieved he was a pedophile. Such was the community's support that ribbons were distributed and worn at a high school football game as he fought the allegations in the 1990s. Brosig, who felt obligated to wear the ribbon as a member of the color guard, said it "burned a hole in my chest that entire night."
After the medical board cleared him, Barto felt "invincible," he later told authorities. And he continued molesting. Barto, now 71, went on to violate at least a dozen more young patients before his arrest in January 2018, according to the state attorney general's office.
"Dr. Barto used his position of authority as a pediatrician, the family doctor relied on to treat and heal their children, to feed his own sick desires," Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference after the sentencing.
In handing Barto a prison term of 79 to 158 years - meaning the ex-pediatrician will die in prison - a judge told the gathered victims Monday that justice was finally theirs.
"All I can say is that the justice system is not perfect, but it worked the second time," Judge Patrick Kiniry said.
As Barto sat impassively just a few feet away, victims described in minute detail their assaults: what Barto was wearing (a striped purple shirt); what the room looked like (burgundy carpeting on the walls, orange chairs, teal stool); what he did and how it made them feel.
Brosig said she can still feel Barto's cold hands and hear the exam table paper crinkling underneath her body. "The sound of you moaning will haunt me until the day I die," she told Barto.
One victim said that because of what Barto did to her, she rarely sees a doctor and is terrified of taking her children to one. Another told the court she showers in the dark because she's ashamed of her body.
Many spoke of lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and distrust of men. "I've lived my life in pain, hopelessness and despair," a woman said in her statement.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they consent.
Prosecutors had asked for 31 to 62 years in prison.
Barto did not apologize and declined to make a statement. He pleaded guilty in December to sexually abusing two family members. He pleaded no contest to the charges involving his patients, refusing to admit guilt but accepting the punishment.
His lawyer, David Weaver, said Barto would not appeal the sentence.
Even after Barto was charged last year, some people in the area still couldn't accept the truth about him, launching a Facebook group in support.