HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. (AP) — Records from a Franciscan religious order show three former leaders knew a friar had been accused of child sex abuse before he was allowed to work at a high school and other jobs where more than 100 people eventually accused him of molesting them as children, an investigator testified Thursday.
Jessica Eger, a special agent with the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, testified for hours about documents that she said showed Giles Schinelli, Robert D’Aversa and Anthony Criscitelli knew of allegations dating to 1977 against Brother Stephen Baker, who killed himself in 2013.
“He molested children because these men put him in a position to molest them,” Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye told District Judge Paula Aigner while arguing with defense attorneys during Eger’s testimony.
Thursday’s hearing will determine whether the friars will stand trial on child endangerment and conspiracy charges.
The three friars successively headed a Franciscan order in Pennsylvania from 1986 to 2010. Schinelli, 73, assigned Baker to Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, where Baker molested more than 80 students, most while serving as an athletic trainer who massaged boys “so they could run faster,” Eger testified.
D’Aversa, 69, eventually removed Baker from the school upon receiving a “credible” though unspecified sex abuse allegation, only to almost immediately appoint Baker “vocations director,” Eger said. In that position, Baker had regular contact with teenage boys in Pennsylvania and other states at retreats and other events, some of which involved overnight stays at the St. Bernardine monastery, where Baker lived, Eger said.
Criscitelli, 61, took over the order in 2002. He was responsible for seeing that Baker — by then the subject of several sex abuse allegations in Pennsylvania and Minnesota, where he served in the late 1970s — abided by a “safety plan” under guidelines drawn up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the wake of nationwide clergy abuse scandal, Eger said.
Despite that, Baker continued to have unsupervised contact with children, Eger said.
Before the hearing, attorneys for the friars asked the judge to dismiss the charges based on the statute of limitations. The judge declined to rule until testimony is finished.
Eger was the second of five prosecution witnesses and continued to testify into the afternoon, making it likely the hearing would be continued.
Baker stabbed himself in the heart at the Pennsylvania monastery in January 2013, nine days after the Roman Catholic Diocese in Youngstown, Ohio, settled claims by 11 former students who said they were abused by him at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio, from 1986 to 1990.
News reports of those settlements prompted former McCort students to come forward with allegations. Claims by more than 80 students have been settled by the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, which ran the high school when Baker taught there, and his religious order, Franciscan Friars, Third Order Regulars, Province of the Immaculate Conception.
More than 80 former McCort students were paid more than $8 million to settle those claims, and a state grand jury determined Baker molested more than 100 children while performing assignments for the Franciscans.
A former McCort student, who is now 30, said Baker was a family friend who molested him on the training table and fondled him on car trips and when he’d visit Baker at the monastery.
The former student said he once objected to Baker fondling him during a massage.
“Well, he just got angry. He just put all his weight on you. He was a big dude, a big guy,” he said.
The Associated Press generally doesn’t name victims of sexual abuse.
Despite the students’ common knowledge of Baker’s abuse, he was bid a “Fond Farewell” in a front-page spread of the student newspaper when he left the school in 2000 — though Eger said the principal wasn’t told by D’Aversa about the “credible” abuse allegation that prompted Baker’s removal.