Witness: 3 religious leaders enabled friar to be predator

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 he was later accused of molesting more than 100 children, an investigator testified Thursday.

Jessica Eger, a special agent with the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, said documents showed Giles Schinelli, Robert D’Aversa and Anthony Criscitelli were aware 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 the judge while arguing with defense attorneys during the testimony.

The hearing, which will resume April 27, will determine whether the three former Franciscan leaders stand trial on child endangerment and conspiracy charges.

When they were charged last month, Schinelli was a pastoral administrator of a Catholic retreat in Winter Park, Florida; D’Aversa was a pastor in Mount Dora, Florida; and Criscitelli was a pastor in Minneapolis. They have since been removed from their duties.

During questioning Thursday, attorneys for the three men sought to show that their clients did the best they could to investigate what little they contend they knew of past allegations against Baker, and then to supervise him accordingly.

The 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 was accused of molesting more than 80 students, most while serving as an athletic trainer. As the athletic trainer, Baker said he 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 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 following the nationwide clergy abuse scandal, Eger said.

Despite that, Baker continued to have unsupervised contact with children, including while working at the Friars’ Store, a Catholic gift shop at a nearby mall, Eger said.

Criscitelli’s attorney suggested that his client had completely removed Baker from public ministries to keep him from children.

D’Aversa’s attorney said investigators could provide no evidence of abuse allegations against Baker after he left McCort High School.

But the prosecutor said he didn’t have to prove that Baker molested any more children after that point — only that his track record of abuse made him dangerous and that he still was allowed unsupervised contact with children on occasion.

The attorney for Schinelli, Charles Porter Jr., argued that his client didn’t know Baker was a child predator before he was allowed to teach at McCort.

He pointed to documents showing Schinelli had investigated a vague allegation that Baker molested a child in Missouri in 1988 and had ordered Baker to undergo counseling even though no proof was found to substantiate the claim.

The psychiatrist who examined Baker found “no deviate sexual disorder that puts minors at risk,” the special agent acknowledged, though that diagnosis was largely based on Baker’s admissions to the doctor.

In a 1992 discussion of that report with his attorney, however, Schinelli noted that Baker should have no “one-on-one” contact with children, despite the doctor’s diagnosis, according to notes of the discussion.

But the judge said those notes couldn’t be used as evidence after Porter argued to do so would violate attorney-client privilege.

Baker stabbed himself in the heart at the Pennsylvania monastery in January 2013, nine days after a Roman Catholic Diocese settled claims by former high school students in Warren, Ohio, that they had been abused in the late 1980s.

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.

A state grand jury found that Baker had molested more than 100 children while performing assignments for the Franciscans.

A former McCort student, who is now 30, testified Thursday that Baker repeatedly molested him on the training table at McCort, and fondled him on car trips and when he’d visit Baker at the monastery. The Associated Press generally doesn’t name victims of sexual abuse.

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.

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