Attorneys: Abuse claims top a dozen

Over the past two days, attorneys received calls from more than a dozen former Bishop McCort High School students, claiming that a Hollidaysburg-based Franciscan friar inappropriately touched them during their high school careers.

Boston-based attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who achieved a settlement for 11 Ohio men against Brother Stephen Baker in October, is investigating claims of two former Bishop McCort students who are accusing Baker of inappropriately touching them during his time as a baseball trainer at the school in the late 1990s.

Richard Serbin, who’s defended victims of clergy abuse across Pennsylvania for more than 25 years, said he received a call from an attorney referring at least one alleged victim to him Thursday night.

Johnstown attorney Michael Parrish said he received calls from 10 men with claims against Baker, who is currently residing at St. Bernardine Monastery in Hollidaysburg.

“One victim coming forward gives strength to others,” Serbin said.

In 2011, Bishop Mark L. Bartchak of the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown received information of Baker’s alleged abuse occurring in the 1990s and “immediately contacted the appropriate civil authorities,” according to a press release from the diocese this week.

Attorney Amy Berkheimer of the Cambria County District Attorney’s Office said the office has had no reports of accusations against Baker to date.

Diocese spokesman Tony DeGol did not return messages Friday to clarify how the allegations were handled after Bartchak contacted authorities in 2011 or which authorities Bartchak contacted.

Local accusations against Baker surfaced this week following the announcement that a settlement was reached for former students of John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio.

Baker was an instructor and baseball team trainer in the mid- to late-1980s at the school, prior to serving in those capacities at Bishop McCort in Johnstown.

Parrish said he is still in the investigative process, but similar to the case in Ohio, the bulk of the allegations stemming from Baker’s time at McCort involve student-athletes receiving what was represented to them as therapeutic treatment for athletic-related injuries.

Baker’s superior, the Rev. Patrick Quinn, said Baker is obeying his legal counsel’s advice to decline an interview.

The claims in Ohio were settled without a criminal trial because of a statute of limitations preventing a victim from filing charges once he or she reaches the age of maturity. The Pennsylvania statute of limitations for child sex abuse prohibits filing civil suit 12 years after a victim’s 18th birthday. However, criminal charges may be filed up to the victim’s 50th birthday.

The men’s accusations against Baker, in both Ohio and Johnstown, did not surface for at least a decade after the alleged abuse. Garabedian said secrecy in these cases – from reporting the crime to speaking about settlements – is what fuels sexual abuse.

“In so many cases, the pedophile tells the victim to keep quiet and the supervisors also keep quiet,” he said.

Settlements with confidentiality agreements have allowed sexual abuse to continue and revictimize the victims, said Garabedian, who has successfully represented victims against Boston priest the Rev. John Geoghan, who was sentenced in 2002 and killed the following year in prison.

Nationwide, cases of child sexual abuse by clergy were subject to confidentiality agreements until the 2002 approval of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

However, the victim may request a confidentiality agreement.

Quinn stated in an email that Baker was removed from ministry in 2000 “upon the receipt of an allegation of a young man of a single event involving massage that occurred in the ’80s. That case not only resulted in Baker’s removal from ministry but also in the form of a lawsuit that was resolved in 2002. It involved a confidentiality agreement requested by the victim.”

DeGol said he is not aware of any past settlements involving Baker with confidentiality agreements.