Halted Baker talks irritate attorney

HOLLIDAYSBURG – The attorney who filed notice of seven lawsuits stemming from the alleged sexual abuse of Bishop McCort High School students in the 1990s by a Franciscan friar said he is “disappointed” the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has discontinued settlement talks pending the outcome of an attorney general’s investigation.

The decision to table the discussions, announced late Friday afternoon, came as a shock to Altoona attorney Richard M. Serbin.

Serbin said settlement talks have been underway for almost a year, and until the announcement Friday, the diocese and Serbin, among others, have been working to resolve the sexual abuse charges that have emerged against Brother Stephen Baker.

Baker died from a self-inflicted stab wound on Jan. 27, 2013, while in his room at St. Bernardine Monastery near Hollidaysburg.

Despite his death, the investigation of his sexual abuse of students has continued in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Serbin said halting settlement talks demonstrated that the diocese was attempting to protect itself rather than helping the many students who, he said, were put in “harm’s way.”

Baker was an athletic trainer at Bishop McCort until 2000 after working for another school in Youngstown, Ohio.

The lawsuit notices that Serbin filed on behalf of the alleged Baker victims are at a critical point.

To prevent the Blair County legal docket from developing a backlog, Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva in October sent notices telling Serbin to file legal complaints in the seven civil cases – an effort to begin moving the case through the system.

Serbin asked the filing of the complaints be put on hold because settlement discussions were underway.

He explained it would be better to resolve the cases without going through the process of filling legal complaints.

Serbin knows how long cases can last, having been the attorney who filed a civil lawsuit in 1988 against the diocese on behalf of Michael Hutchison of Altoona, who stated he was molested as a child by Altoona priest Father Francis Luddy.

It took a 16-week trial and 20 years of litigation for the Luddy lawsuit to come to an end with Hutchison, who is deceased, being awarded $2.7 million.

Serbin said diocesan leaders had suggested talks to resolve the Baker cases almost a year ago.

Kopriva gave Serbin six months to come to settlements; that six-month period ends today.

Serbin said talks are still continuing with other parties involved in the Baker cases, namely the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular and the Diocese of Youngstown.

“I am going to do my part to proceed toward that goal [settlement],” Serbin said Thursday.

Diocesan spokesman Tony DeGol said the news release that was issued Friday was all the diocese would have to say at this time.

The diocese said in the release that it has “suspended its efforts to resolve the claims of those individuals who allege they were harmed by Brother Stephen Baker.”

The release stated it would be “inappropriate” to proceed with civil matters while a state criminal investigation is active.

“The Diocese intends to resume the settlement efforts related to the actions of Brother Baker as soon as appropriate,” it stated.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.