Friars charged in abuse case take pleas
D’Aversa, Criscitelli accused of failing to protect children
HOLLIDAYSBURG — Two Franciscan friars accused of failing to protect children from sexual abuse by a suspected child predator rendered no contest pleas Friday in Blair County Court of Common Pleas to endangering the welfare of a child.
Robert D’Aversa, 70, and Anthony Criscitelli, 63, were supposed to go on trial starting May 29 on felony charges of criminal conspiracy and child endangerment based on a 2016 grand jury investigation, which accused them of failing to properly supervise fellow friar Stephen Baker.
D’Aversa and Criscitelli presented their pleas to Senior Judge Jolene G. Kopriva, who sentenced each to five years’ probation and imposed a $1,000 fine each.
They are the first members of their religious order to be convicted and sentenced for endangering the welfare of a child, Senior Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye said after court on Friday.
They are also among the first clergy members in the U.S. to be held criminally liable for covering up sexual abuse of children by other clergy, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Baker, a suspected child predator within the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular, Hollidaysburg, was assigned or permitted to work at Johnstown’s Bishop McCort High School as a religion teacher, athletic trainer and vocations director between 1994 and 2010, when D’Aversa and Criscitelli held supervisory roles within the order.
After the abuse allegations became public in 2013, Baker committed suicide, and a year later, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, the Franciscan friars and Bishop McCort divided an $8 million settlement among 88 victims.
In court Friday, Dye said that in exchange for the pleas, he would withdraw a felony charge of criminal conspiracy and allowed the felony child endangerment charge to be regraded as a first-degree misdemeanor.
“It’s the most serious misdemeanor we have,” Kopriva told the men while speaking of the reason behind the maximum five years’ probation imposed.
She said their offense reflected a choice that they made to allow the brotherhood of the order to outweigh the protection of children.
Dye said he spoke with child abuse victims and their family members who supported the proposed resolution.
“This case was never about getting a life sentence, not that that was going to happen anyway,” Dye said. “It was always about accountability.”
No victims were in the courtroom for the proceedings, although Dye referenced Corey Leech, a 31-year-old Johnstown man who succumbed to drug addiction a year ago today. Leech said he was one of Baker’s victims and testified at a preliminary hearing about the suffering that he endured as a result of the sexual abuse.
Corey only wanted to hear the defendants say they were sorry and wrong, Dye said.
Kopriva acknowledged that she heard regret within the statements offered by the defendants.
D’Aversa apologized for any mistakes or errors in judgment during his administration that would have caused pain to Baker’s victims, members of their families and to the church. He said he prays for all levels of victims.
“I hope that in some way, healing comes back … and that peace and good come back to their lives,” D’Aversa said.
Criscitelli also said that he was sorry for Baker’s heinous behavior and referred to Baker as “a very sick man.”
“The regret of what happened to the children at the hands of Brother Stephen Baker is real,” defense attorney James Kraus said on Criscitelli’s behalf.
Kopriva told D’Aversa and Criscitelli that their five-year probationary sentences could be shorted after the passage of some time and if they can show to the court that they’ve had no additional infractions. She also mentioned that the state sentencing guidelines recommended probation to nine months’ incarceration for the conviction.
“The fact is that it’s a first offense for both of you,” Kopriva said. “That’s why you’re not going to jail.”
While the judge’s order initially puts both men under the supervision of the Blair County Adult Parole and Probation office, it is anticipated that D’Aversa will ask to have that supervision transferred to Florida where he now lives and that Criscitelli will seek to have his supervision transferred to Minnesota where he resides.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.