Franciscan leaders

Franciscan leaders (from left) the Revs. Robert J. D’Aversa, Giles A. Schinelli and Anthony M. Criscitelli walk together to Blair County Courthouse in Hollidaysburg in this file photo from April 14, 2016.

Two Franciscan friars accepted guilty pleas on charges of endangering the welfare of children, a first-degree misdemeanor, in a case stemming from sexual abuse committed by Brother Stephen Baker, who was under their supervision at the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception.

The Revs. Robert D’Aversa, 70, and Anthony Criscitelli, 63, gave Baker assignments that provided him access to children even after evidence was known he presented a danger as a sexual predator.

The cases against D’Aversa and Criscitelli came about as part of an investigation by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General into what was described as a decades-long coverup by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown to protect religious leaders accused of sexually abusing children.

Settlements have been reached with more than 90 of Baker’s victims from his time at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown where he officially served from 1992-2000 and had unofficial access afterward.

“These defendants knew the abuser was a serious threat to children – but they allowed him to engage with children and have access to them as part of his job within their order,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a press release. “They chose time and time again to prioritize their institution’s reputation over the safety of victims. I won’t stand for that in any institution – and any person who fails to protect and safeguard children in their care will answer to me.”

Shapiro said the friars, who, in their roles as minister provincial, had the ability to give Baker whatever assignments they chose, were the first religious order members in Pennsylvania to be sentenced for protecting clergy who abused children.

“I think we can’t lose sight of the historic nature of this criminal conviction,” Shapiro said during a telephone interview.

Shapiro said the conviction shows that, in Pennsylvania, enablers “will be held accountable for covering up rampant sexual abuse of children.”

Mitchell Garabedian, one of the nation’s leading attorneys for victims of sexual abuse who represented dozens of Baker’s accusers, commended Shapiro for “bringing these two friars to justice.”

“Victims of Brother Stephen Baker should be proud of coming forward and reporting their sexual abuse,” Garabedian said. “If they had not done so, Attorney General Shapiro would not have had a foundation to build his case.”

Blair County Judge Jolene G. Kopriva sentenced both to the maximum period of probation – five years and fined them $1,000 apiece and costs of prosecution.

Shaun Dougherty, a local victims’ advocate, said his emotions were “mixed.”

“On one side of it, I’m happy to see that we’re putting a close to this. It’s another case on record, showing the church’s guilt on this,” Dougherty said.

But, he said, on the other side, “it’s crap” because “they got away with a lot, and it’s costing people their lives” and received what he considered light sentences.

A third minister provincial, the Rev. Anthony “Giles” A. Schinelli, had also been accused of endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy for assigning Baker to Bishop McCort in 1992 even though a previous allegation of abuse existed against the friar.

Charges were dropped against Schinelli due to reaching the statute of limitations.

In 2000, D’Aversa removed Baker from his formal assignment at Bishop McCort, but kept quiet the information that he made the decision because of a new credible allegation having been made against the brother. Criscitelli, who succeeded D’Aversa, knew a safety plan was in place for Baker, but he still gave the brother assignments where he could be around children, including working at a shop in a Blair County mall.

Baker, in January 2013, reportedly committed suicide by stabbing himself in the heart shorty after word of his abuse became publicly known. Baker also abused children in Ohio, Minnesota and Michigan before coming to Pennsylvania.

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

Recommended for you