HARRISBURG – Brother Stephen Baker was a serial sexual abuser of children.

During the years he served as an athletic trainer at what was then called Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, the Franciscan friar from the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception, violated more than 100 children. When he died in January 2013, from a reported self-inflicted knife wound to the heart, Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan realized any investigation into his abuse would stretch beyond her jurisdiction.

So, she referred the case to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, which conducted a grand jury investigation, resulting in two reports – one about Baker, and another that detailed a decades-long cover-up by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, allegedly orchestrated by Bishops Joseph Adamec and James Hogan, to protect more than 50 predator priests and religious leaders.

That inquest provided the impetus for the AG's office to conduct an investigation into six other dioceses: Allentown, Scranton, Erie, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Greensburg.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a partially redacted, nearly 900-page report that provided information about similar abuse and cover-ups within those dioceses.

“It was clear to me, right away, that this would be beyond the scope of my jurisdiction – first of all, because it covered so many counties in the diocese,” Callihan said.

“And, not only that, we wouldn't have the resources to go forward here in Cambria County because we don't have a grand jury process here. To see it now morph into more of a statewide grand jury is pretty incredible, considering the first referral came out of Cambria County.”

In response to the Altoona-Johnstown scandal, the AG's office established a hotline for victims to call.

“I never would have guessed that my referral – related to Brother Baker – would develop into such an enormous statewide grand jury process,"Callihan said, "but once the Altoona-Johnstown report came out, I figured it would be ongoing because they set up that hotline.”

Between Altoona-Johnstown and the other six dioceses, more than 350 religious leaders have been accused of abuse.

“Finally, it has been a long road to hoe,” said Shaun Dougherty, a Westmont resident whose abuse at the hands of a local priest was documented in the Altoona-Johnstown report.

“What a process this has been from me making a statement in 2012 to 350 named predators. I's going to take me a while to absorb this.”

'Predators within the clergy'

Baker served at Bishop McCort from 1992 until 2000 and had unofficial access afterward.

Settlements have been reached by the school, diocese and province in more than 90 cases against Baker, while a new allegation was made last week that stretches his alleged abuse into 2003.

But, by the time his abuse came to public light, other allegations had already been made in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, including against the Rev. George Koharchik, who was also brought to the attention of the AG's office by Callihan, years before Baker.

Earlier, the Rev. Francis Luddy was accused of abusing Michael Hutchison in the late 1970s and early 1980s and brought to trial years afterward.

“I think it was a culmination of years of reports of child sex abuse within the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, which became public starting with the Hutchison vs. Luddy trial,” said Blair County attorney Richard Serbin, who handled Hutchinson's case.

Serbin has represented approximately 300 victims of clergy sexual abuse throughout Pennsylvania.

“The problems were universal within each diocese, within the state of Pennsylvania and nationally – that is the protection of child predators within the clergy, as a result of the concern for the reputation of the church and the priests,” Serbin said.

He provided information about accused abusers to the commonwealth.

“When I testified, in 2016, before the grand jury, it became clear, I think, through my testimony and the testimony of others, that the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese was not unique in terms of how it tragically handled the issue of clerical child sexual abuse,” Serbin said.

Serbin credited the attorney general's office for exposing the way the six dioceses handled predator priests, similar to how previous grand juries had done with Altoona-Johnstown and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“I applaud the Pennsylvania grand jury and the attorney general's office for making these reports – or at least fighting to make these reports – public, because the very thing the church wanted to prevent – and that is any tarnishing of the priests or the reputation of the church – is being exposed. And that exposure is necessary if we have any hope of stopping these problems,” Serbin said.

'Years of private torment'

One case arose out the Altoona-Johnstown investigation.

Three minister provincials at the Province of the Immaculate Conception – the Revs. Anthony “Giles” A. Schinelli, Robert J. D’Aversa, and Anthony M. Criscitelli – were charged with conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children because they gave Baker assignments that provided him access to children, even though he had been, as the AG's office contended, credibly accused of child sexual abuse.

One of Baker's victims, Corey Leech, anonymously testified during the legal proceedings.

When Leech, age 31, died in May 2017, his family ran an obituary in The Tribune-Democrat, that stated: “When his years of private torment became national news, Corey made an uncommonly brave decision. He chose to testify. He wanted to prevent other children from living his nightmare. While he did more than his share to help others, it was too late for Corey. His nightmare was inescapable. Years of abuse by this clergyman destroyed Corey’s faith. The house of God no longer provided any solace for Corey, so he sought peace the only way he could, through substance abuse.”

Robert Hoatson, co-founder of a victim support group called Road to Recovery, credited Leech and other victims for the role they played in making abuse within the church known.

“In most cases, it's the courage of the victims,” Hoatson said.

“For example, when Corey Leech testified in the case of the three Franciscans, I think that generated, in the AG's office, like a whole other level of concern, saying, 'Wait a minute, here's a guy coming forward and we know what the situation in Altoona-Johnstown was – or is – boy, it's got to be similar perhaps in other places.' So I think, once again, if Corey hadn't come forward to testify, we may not have ever had this report.

"I think his testimony and the fact that the guys were then indicted put a whole new level of seriousness on this.”

D’Aversa and Criscitelli pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of children, a first-degree misdemeanor. Sentenced to five years probation and a $1,000 fine apiece, they were the first religious order leaders in Pennsylvania to be legally punished for protecting a clergy member who abused children, according to Shapiro.

The case against Schinelli was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.

Statute of limitations

Serbin is among the lawyers, lawmakers and victim advocates who have called for changes to Pennsylvania's statute of limitations in the aftermath of the Altoona-Johnstown investigation, since the laws prohibited prosecuting the living accused in the report.

Criminal charges can be brought until age 30 for individuals born before Aug. 27, 2002, with the limit increasing to 50 for victims born after that same date. Victims who were under the age of 18 when alleged abuse occurred can bring civil charges until they reach age 30.

“They're deprived of that right (to justice) now in most cases because they only have until age 30 to file a claim in court,” Serbin said.

“And, in my experience, most child victims of sexual abuse are unable to come to grips with the ability to go forward and pursue a claim until later in life. I would say the average is 35 to 40, in my experience, before they come forward and are capable of dealing with it.”

Proposed changes have failed to get through the Legislature, with a disagreement existing as whether to include a retroactive window during which alleged victims could bring claims for abuse committed in the time before the current statute of limitations.

‘Learned a great deal’

Following the release of the Altoona-Johnstown report, the diocese put out a public list of religious leaders who had credible allegations of sexual abuse made against them.

In 2016, the diocese also dropped its longstanding opposition to the release of the pretrial records in a abuse case filed by petitioners against the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, Hogan, Holy Name Catholic Church in Ebensburg and Msgr. Francis McCaa back in 1986.

The diocese has also created the Diocesan Office of Children and Youth Protection – led by director Cindy O’Connor, established an Independent Oversight Board, announced new membership and protocols for a Diocesan Review Board, and taken steps to improve counseling.

“We learned a great deal as a result of the statewide grand jury investigation of our diocese more than two years ago and from our subsequent interaction with the United States Attorney’s Office,” Altoona-Johnstown Bishop Mark Bartchak said. “We have made tremendous accomplishments, and we will continue moving forward in our efforts to ensure the safety and protection of all children and youth.”

Callihan said discussions have been held with the dioceses and protocols have been improved, including development of the Cambria County Child Advocacy Center. “When the report came out here, we bettered our practices here,” Callihan said. 

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

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