The fall 2000 edition of The Tradition, a Bishop McCort High School newsletter, had a celebratory and heartfelt story about Brother Stephen Baker, along with a photo of the smiling friar, on the front page.
He was honored for his years of service to the school, as he headed off to become the director of vocations within the Blair County-based Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception. Baker was described as a religious leader who “affected the lives of many young people” in an article titled “A Fond Farewell.”
Former principal Sister Donna Marie Leiden presented him with an engraved brick to be placed in the school’s chapel area, as a tribute to “an exceptionally devoted teacher,” during a celebration of thanksgiving on May 12, 2000, according to the piece.
A scholarship was being established in his honor.
But Baker had a dark secret.
Over the past three years, it has been revealed he sexually abused possibly more than 100 children during his years at Bishop McCort – officially from 1992 until 2000 – when he served as an athletic trainer and in other roles.
Ken Salem, who from 1991 to 2013 held multiple coaching, teaching and administrative positions at Bishop McCort, showed the newsletter to the state’s attorney general office as part of a grand jury investigation into Baker. He wanted to dispute the idea that, as was widely speculated, many people in the tight-knit Bishop McCort community must have known about Baker’s abuse.
“In all my time at McCort, as a coach, I never had anybody tell me that Brother Steve was a pedophile or Brother Steve did something bad to them,” said Salem, the school’s principal from 2006 to 2013, when breaking his silence on the matter during an interview with The Tribune-Democrat on Wednesday. “And students wouldn’t come up to me and joke about something that serious.”
The grand jury determined that Baker’s supervisors with the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception – Giles A. Schinelli, Robert J. D’Aversa and Anthony M. Criscitelli – failed to notify school officials, including Salem, “of information necessary to secure the welfare of children attending Bishop McCort.”
In 2014, The Tribune-Democrat obtained Johnstown Police Department reports that, when combined, told a story of how getting the “bro treatment” was considered a well-known “rite of passage of sorts” among the school’s athletes.
But the grand jury found no “conclusive evidence” existed that the school did anything legally wrong.
Schinelli, D’Aversa and Criscitelli – who, in their roles as ministers provincial, determined where to assign Baker – were indicted. They will face one count each of endangering the welfare of children and criminal conspiracy.
D’Aversa officially named Baker the director of vocations in 2000. However, he is accused of not telling the school Baker was repositioned because a new accusation of child abuse had been made against him, which resulted in Bishop McCort's still letting him have access to the school.
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Salem said Baker clearly was not the person he thought he knew.
The friar was willing to make routine contributions that help teams and organizations function: manage equipment, load trucks, clean locker rooms, wash clothes, cook food, operate concession stands and more.
Salem’s attorney, George W. Bills Jr., said Baker was considered an authority figure the children were conditioned to trust with his trappings of “a rope, robe and sandals.”
But Baker had a long history of sexual abuse allegations from Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota.
“There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t wish that I would have seen Brother Steve for what he was,” Salem said. “I’m sure there are a lot of other dedicated teachers and volunteers and parents and former friends of Brother Steve that wish that same thing.”
Since the Baker scandal broke in 2013, Salem, the Crimson Crushers’ former varsity football head coach, has talked to numerous students, but has not gained a sense as to why they did not feel comfortable enough to speak with authority figures at Bishop McCort.
“I didn’t want to ask anyone that I was talking with – at that point in time – why they didn’t say something to someone because I felt like I was turning the situation back upon them, which I didn’t think was appropriate,” Salem said.
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Two persistent rumors have circulated concerning knowledge individuals were reported to have about Baker.
One is that a former Bishop McCort assistant football coach confronted Baker – both physically and verbally – after hearing a report that he abused a child.
“If he would have been aware that something was going on that was bad for kids he would have taken action and he would also have told me directly,” said Salem, who described the coach as a close friend. “I have never heard from that individual that there was a credible remark made or that he had to intercede against Brother Steve.”
Another rumor is that a former football coach submitted a letter to school officials that stated Baker was harming children.
“I spoke to that in the grand jury,” Salem said. “From what I remember (the coach) said that Brother Steve may have made him feel uncomfortable and he may have recollected writing a letter to the athletic director at the time. But that was never proven or found.”
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The Baker scandal personally affected Salem’s life and career.
He was put on administrative leave as principal in 2013. No reason was given back then, and, on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the school’s board of trustees respectfully declined to comment, since the Baker case is still considered an ongoing investigation by the attorney general’s office.
“At one point in time, Ken’s contract was going to be lapse on June the 30, (2013),” Bills said. “It was clear that contract was not going to be renewed. It was clear that Ken needed to move on away from Bishop McCort, and Bishop McCort needed to move away from Ken.”
Salem has searched for jobs in his field both locally and outside the region. But the uncertainty of the investigation’s outcome led to him not getting any positions as a school administrator or coach.
“It’s been extremely difficult from the personal perspective, from the religious perspective, from just trying to hold your family together,” Salem said. “It’s been really difficult. … What I’ve tried to do is reach out to support mechanisms to try to get through that. And the No. 1 support mechanism that I’ve had has been my wife. She has been amazing. She’s really helped us get through it.”
He currently works as vice president of human resources at GapVax Inc.