HOLLIDAYSBURG – Attorneys for three Franciscan friars accused of failing to properly supervise suspected serial child sexual abuser Brother Stephen Baker presented reasons on Wednesday why they believe charges against their clients should be dismissed.
The priests are charged with one count each of conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children.
Lawyers argued a conspiracy did not exist between the Revs. Anthony “Giles” A. Schinelli, Robert J. D’Aversa and Anthony M. Criscitelli and that the statute of limitations has expired on endangerment. Daniel Dye, a prosecutor from the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, disagreed with their positions, telling the court: “There was no error in holding this matter for trial.”
Blair County Judge Jolene Kopriva said she will rule on the issues “as quickly as possible.”
Dye contends the three friars – in their roles as ministers provincial for the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception – gave Baker assignments that provided him access to children even though they knew he posed a threat.
Baker is accused of sexually abusing hundreds of children, including during the time when he served as an unlicensed trainer at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown.
The state argues the conspiracy started when Schinelli assigned Baker to Bishop McCort in 1992 even though a previous allegation of abuse existed against the friar and then it continued through the years D’Aversa and Criscitelli spent in charge of the order.
Schinelli sent Baker for a psychological evaluation, which determined he posed no threat.
D’Aversa, in 2000, removed Baker from his formal assignment at Bishop McCort. Dye argued the accused failed to tell the school the decision was because of a new credible allegation being discovered from Baker’s past. D’Aversa’s attorney, Robert Ridge, disputed the timeline and called the reassignment and allegation revelation “coincidental.”
Criscitelli is accused of knowing a safety plan was in place for Baker, but still putting him in positions where he could potentially be around children, including when the brother worked at a shop in a Blair County mall.
The AG’s office believes those steps show an ongoing conspiracy.
Ridge, though, called the charge of conspiracy “deeply flawed” because there were no acts taken or plans made by the defendants. Lawyers said the defendants fulfilled their duties and argued the state’s contention that Baker should not have had any assignments with access to the public was too broad.
They also made the point that the two-year statute of limitations for endangering the welfare of children has expired.
Charles Porter, attorney for Schinelli, said any statute of limitations for his client would have expired in the mid 1990s.
Criscitelli’s attorney, James Kraus, asked for a change of venue because of publicity the case has attracted.
Kopriva said that is a matter never determined during pretrial motions.
“It’s a very high standard for change of venue because of pretrial publicity,” the judge said.
Several advocates for victims of child sexual abuse attended the hearing, including Thomas Venditti and John Nesbella, co-founders of the new local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“The Franciscans were claiming that Brother Baker was a good guy and they had no reason to be suspicious of him at all,” Venditti said.
“This is a disgrace because Franciscans live in a community. Franciscans are accountable to each other. Franciscans confess their sins to each other. So to claim ignorance and to think that Brother Baker was a good Catholic in good standing in the church shows a complete lack of judgment, shows a complete incompetence, and, quite honestly, they need to resign.”
The audience also included Bernie and Cindy Leech, the parents of Corey Leech, who testified during a previous hearing that he was abused by Baker.
Dye mentioned Leech multiple times during his presentation to the court. Leech died earlier this year.