SUICIDE, SEX ABUSE AND CRIMINAL CHARGES: Protection of homosexual Franciscan latest revelation in ongoing Pennsylvania scandal
Following an exposé earlier this month of a massive, systematic cover-up of abusive homosexual priests perpetrated by two former bishops of the Altoona-Johnstown diocese in western Pennsylvania, the state attorney general’s office formally accused three Franciscan friars Tuesday of permitting a member of their order to work with minors despite a plethora of abuse allegations made against him.
The three friars in question — Giles Schinelli, 73; Robert D’Aversa, 69; and Anthony M. Criscitelli, 61 — served successively as provincial ministers of the Franciscan Friars, Third Order Regular in western Pennsylvania from 1986 to 2010, and as such were responsible for members of the order, including Br. Stephen Baker, the central figure of the current scandal, who killed himself in 2013 after allegations leveled against him were made public..
According to the grand jury report released at the beginning of the month, Schinelli assigned Baker to the position of religion teacher and assistant football coach at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown in 1992, in spite of an accusation of sexual abuse leveled against the friar in 1988 and a psychological evaluation advising Baker not to have “one on one” contact with children.
While at the high school Baker managed to become the school athletic trainer despite having no experience or training, and used the position to molest male high school students, generally when treating sports-related injuries. In 2000, under the leadership of Robert D’Aversa, Br. Baker was pulled out of Bishop McCort High School and clandestinely removed from active ministry after the provincial minister was presented with a “credible allegation” of molestation; however, D’Aversa failed to divulge to school officials and law enforcement why the brother had been reassigned.
D’Aversa instead appointed Baker to be the provincial vocations director, which entailed leading overnight youth retreats all across the country, permitting him to continue attending high school events and retain his access to the school’s facilities.
Under the leadership of Friar Criscitelli, the brother was permitted to work in a shopping mall where he had daily access to children. During this period, Baker was required to be under surveillance, but according to the grand jury report was never monitored.
In 2013, the church announced it would be settling lawsuits brought forth by 11 of Baker’s alleged victims from his time at Bishop McCort; the announcement resulted in an additional 25 claims of sexual abuse at Baker’s hands.
Weeks later, Br. Bakercommitted suicide at St. Bernardine Monastery in Hollidaysburg by driving two knives into his heart.
As a result of the new allegations, the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Baker’s Franciscan province, and Bishop McCort High School settled the lawsuits of 88 of Baker’s victims in October 2014.
For their involvement in Baker’s criminal activity, Schinelli, D’Aversa and Criscitelli have each been formally charged with endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children, all third-degree felonies. According to the grand jury, each individual “had considerable experience in hiding members of the organization who were accused of sexual abuse. Documents seized in the investigation revealed the order had at various times reassigned up to eight members — seven of whom have since died — who were accused of sexual abuse.”
The Franciscan Friars of Hollidaysburg released a statement Tuesday offering apologies to the victims and asserting they are “deeply saddened” by the news:
With compassion for the victims and their families, as well as for the Catholic family and the community at large, the province and its leadership have worked to cooperate with the Office of Attorney General throughout this investigation in the hope that this information could shed light on events that the province, too, struggles to understand. The province extends its most sincere apologies to the victims and to the communities who have been harmed.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane noted the investigation is not about attacking the Catholic Church. “This is not about a religious order. This is not about Catholicism. This is about standing up for the law. … We are teaching our children that they do not have to hide this horrific act.”
The 147-page grand jury report, which initially began as a state investigation into the Baker case, also detailed efforts made by the two former bishops of the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, with the assistance of local law enforcement, in sheltering more than 50 homosexual priest, which included informing suspected priests of police surveillance and rotating accused clerics in various parish and school positions.
According to Attorney General Kane, since the release of the report in early March the office has received over 215 calls on their sexual abuse hotline related to the cover-up.