Franciscan leaders charged in child sex abuse case
Actions by attorney general's office represent one of the broadest-ever drives to hold Roman Catholic church accountable for clergy abuses of minors.
March 16, 2016 12:11 AM
A large poster with images, from left, of Giles A. Schinelli, Robert J. D’Aversa and Anthony M. Criscitelli is on display Tuesday as Attorney General Kathleen Kane talks about the alleged conspiracy and charges that were filed against the three members of the Franciscan Friars, 3rd Order Regulars Province of the Immaculate Conceptions.
Charged were: Giles Schinelli, Robert D'Aversa, and Anthony Criscitelli.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — One of his Franciscan superiors knew Brother Stephen Baker had sexually abused a minor and ordered a psychological evaluation in the early 1990s. The evaluation came back with a caution — to keep Baker away from one-on-one contact with children, and no overnight trips with them.
Even so, the Very Rev. Giles A. Schinelli admitted under oath to a grand jury that he assigned Baker to work at Bishop McCort Catholic High School here in 1992, and Baker had plenty of one-on-one contact with students.
Baker became an athletic trainer there despite lacking any professional qualifications, and under the guise of offering massages or other treatment, Baker handled boys’ bare genitals with his hands and digitally penetrated their anuses, among other offenses.
A statewide grand jury, saying that he enabled a nearly two-decade rampage of abuse that claimed at least 100 victims, recommended that Father Schinelli and the two who succeeded him as head of a Hollidaysburg-based Franciscan province face almost unprecedented felony charges.
Each is charged with one count of endangering the welfare of children and criminal conspiracy, which are third-degree felonies.
The charges represent one of the broadest-ever drives to hold Roman Catholic higher-ups to account in any American criminal court for the sexual abuse of minors by those under their supervision. And they’re the first religious-order superiors to face such charges.
To date, only a Missouri bishop and a Philadelphia monsignor have been convicted of cover-up-related charges, with the latter on appeal.
Filed by the state attorney general’s office, the charges were recommended by the same statewide grand jury that released a report two weeks ago blasting the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown for decades of covering up sexual abuse by more than 50 priests and other church leaders.
But the Altoona-Johnstown report resulted in no criminal charges because of the statute of limitations. In this case, however, the grand jury alleged a conspiracy from 1992 to as recently as 2010 by leaders of the Blair County-based Province of the Immaculate Conception of the Franciscan Friar, Third Order Regular.
The charges were filed Monday in Blair County Magisterial District Court in Hollidaysburg.
Baker committed suicide in January 2013 amid growing revelations of his multi-state trail of ravaged young lives. His body was found with wounds from two knives and surrounded by suicide notes, the report said.
• Father Schinelli, 73, who was minister provincial from 1986 to 1994.
• The Very Rev. Robert J. D’Aversa, 69, who was minister provincial from 1994 to 2001 and removed Baker from Bishop McCort because of a credible allegation of sexual abuse but reassigned him to other ministry with access to youths, according to the grand jury.
• The Very Rev. Anthony M. Criscitelli, 61, who was minister provincial from 2002 to 2010 and continued to allow Baker unsupervised access to children, according to the grand jury.
None of the three, according to the charges, ever called law enforcement authorities on Baker.
The three live out of state and are expected to be arraigned in the coming days.
The three superiors chose “to protect the image and reputation of the Franciscan friars” rather than protect children “to whom they owed a duty of care,” Attorney General Kathleen Kane said Tuesday in a news conference announcing the charges at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.
Messages left with a Bishop McCort High School spokesman and with Fathers Criscitelli in Minnesota and Schinelli in Florida were not returned Tuesday. A woman who answered the phone at Father D’Aversa’s parish in Florida said he was out of town and was not checking messages.
Prosecutors seized documents related to the case last year at the Franciscans’ St. Bernardine Monastery in Hollidaysburg. That raid was in addition to one seizing similar records from the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.
Since announcing the Altoona-Johnstown report, Ms. Kane said more than 200 calls have come in to a hotline (1-888-538-8541) for others to provide additional information.
The grand jury report said there was no indication Bishop McCort administrators knew of Baker’s offenses. It said, without elaborating, that Johnstown police conduct at times was unprofessional but not criminal.
The Franciscan friars issued a statement saying they were “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,” the statement said.
The Franciscans regularly provided priests and brothers to work in parishes and schools in the eight-county Altoona-Johnstown diocese as well as in other states.
The grand jury found that in addition to Baker, the province knew of at least seven other friars who had sexually assaulted minors going back to the 1960s, all but one now deceased.
Eighty-eight plaintiffs reached an $8 million settlement with the Franciscan province, the diocese and the high school in 2014 over Baker’s assaults.
Boston lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who has already represented numerous Baker victims in settlements, said he is continuing to negotiate with church officials over yet more victims.
He said Baker’s victims are in the hundreds — plural. The criminal charges are a “powerful step toward transparency,” he said.
The grand jury report said that even after the Franciscans received another complaint about Baker and Father D’Aversa removed him from Bishop McCort in 2000, Baker continued to have access and to abuse boys there and elsewhere.
In 2008, he was a volunteer at Mount Aloysius College nearby in Cambria County, according to the grand jury report. According to the college, he was a baseball statistician.
Baker was also assigned to a church bingo program, according to the grand jury report.
He routinely led retreats with youths, and although his superiors said he was supposed to be under supervision in later years, in fact that was largely a farce, with Baker’s minder taking a sabbatical while his superior lived several states away — and Baker even rooming with another predator at the monastery.
Current Altoona-Johnstown Bishop Mark Bartchak called police in 2011 after learning of an allegation against Baker, according to Ms. Kane, but there’s no indication he alerted the public then. His spokesman said he is reviewing the report and had no comment Tuesday.
Also, the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, said in a 2013 news report that it knew about allegations against Baker as far back as 2009.
Yet neither the dioceses nor the Franciscans publicly announced any of what they knew until news broke in early 2013 that 11 people, most of them former students of a Catholic high school in Warren, Ohio, had settled with the province over abuse by Baker.
In addition to Baker, the other Franciscans identified as sexual abusers by the report include the Rev. Kenneth LaPan, 93, currently residing at St. Bernardine, and six who are deceased: the Rev. Cletus Adams, the Rev. Reginald Krakovsky, the Rev. Raymond Waldruff, the Rev. Martin Brady, Brother Christian Neetz and the Rev. Adalbert Wolski.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.