Friar commits suicide in wake of abuse claims
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Brother Stephen Baker, a Franciscan friar accused of sexually abusing dozens of teens in at least three states, has committed suicide in his monastery in Newry, Blair County.
The accusers include more than 25 students at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown in the 1990s.
Blair Township Police Chief Roger White said an autopsy by the Blair County coroner found that 62-year-old Brother Stephen Baker killed himself with a knife Saturday morning. Chief White declined to say whether he left a note.
Brother Baker lived at St. Bernardine Monastery. Another resident of the monastery discovered Brother Baker in his room not breathing and called Blair County 911 at 7:35 a.m. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The autopsy by county Coroner Patricia Ross found he died shortly before his body was discovered.
The monastery belongs to the Franciscan Friars (Third Order Regular) of the Immaculate Conception Province in Hollidaysburg. His community had confirmed his death before the police announced the cause.
"We express our regret and prayers to his family, and especially to all who have been impacted by this tragic situation," said a statement from his superior, Father Patrick Quinn.
Brother Baker had been banned from ministry in 2000 after his order settled a claim that he had sexually abused a minor while serving in Minnesota in the 1980s. But his case did not become public until last week when there was an announcement of a settlement with 11 other victims from a Warren, Ohio, school where he worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The settlement -- in the high five figures for each of the victims -- was shared by the Franciscans, the Diocese of Youngstown and John F. Kennedy High School in Warren.
Over the past two weeks more than 25 former Bishop McCort students contacted attorneys to say that he had abused them during his tenure as a teacher, sports coach and athletic trainer. Many of them say he molested them in the guise of giving therapeutic massage to prevent or treat sports injuries.
The Franciscans say that since 2000 Brother Baker had lived under supervision in their friary in Hollidaysburg and since 2010 at St. Bernardine.
Michael Parrish, a Johnstown attorney who represents 20 accusers from Bishop McCort, said he learned of the death from media calls and immediately started contacting each of his clients to break the news and answer their questions.
"This case has been a tragedy from the very beginning. This is another layer of that tragedy," he said.
His clients are struggling with their reactions, he said.
"A lot of these young guys are angry with what happened to them. A lot of them are suffering as a result. But certainly no one wanted to see him take his own life," he said. "Many of them are in shock and need time to digest what I told them."
Brother Baker's death won't change the legal status of the civil suits he expects to file, he said.
"It will not prevent us from moving forward on the claims or from moving forward on our investigation. We have focused from the beginning not only on Brother Steve but on those who had the obligation to supervise him, and on who knew what and when," he said.
He never saw any statement directly from Brother Baker regarding whether he claimed innocence or admitted guilt.
"While this does remove a key witness, there was probably a pretty good chance that Brother Steve would not testify in any criminal proceeding, given the criminal component," he said.
Judy Jones, the midwest associate director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said, "We feel sad for Brother Baker's family but even sadder for the dozens of boys who Baker assaulted. His passing changes little, however. It's still crucial that anyone who saw, suspected or suffered his crimes come forward."
She added that "we hope his victims will take comfort in the fact that Brother Baker can no longer harm another innocent child."
First Published January 27, 2013 12:00 am