Lawyer Gets 6 Months to File Pa. Abuse Suits
San Francisco Chronicle
October 31, 2013
A judge has given an attorney six months to settle claims on behalf of seven former students who allege they were molested by a Franciscan friar who helped as an athletic trainer at a Roman Catholic high school in Johnstown from 1992 to 2001.
The Blair County judge said the deadline should be long enough for Altoona attorney Richard Serbin to determine whether his clients' claims can be settled without the actual filing of lawsuits.
Serbin is one of several attorneys representing more than 50 former students at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, and schools in Ohio and Michigan, who have said they intend to sue or seek out-of-court settlements for the actions of Brother Stephen Baker.
Most of the plaintiffs are targeting Pennsylvania's Altoona-Johnstown diocese or school officials at Bishop McCort High School, where Baker taught and assisted with athletic training from 1992 to 2002. The school is about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Baker, 62, committed suicide Jan. 26 at a monastery in Newry by stabbing himself in the heart. That happened a little more than a week after the Youngstown diocese disclosed financial settlements in alleged abuse cases involving 11 students at another school in Warren, Ohio.
Those settlements stemmed from Baker's tenure teaching and coaching at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A handful of former students from a high school in Orchard Lake, Mich., where Baker taught in the mid-1980s, have also since threatened to sue.
Bishop Mark Bartchak, who is based in Altoona, in Blair County, issued a statement this month saying he felt it would "serve everyone's interest" to resolve the claims out of court "as opposed to engaging in formal litigation."
Pressed by deadlines that required him to file lawsuits or lose the opportunity, Serbin asked for more time. Blair County Judge Jolene Kopriva granted that Tuesday "in light of the complexities of the issues and the number of claimants."
Separately, attorneys for Bishop McCort have filed documents in neighboring Cambria County — where the school is located —seeking to force attorney Susan Williams to file complaints on behalf of former students she represents. Williams has filed documents indicating she intends to sue, but the school wants to force her to filed actual complaints detailing the abuse Williams' clients allege.
Williams hasn't decided whether to file the complaints within the 20 days she has to respond to the school's motion, or ask for more time.
McCort spokesman Matt Beynon said the school is trying to force the issue because "it is important that the litigation move forward, that all facts are disclosed and that all responsible parties are held accountable."
The school's interests are somewhat separate from those of the diocese because the school is now run by an independent board. It was a diocesan school when Baker taught there.
Trying to force Williams to file her lawsuits is "but a step in the legal defense of an institution which did not even exist until years after Brother Stephen Baker left the former high school," Beynon said.