McCort Case in Limbo
By Kathy Mellott
November 2, 2013
JOHNSTOWN — A pending lawsuit is a black cloud hanging around, be it for a business or the board of a private high school, with the contents of that lawsuit often best revealed, a legal expert said.
That cloud is the lawsuit a Greensburg attorney plans to file against a host of defendants, including the Bishop McCort Catholic High School board of directors, stemming from allegations by former students that they were sexually molested by Brother Stephen Baker.
Pittsburgh attorney Kathleen Gallagher is asking the Cambria County court, on behalf of the Bishop McCort board, to force attorney Susan Williams to file the complaint in 20 days.
Louie Freeh recently filed a similar request in Centre County court in an attempt to see what former Penn State President Spanier has to say in his lawsuit stemming from the sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky.
“It sounds exactly like the same kind of motion that was filed last week by Louie Freeh, who is trying to get Graham Spanier to file his complaint,” said Judkins Mathews, assistant professor at Penn State Law in State College. “In both cases they are moving to actually have the complaint filed.”
In January, Williams filed notice in Ebensburg on behalf of three alleged victims identified only as Victim 1, Victim 2 and Victim 3.
The notice contained no additional information or details of the alleged acts, but did name Bishop McCort Catholic High School, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and the Third Order Regular Franciscans as defendants.
At about the same time, Altoona attorney Richard Serbin filed a similar motion in Blair County on behalf of unnamed victims.
In his notice, Serbin listed as defendants the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the monastery where Baker was living, the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular, retired Bishop Joseph Adamec and Bishop McCort.
A request, similar to the one filed in Cambria County, was not filed in Blair because the school as it currently exists was not listed as a defendant, said Matthew Beynon, spokesman for Bishop McCort.
“He did not name the school as it is currently constituted, post July 2008, as a defendant,” Beynon wrote in an email. “Mr. Serbin only named the ‘old’ school.”
Since its founding nearly 100 years ago as Johnstown Catholic High School, the school was administered and controlled by the diocese.
That changed in 2008 when Bishop McCort, along with other high schools under the diocese, were turned over to local boards of directors.
As such, Bishop McCort has operated as an independent nonprofit responsible for operations of the high school, fundraising and hiring of a principal, according to a website outlining its history.
Baker was 62 when he was found dead in late January at the Franciscan monastery outside Hollidaysburg, where he had lived for several years.
His death, ruled a suicide by the Blair County coroner, came two weeks after alleged victims began contacting attorneys claiming they had been abused by the friar.
Baker worked at schools in Youngstown, Ohio, and other points west before coming to Pennsylvania in the early 1990s. He was employed at Bishop McCort from 1992 to about 2001 as part of the athletic department and a religion instructor.
However, The Tribune-Democrat learned that students have reported Baker showed up around the school for some time after he left its employment.
The change five years ago giving the school independent status leaves one local attorney to believe the school board is not liable when it comes to compensating victims.
“In my opinion, the current high school cannot be held liable,” said Tim Burns in a telephone interview. “I would be surprised if the current institution would have to pay one penny.”
Burns, a graduate of Bishop McCort who continues to provide financial support, became publicly involved in the Baker matter when the Bishop McCort board put Principal Ken Salem on leave shortly after the allegations surfaced.
Salem, who earlier also served as part of the football coaching staff, submitted his resignation in June.
He became principal following the 2006 promotion of Principal Sister Donna Marie Leiden to the post of director of education for the diocese.
Salem graduated from the school in 1987.
The continuing role of Leiden in educational matters at Bishop McCort and other schools has been questioned by some lay school supporters, but it is something Tony DeGol, secretary of communications for the diocese, does not discuss.
DeGol said in an email Friday that he is not in a position to know details regarding Bishop McCort and Salem.
“I do know that the McCort board has no control over the status of Sister Donna Marie since she is a diocesan employee,” he said.
Meanwhile Burns and other who have talked to The Tribune-Democrat wish all parties would be working toward an out-of-court settlement, similar to what is occurring in Blair County.
Serbin and the diocese confirmed last month that settlement talks were in the works for at least some of Baker’s alleged victims. Last week, President Judge Jolene Kopriva gave Serbin six months to work out an agreement before pressuring him to file a complaint.
Any complaint likely would not include victims’ names, but it would spell out times, dates, locations and details of the acts Baker allegedly performed on the students.
“I’m in favor of letting this lay, instead of putting this on the front page of your newspaper,” Burns said of the Cambria County case.
The source of the money needed for any settlement to victims has generated fodder for the grapevine in recent weeks.
But indications are that any of the diocesan share of the settlements will come from insurance and the diocese coffers.
Helen Osman, secretary of communications for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said dioceses in the United States carry insurance against such claims. The individual parishes are not asked to contribute and the Vatican in Rome does not supply funds to help with settlements.
Robert Hoatson, a victims’ advocate, said that while the diocese is not in Los Angeles or New York, it has money.
“I’m sure they don’t have a huge stash, but they have money,” he said. “Insurance pays for most of this anyway.”
The diocese took a hit several years ago following a three-month civil trial in Blair County prompted by a lawsuit filed by Michael Hutchison, a boy abused over several years by the Rev. Francis Luddy.
A jury determined that Hutchison should receive more than $1 million in damages as a result of the abuse. That figure was increased to $2.7 million after interest was added on, the result of years of delay through appeals by the diocese.
Serbin was the attorney representing Hutchison.
Meanwhile, of concern to some, including Burns, is that pushing for the complaint to be filed against Bishop McCort and others will put the school and the diocese at odds.
Any such rift was not confirmed by DeGol.
“The diocese is not going to take a public position on the actions of the Bishop McCort board of trustees or its attorney regarding this case,” DeGol said.