More Sex Allegations at McCort
By Kathy Mellott
November 16, 2013
JOHNSTOWN — More than 80 people, mostly males who attended Bishop McCort High School, have stepped forward with allegations that they were sexually molested by Brother Stephen Baker, The Tribune-Democrat has learned.
The figure is nearly double the number of victims named in civil lawsuits filed in Cambria and Blair counties, but all are part of the settlement talks between the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese and a number of attorneys.
“The numbers are skewed if you look at the cases filed,” said Altoona attorney Richard Serbin.
“Everything is not in the public, in terms of the numbers.”
Another attorney said that he believes the diocese is trying to settle the cases outside of the public eye.
Meanwhile, a source close to the situation said that school employees received an email instructing them to keep Baker away from students years after he had officially left Bishop McCort, but long before accusations against him were made public.
‘Open and notorious’
The number of victims has long been believed to be about 50, but only recently did it become known the figure of alleged victims is significantly higher.
Baker worked at Bishop McCort as a religion teacher and as part of the athletic department from 1992 to 2001, and it wasn’t until January, when it was announced that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, had reached a settlement with 11 Baker victims, that allegations began to surface locally.
A Franciscan friar, Baker worked at Bishop McCort on behalf of the diocese and lived at a monastery in Blair County until his death at age 62.
In late January, he was found dead at the monastery. The Blair County coroner ruled his death a suicide.
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian of Boston told The Tribune-Democrat last week that he represents 34 people.
They are all males with connections to Bishop McCort who say they were sexually abused by Baker when they were between the ages of 13 and 18. All are now between the ages of 24 and 36, he said.
“The sexual abuse in many instances was open and notorious,” Garabedian said. “The supervisors knew or should have known.”
Baker has been linked to molestation claims dating back three or four decades in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio, he said.
“He was under some diocese while he was supposed to be supervised,” Garabedian said. “They were just shifting him. The diocese and the Franciscans were more concerned about their reputation than the welfare of the children.”
‘Put a lid’ on it
Along with Garabedian and Serbin, notices of civil lawsuits were filed by Greensburg attorney Susan Williams on behalf of three alleged victims. While Williams recently withdrew the lawsuits to avoid revealing details, she said she is in settlement talks.
Recently Johnstown attorney Michael Parrish filed notice of a civil lawsuit on behalf of one alleged victim.
Robert Hoatson, who operates Road to Recovery, a nonprofit group that works with victims of sexual abuse and their families, said he has been contacted by three former Bishop McCort students who haven’t otherwise come forward.
Serbin didn’t reveal the number of alleged victims he is representing, but when questioned about the potential of more than 80 victims, he described that figure as being about right.
The defendants named in the lawsuits, including the diocese and the Franciscans, have agreed to include alleged victims in the settlement talks without them being included in court action, he said.
“They’ve agreed to toll the statute of limitations,” Serbin said.
As late as last week, he said, he informed the diocese and other defendants that he is adding two more victims to the list.
The tolling stops the clock on the time limit to file legal action, even if the victims are not part of a lawsuit.
It also helps keep the story out of the newspaper headlines, Hoatson said.
“They’re trying to put a lid on this as much as possible,” he said.
“I’m concluding the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown just doesn’t want to deal with this in the courts at all.”
Number of victims unknown
Garabedian said alleged victims are making claims of abuse as early as 1992 – when Baker first arrived from Ohio – through 2007, six years after he was no longer on the Bishop McCort staff.
Bishop McCort was for many years operated under the control of the diocese. In 2008, it became independent and has since been operated by a board of directors.
It is not unusual for pedophiles to continue to sexually abuse children even if they are removed from the place where the abuse began, Garabedian said.
Often, the abuse stops when the abuser is caught, incarcerated or dies, he said.
These claims of abuse, some as recent as six years ago, are supported by a Johnstown resident close to the Baker case who told The Tribune-Democrat that an email that was sent to Bishop McCort employees in 2005 or 2006 said Baker was to be kept away from the school and the students.
“Brother Steve was not to be allowed around the school, and he was not to be around the kids,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
When the source attempted to prevent Baker access to one area, things got nasty.
“He reached out to touch me and I used the F-bomb on him, and I didn’t know then all that he was doing,” the source said.
Meanwhile, it likely will never be known how many people at Bishop McCort were abused by Baker, Hoatson said.
Studies suggest that only about
10 percent of the victims ever tell their stories. That figure goes up significantly after the abuser is outed and it gets media attention, he said.
“It may then be as high as one-half of the victims come forward,” he said.