Diocese Halts Talks in Lawsuits
By Kathy Mellott
April 26, 2014
Efforts to resolve claims made by alleged victims of abuse by Brother Stephen Baker have been put on hold pending the outcome of a criminal investigation currently underway by the office of the state attorney general.
In a brief statement the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown announced late Friday that the negotiations have been halted.
“It would be inappropriate for the diocese to proceed with the civil matters while the attorney general’s office investigation is active,” Tony DeGol, diocese secretary of communications, wrote in an email.
Baker, a Francisician friar, worked at Bishop McCort Catholic High School from 1992 until about 2001 as a religion teacher and part of the athletic department.
Allegations of his abuse of students at Bishop McCort surfaced in early January 2013. Baker, who had been living at a monastery outside Hollidaysburg, committed suicide later that month at the age of 62.
In early 2013, a handful of civil lawsuits were filed in Cambria and Blair counties on behalf of the alleged victims, naming the diocese, the Franciscans and others.
Altoona attorney Richard Serbin, who is representing many of the victims, said Friday the diocese’s decision will likely change things.
Serbin, who learned of the suspended talks minutes before being contacted by The Tribune-Democrat, expressed dismay.
To date, 88 people have claimed abuse by Baker while he was at Bishop McCort, Serbin said.
“Obviously this changes the dynamics of what will occur,” he said.
“This only increases the emotional impact on the victims.”
The announcement comes days before a scheduled mediation session in front of a former federal magistrate in Philadelphia, Serbin said.
The session was planned for Thursday and Friday.
“Everybody made arrangements on behalf of the 88 victims to be there,” he said.
Pittsburgh attorney Eric Anderson, representing the diocese, when reached by telephone late Friday, had little to say other than to confirm that mediation had been scheduled.
He would not comment on speculation that details may have surfaced during the sessions that could be detrimental to those under investigation by the attorney general’s office.
The office of the Cambria County district attorney asked the attorney general’s office to investigate whether criminal charges should be filed.
In January the state agency agreed to assume jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, the civil lawsuits were kept to a minimum after the diocese agreed that any settlement agreement would involve all or many of the claimants.
Serbin said he has not spoken to those he represents, but indicated he may again start filing on behalf
Settlement talks were initiated several months ago by the diocese and the Franciscans in an effort to prevent litigation, he said.
Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County Courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ kathymellotttd.