Sex abuse negotiations continue
By Kathy Mellott
May 20, 2014
— Negotiations in a settlement for what may be nearly 100 claims of sexual abuse by a now-dead Franciscan friar who taught at Bishop McCort Catholic High School are continuing despite a lack of participation by the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
Attorneys representing the alleged victims of Brother Stephen Baker, said to number 85 or so, are waiting for a response from the Franciscans by way of a mediator, a Boston attorney said Monday.
“We’re supposed to receive a response soon from the Franciscans,” Mitchell Garabedian said. “Whether the diocese is involved or not, I don’t know.”
Word that the Baker settlement talks are continuing came the day after the diocese announced that the priest at St. Anne’s Parish in Davidsville was no longer filling that post.
Father Michael Lewan-dowski, who served at the parish since 1997, has been suspended from public ministry by the Order of Friars Minor Conventual due to an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor that occurred in the 1980s.
“This action taken by the Franciscan order was made according to church policies for the protection of minors,” said Tony DeGol, secretary for communications for the diocese.
St. Anne parishioners were informed of the change at weekended Masses. Father Karl Kolodziejski, pastor of Holy Name Parish in Hooversville, will serve as temporary administrator of St. Anne, DeGol said in an email Monday.
“The Conventual Franciscans will continue to provide a priest to celebrate weekend masses at St. Anne Parish,” his email stated.
When pressed for additional information about Lewandowski, DeGol said he had nothing more to add because the matter is being handled by the Conventual Franciscans, the priest’s order.
Robert Hoatson, president of a victim’s advocacy group, Road to Recovery, said it was his understanding that the allegations stem from a time when Lewandowski was in Maryland.
Richard Serbin of Altoona, attorney for many of Baker’s alleged victims, said Lewandowski is not a child molester he has previously identified. Hoatson agreed.
“I’ve never heard of him before,” Hoatson said.
In late April, the diocese announced it was suspending settlement talks with attorneys representing alleged victims of Baker, who was employed at Bishop McCort from 1992 through 2001.
Former students, mostly males, stepped forward with allegations of abuse in early January 2013. Later that month Baker, who was 62 at the time, was found dead in his quarters at a monastery near Hollidaysburg.
Attorneys began filing civil lawsuits until word that the diocese and the Franciscans were in talks with the victims.
The lawsuits stopped, but were expected to resume after the April announcement that the diocese was no longer working on a settlement pending the outcome of a criminal investigation by the state attorney general.
Garabedian offered no further details Monday about the talks with the Franciscans.
Serbin, who has lawsuits in Blair County for the alleged Baker victims he represents, said the situation remains unchanged.
“The situation is fluid and is subject to change,” he said in a email. “I have notified the court of the status of the cases, but have not filed any additional lawsuits as of this date.”