Lawyer Criticizes Altoona-johnstown Bishop for His Silence about Friar
By Peter Smith
March 17, 2016
|Pictures of friars Giles A. Schinelli, Robert J. D’A’Versa and Anthony M. Criscitelli at a news conference as state Attorney General Kathleen Kane talks about the charges filed against them on Monday.|
A Pittsburgh lawyer is blasting the Altoona-Johnstown bishop, saying his public silence about a sexually abusive friar wrongly shifted blame to his client — a high school principal — and contributed to his leaving his job in 2013.
The comments about Bishop Mark Bartchak by George Bills, attorney for former Bishop McCort Catholic High School principal Ken Salem, came days after a state grand jury report that led to criminal charges against three Franciscan priests. They are charged with endangering the welfare of children and criminal conspiracy for allowing Brother Stephen Baker to work at the Johnstown school and elsewhere despite warnings about his behavior.
The priests, the Very Rev. Giles Schinelli, Robert J. D’Aversa and Anthony Criscitelli — who between 1986 and 2010 led the Hollidaysburg-based religious province that Baker belonged to — were placed on leave from ministry by the order after the charges were announced. D’Aversa had been a pastor in Florida, Schinelli had led a retreat center in that state, and Criscitelli was a pastor in Minnesota. They surrendered to authorities this morning and are expected to be arraigned later today.
Baker committed suicide in January 2013 at the province’s Hollidaysburg monastery when the enormity of his crimes began to become public with news of legal settlements with his victims. Soon afterward, the school’s board suspended Mr. Salem. He resigned in mid-2013.
Although Mr. Bills acknowledged there were a variety of differences between Mr. Salem and the board, he said his client was unfairly blamed for the Baker debacle.
He accused Bishop Bartchak of leaving his client to “hang out there to twist slowly in the wind” rather than tell the board that “Ken Salem did everything he was supposed to do.” Mr. Bills’ stance was first reported by the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown.
According to the grand jury report, Baker molested more than 100 youths, many at Bishop McCort, where between 1992 and 2000 he was a religion teacher and self-styled athletic trainer who groped the students’ genitals and digitally penetrated them anally, often under the guise of massaging or helping them stretch. Even after his Franciscan superiors transferred him out of Bishop McCort because of an abuse allegation, he continued to have access there and to youths in other settings, the grand jury said.
The grand jury found no indication that Bishop McCort officials knew of Baker’s abuse before 2011.
According to the grand jury report, Mr. Salem told investigators that in late 2011, Bishop Bartchak called to say a former student told a priest that Baker was a “bad guy.”
Mr. Salem testified that he felt obligated to report the allegation to the school board, but that Bishop Bartchak said he would do so and would also contact Johnstown police.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane said the bishop did contact police.
But Mr. Bills claimed the bishop did not inform the board and left Mr. Salem’s reputation damaged.
Tony DeGol, spokesman for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, said that because the Baker case is now in criminal court, he could not comment on it.
He also declined to comment on why Bishop Bartchak did not make the allegations against Baker known to the public after learning of them in 2011. The bishop has pledged to post a list of known abusers on the diocese’s website. The grand jury generally credited Bishop Bartchak with improvements over his two predecessors, whom it criticized harshly for failing to report known abusers to police and treating victims callously.
Matthew Beynon, a spokesman for Bishop McCort high school, did not reply directly to Mr. Bills’ comments, but he said trustees did not learn of Baker’s offenses until they became public in January 2013. Board chairman Mark Pasquerilla criticized local law enforcement entities as “turning a blind eye to these disgusting revelations” in a column in the Tribune-Democrat.
A trustee statement said: “This board has taken aggressive, proactive steps to investigate and address the disturbing actions of Brother Stephen Baker. Though we did not have any legal jurisdiction or power, we were the only group to do so for far too long. Though this has been a long road, we are pleased that the Attorney General has decided to move forward.”
Johnstown police, who were criticized by the grand jury report for unspecified unprofessional conduct, have not returned calls seeking comment.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. The Associated Press contributed.