Three Pennsylvania Friars Arraigned on Charges of Allowing Child Sexual Abuse
By Joanna Walters
March 19, 2016
| Dr Robert Hoatson from West Orange, New Jersey, holds signs outside magistrate office where Catholic friars were arraigned on charges of child endangerment and criminal conspiracy. Photograph: Keith Srakocic/AP|
Bringing criminal charges against church leaders for covering up abuse is almost unprecedented in the US despite the serial scandals that have engulfed the church since widespread abuse and concealment of the crimes began being exposed by the media in Boston in 2002.
But on Friday, three Catholic friars appeared in district court in Hollidaysburg, near Altoona, accused of allowing a known predator in their midst to have access to children.
Friars Robert D’Aversa, 69, Anthony Criscitelli, 62, and Giles Schinelli, 73, were arraigned in court on child endangerment and conspiracy charges, felonies that carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
“My son is dead because of your poor decision-making,” Barbara Aponte of Poland, Ohio, shouted as the three men, wearing traditional clerical collars and black outfits, entered court.
The woman’s son, Luke Bradescu, had been abused while the predator previously worked at the high school he attended in Ohio. Bradescu killed himself in 2003 at the age of 26.
“The fact that we actually charged people, not for the abuse but for not taking the steps required to stop it, should send a strong signal to everybody in this commonwealth and, we would hope, in other places that action is possible,” said Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane.
Each friar successively led the local Franciscan religious order from 1986 to 2010 and were in charge of assigning and supervising members of the order, which included Brother Stephen Baker, whom the authorities say molested children in his care while he worked in Ohio and then later at Bishop McCourt high school in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the 1980s and 1990s.
Baker killed himself in January 2013 in the Franciscan monastery in Hollidaysburg where he lived and died, shortly after his misdeeds finally became public.
A legal settlement was made in cases against him by 11 victims in the Youngstown, Ohio, area, and in October 2014 the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown paid out $8m in settlements to 88 victims arising from Baker’s reign of perversion at Bishop McCort school.
Despite the Franciscan order being made aware of abuse allegations against Baker in the late 1980s and official recommendations that he not be allowed contact with children, the state contends, the three friars are accused of allowing him to work at the school and to continue to be left alone in charge of youngsters in various settings even after he was quietly asked to quit the school job in 2000.
Baker was never prosecuted and the attorney general, Kane, has reported he is suspected of molesting more than 100 victims.
A devastating grand jury report into the Altoona-Johnstown diocese published last month did not go into the events at the Franciscan order involving the Baker case, focusing on dozens of other egregious cases across the diocese.
But investigators looked into the background of the Baker case in parallel during their two-year examination and three days ago announced the criminal cases against the three friars.
Ardo said that since the grand jury report was published and the state set up a hotline it has received 250 calls “the vast majority of which are from alleged victims who seemed to have credible allegations that need to be reviewed”.
On Friday, D’Aversa, Criscitelli and Schinelli were each released on $75,000 bail and allowed to travel out of state, but ordered to return for a preliminary hearing on 14 April.
Ardo was not able to comment on details of an ongoing investigation.
Lawmaker Mark Rozzi is leading a campaign in the state general assembly to force a vote on two bills that have been stuck in committee for many years, one to lift the statute of limitations on bringing both criminal and civil cases in future child abuse cases and one to create a two-year window in which victims of past abuse can bring cases against alleged predators even though time limits for action have expired.
He has also called on the state to launch grand jury investigations into other dioceses. Although the attorney general does not have the power to initiate such probes unless complaints or evidence emerge at the local level first, Rozzi said the recent exposure of crimes and cover-ups, and the ongoing state investigation “puts district attorneys on notice” that allegations of abuse by priests, of which he himself was a victim as a young teen, must be fully investigated.
Kane is not running for re-election as attorney general later this year and is embroiled in her own legal difficulties – facing a criminal trial in August for corruption and obstruction, stemming from accusations that she previously leaked secret grand jury material to the media, involving matters unrelated to investigations into church child sex abuse.