Blair court ends friars’ probationary sentences

Altoona Mirror [Altoona PA]

August 28, 2021

By Kay Stephens

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Probationary sentences have ended early for two Franciscian friars who supervised a suspected child predator and rendered no contest pleas in 2018 to child endangerment charges.

Blair County Senior Judge Jolene G. Kopriva signed the orders in court Thursday for Robert J. D’Aversa, 74, and Anthony Criscitelli, 67, both of Hollidaysburg, ending their probationary sentences after nearly three years and four months of compliance.

The option for early termination was part of the five-year probation sentence Kopriva imposed on May 9, 2018, when the friars of the Third Order Regular rendered pleas to first-degree misdemeanors.

The pleas allowed them to avoid a jury trial on child endangerment and conspiracy charges.

“This case was unique,” Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye said Thursday.

D’Aversa and Criscitelli were prosecuted not because they abused children but because they held supervisory roles in their order, between 1994 and 2010, when fellow friar Stephen Baker, a suspected child predator, was assigned to work and allowed to volunteer at Bishop McCort High School, Johnstown.

Baker died by suicide in 2013 after the sexual abuse allegations against him became public.

A year later, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, the Franciscan friary and Bishop McCort paid an $8 million settlement divided among 88 child abuse survivors.

Dye credited Corey Leech of Johnstown, who died in 2017, for having the courage to testify at D’Aversa and Criscitelli’s preliminary hearing in 2016 on behalf of Baker’s victims.

“What happened in this case, through Corey Leech’s courage and the courage of the other victims and through the defendants’ pleas, is that the world was changed,” Dye said. “That never would have happened without Corey Leech and without the people in this courtroom.”

Dye said the case “opened the eyes of so many in the Catholic faith” who desire to practice their faith and keep safe.

“It shifted their eyes toward faith in God, rather than putting blind faith in men, men who let us down,” Dye said.

Leech’s parents, Bernie and Cindy Leech, were in the courtroom for the hearing. Neither they nor Dye objected to the early termination of the friars’ probation.

“The families knew this day would come,” Dye said.

When D’Aversa and Criscitelli rendered their pleas in 2018 in Blair County Court, they became the first members of a religious order to be sentenced in Pennsylvania for covering up sexual abuse of children by other clergy.

In court Thursday, Kopriva asked the friars what they’ve learned about childhood sexual abuse while on probation.

During previous court appearances, she directed them to watch some type of video addressing the ongoing impact for child sexual abuse victims and their families.

The friars spoke of their educational efforts, with Criscitelli telling Kopriva that he is more observant and aware of people’s moods and behaviors. Kopriva, who was familiar with their case and who has presided over hundreds of child abuse cases, recalled Baker as a moody and emotionally immature individual.

“Emotional immaturity is a huge marker for child abusers,” the judge said.

D’Aversa said he has learned about the pain and misery endured by child sexual abuse victims for lack of prior attention.

“It was not an error I intended, but it was a consequence of my blindness,” D’Aversa said.

Kopriva acknowledged to D’Aversa and Criscitelli that they cannot change the past.

“You’ve gone through the criminal justice system and you’ve done what you were expected to do,” Kopriva said. “The larger part of what happens in the future is really up to you.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.