Update: Victims group calls for end to 'delays' ...

By David Hurst
July 23, 2014

Update: Victims group calls for end to 'delays' involving Altoona-Johnstown diocese, other agencies in Baker sexual abuse cases

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Stalled negotiations in a case involving 88 former Pennsylvania teens alleging abuse by a former Bishop McCort educator prompted a New Jersey nonprofit to take protest signs to the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese’s administrative front door Wednesday.

And an attorney representing 33 of the people alleging abuse by the late Brother Stephen Baker said he’ll press on with litigation if the diocese and Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular don’t return to the mediation table soon.

“Mediation has been stalled.

“We’re getting nowhere with it ... and there’s no timetable for it to continue,” said Massachusetts attorney Mitchell Garabedian.

“If something doesn’t happen, I don’t think we’ll have a choice but to proceed.”

The matter has been in on and off negotiations for more than a year since dozens of alleged victims began filing suits against the diocese regarding Baker’s actions during his nearly nine years at McCort, which started in 1992.

Allegations that Baker sexually abused dozens of students at McCort surfaced after news broke of a settlement at a previous school in Ohio where Baker worked. Baker took his own life in 2013.

Settlement talks were underway earlier this year until the diocese announced it was suspending talks in April. The decision followed news that the state attorney general’s office had initiated a criminal investigation into the matter.

“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 to The Tribune-Democrat in April.

Garabedian, who represents a group of victims alleging abuse when they were between 13 and 18 years old, called the diocese’s decision a “stall tactic” and maintained civil litigation can and should proceed despite the continued criminal probe.

He worried further delays will only make it harder for victims of abuse to prove the decades-old allegations in court.

Such delays also prevent victims from beginning to find closure from the horrors they faced decades ago – ones they oftentimes have suffered with silently for years, said Robert Hoatson, founder of the New Jersey nonprofit Road to Recovery.

Hoatson joined Barbara Aponte, an Ohio woman who says her son took his life in 2003 after struggling to deal with Baker’s abuse, outside the Altoona-Johnstown diocese’s administrative offices, pleading for an end to the cases.

“They don’t deserve this,” Aponte said, saying the litigation is becoming an emotional roller-coaster ride that is causing “more hurt.”

“I couldn’t save my son, but I’ll be darned if I don’t keep trying to stop this kind of thing from happening to someone else in the future,” she said, adding that for those quietly suffering, their stories need to be heard.

Altoona area attorney Richard Serbin, who also represents a list of individuals who say they were abused by Baker, said his patience “is wearing thin” by the delays.

He said he’s awaiting an Aug. 13 status conference in Blair County before making any moves.

“We’ll wait and see what happens Aug. 13. But these young people have suffered emotionally as a result of what’s occurred.

“As far as I’m concerned, any delays in bringing this matter to a conclusion aren’t in anyone’s best interest.”

DeGol was apparently out of the office Wednesday and was not reached for comment.

Efforts to reach diocese attorneys also were unsuccessful.



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