Priest sex abuse allegations lead to Pa. AG agents’ monastery search
HOLLIDAYSBURG — The only way to stop Catholic clerics who abuse children is to prosecute the people who oversee them and let it continue, said an Altoona lawyer who has successfully represented dozens of victims across Pennsylvania.
Attorney Richard Serbin said he thinks agents with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office were pursuing a broader investigation Thursday near this Blair County borough when they raided St. Bernardine Monastery, where a Franciscan friar accused of molesting children killed himself two years ago.
“If they knowingly allow children to be abused or place them in situations where they were likely to be abused, they should be prosecuted,” he said.
Brother Stephen Baker, 62, worked in various roles as a religion teacher and baseball and wrestling coach at Catholic facilities in several states. He was athletic trainer at Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown from 1992 to 2001.
In late January 2013, he fatally stabbed himself in the heart at the monastery, where he had been living.
Nine days before, the Catholic diocese in Youngstown, Ohio, said it settled with 11 former students who claimed Baker abused them while at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio, from 1987 to 1990.
In October 2014, Serbin represented some of 88 former Bishop McCourt students paid $8 million to settle a lawsuit over alleged sexual abuse by Baker. More victims have since come forward, he said.
“In my opinion,” Serbin said, “there were individuals who knew about Stephen Baker and didn’t take proper action.”
About a half-dozen investigators wearing black T-shirts with the attorney general’s logo appeared Thursday morning at the monastery with search warrants. The agents, who arrived with a white box truck marked “Attorney General Special Investigations,” took photos and carried out computer equipment and documents.
The investigation began in early 2014 to look at the priest’s death and may be expanding to examine the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, where more than 20 priests have been accused of abusing children over nearly three decades, sources told the Tribune-Review.
Deputy Attorney General Dan J. Dye said at the monastery he could not comment because the agents’ actions have been “sealed.”
Trib telephone and email messages left with the Third Order Regular Franciscans in the Province of the Immaculate Conception at the monastery were not returned. Two men at the front door waved away a reporter and said the property is private.
Tony DeGol, a spokesman for the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese and Bishop Mark Leonard Bartchak, said he wasn’t aware of an investigation involving the diocese. He said the monastery is not part of the diocese.
“I am not aware of anything the Office of Attorney General is doing,” he said.
“We have had priests suspended amid accusations,” DeGol said. He said he couldn’t immediately provide details.
Jeff Johnson, a spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen Kane in Harrisburg, said he could not comment.
“To this day, to my knowledge, nothing has been filed criminally. But I’m also of the understanding that the investigation is ongoing,” Serbin said.
David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the organization is “glad law enforcement are searching a Catholic institution where a serial child-molesting cleric spent time.”
The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese operated Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown until Oct. 8, 2008, when the school became an independent nonprofit operated under a board of trustees.
Attempts by the Trib to reach several members of the Bishop McCort board of trustees Thursday for reaction to the raid at the monastery were unsuccessful.
Serbin, who filed his first lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a priest in 1987, said he personally identified more than 20 priests connected to the diocese who have been accused of molesting children since then.
The website BishopAccountability.org, run by an advocacy group based in Waltham, Mass., identifies 27 priests connected to the diocese who have been accused of molesting children.
Cases linked to the diocese include Serbin’s initial lawsuit claiming abuse by former priest Francis Luddy. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania ordered the diocese in 2006 to pay the victim $1.7 million.
More recently, in September, federal officials arrested the Rev. Joseph D. Maurizio and charged him with sexually abusing boys while traveling to orphanages in Central and South America for the purpose of relief work. He had served as pastor of a Somerset County church in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
“It’s an ugly truth that these priests that sexually abuse and that allow sexual abuse are acting criminally and they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who represented 33 of Baker’s accusers in Pennsylvania and others in Ohio and Michigan.
As part of the attorney general’s ongoing investigation, witnesses have been subpoenaed to testify before a statewide grand jury in Pittsburgh.
Dye, an assistant attorney general since 2012 who is leading the investigation, is a career prosecutor who handled child abuse and sex crimes for several years as an assistant district attorney in Lancaster County.