Death won’t halt civil case

PHILADELPHIA – The civil case alleging that a Franciscan friar sexually abused students at a western Pennsylvania high school will go on despite the friar’s suicide over the weekend, attorneys representing some of the accusers said Sunday.

Brother Stephen Baker, 62, was found dead of a self-inflicted knife wound at the St. Bernardine Monastery in Hollidaysburg on Saturday, according to Blair Township police. He had been named in recent legal settlements involving sexual abuse allegations Warren John F. Kennedy High School three decades ago, and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese said it had received allegations of abuse at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown in the 1990s.

When Baker was the school’s athletic trainer, 20 former students allege that he assaulted or molested students under the guise of providing therapeutic treatment or medical care for treatment of sports injuries, said Attorney Michael Parrish of Johnstown, who represents the accusers.

“Many of them did not realize until the stories began to break that what he was in fact doing to them was an assault or molestation, not actual therapeutic care,” Parrish said of his clients, who ranged in age from 14 to 18 at the time. “He would treat these individuals for a hamstring injury and use that as an opportunity to physically grope them and do other things that constitutes a sexual assault under Pennsylvania law.”

Attorney Richard Serbin said he represents about a dozen former students who told him they were typically instructed to strip and enter the whirlpool, and Baker would then give full body massages under the guise of stretching them, fondling them during that process.

“You could have any type of an injury, whether it was to the knee or the hand, and it would culminate in a full-body massage,” he said.

Similar allegations were made this month by Cortland resident Michael Munno and 10 other former JFK students. They settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money with the Youngstown Diocese and the Third Order Regular Franciscans.

After Munno and another man announced the settlement, a half-dozen former JFK students made similar claims of abuse, according to Road to Recovery, a victims advocate group based in New Jersey.

”It’s just a sad day,” Michael Munno said on Saturday about Baker’s death. ”Justice won’t be served. I had so many thoughts in my head.”

Robert Hoatson, head of Road to Recovery, said he hopes the victims’ healing can continue.

”They were in no way responsible for what happened in Pennsylvania,” he said. “They must continue their healing.”

Parrish said he had contacted his clients about Baker’s death, and many were shocked to hear about the suicide, while some were conflicted. Most needed time to digest the news, he said.

“This case from its inception has been a tragedy, and this is just another part of that tragedy,” he said.

Serbin said he had decided to give his clients a few days to reflect on the development before contacting them, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised if they want to discuss it and have “a lot of emotional reaction.”

“Each individual has to reflect upon it and will deal in their own way with what happened,” he said.

Parrish said Baker’s death appeared to end the possibility of criminal charges, but he and Serbin said their civil cases would proceed. Parrish said he has only been investigating for 10 days and it was too early to talk about potential defendants.

“Certainly Brother Baker was a potential defendant, and anybody that had supervisory responsibility over Brother Baker and anyone who knew of Brother Baker’s tendencies and put him in a position where he was able to do this,” he said.

He later said that depending on what his investigation uncovers, potential defendants could include the school, the diocese and the Franciscan order. Serbin said there were also questions about the actions of the diocese in Youngstown given the allegations of earlier abuse at JFK.

“What did they know and what information did they provide to his order as well as the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown that allowed him to have physical access to children?” he asked.

Baker taught and coached at JFK from 1986 to the early 1990s and was at Bishop McCort from 1992 to 2000.

Parrish said he has been told that about 50 possible plaintiffs have contacted attorneys, and he expected that number to grow.

Bishop McCort hired an attorney to investigate after the allegations surfaced, and attorney Susan Williams said three former students had talked to her in detail about the alleged abuse.

In a brief statement released by the Youngstown Diocese, Bishop George Murry said, ”Let us continue to pray for all victims of abuse, for Brother Baker’s family and the repose of his soul.”