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Criminal charges filed against Franciscan friars in Pennsylvania abuse investigation

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Three friars of the Third Order Regular Franciscans were criminally charged Monday in Pennsylvania with conspiracy and endangering children for their alleged role in enabling a brother in their order believed to have sexually abused upwards of 100 minors, primarily at a Catholic high school.

The charges were announced Tuesday by Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who acted on recommendations brought by the same statewide grand jury investigation that had also revealed widespread abuse and misconduct by priests and church officials in the Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., diocese.

Franciscan Frs. Giles Schinelli, 73, Robert D'Aversa, 69, and Anthony Criscitelli, 61, were each charged with one count of endangering the welfare of children and criminal conspiracy; each are third degree felony charges, which carry a maximum seven-year prison sentence and $15,000 fine.

The three men served in succession as provincial superior from 1986-2010 of the Franciscan Brothers of the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception, in Hollidaysburg, Pa. The Associated Press reported that each of the priests, all currently living outside Pennsylvania, have until Friday to turn themselves into authorities.

The charges relate to Franciscan Br. Stephen Baker, who is accused of sexually abusing more than 100 children in the Johnstown area, including as many as 80 students at Bishop McCort Catholic High School. Baker committed suicide on Jan. 26, 2013, at age 62 -- just days after Ohio news outlets reported settlements with 12 former students of John F. Kennedy High School, in Warren, Ohio, with each student saying the priest had molested them.

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Kane, speaking at a press conference Tuesday morning, said that the Franciscan order knew in 1988 of an allegation of sexual abuse, but four years later still assigned Baker to Bishop McCort High School. After his removal from the school in 2000 following a credible allegation of abuse, he still attended school functions, while also traveling as vocations director and leading retreats for young people, and working at a shop the order ran at a local mall.

"These men turned a blind eye to the innocent children they were trusted to protect," Kane said.

Despite having knowledge of alleged abuse, the three former provincials "acted to protect the institution they led rather than the children and families they served," the grand jury said.

"The Grand Jury finds that these individuals when serving as Ministers Provincial and thereafter did endanger the welfare of hundreds of children by placing and/or permitting Stephen Baker to have contact with children and the public as part of his ministry," it said.

In a statement, the Immaculate Conception province said it was "deeply saddened" by the news of the charges and that it has cooperated with the investigation "in the hope that this information could shed light on events that the Province, too, struggles to understand."

"The Province extends its most sincere apologies to the victims and to the communities who have been harmed," it said.

It was the investigation into Baker in April 2014 that initiated the broader grand jury investigation into the handling of abusive priests and allegations in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese. That report, 147 pages in length and released March 1, detailed the histories of 34 alleged abusive priests and found as many as 50 priests and church officials had sexually abused hundreds of children.

So far, no charges have emerged from the diocesan investigation. Kane said it remains ongoing, noting at the press conference that more than 200 allegations of sexual abuse have been reported through a hotline number since the grand jury report's release.

With the Baker investigation, the grand jury said it didn't find "conclusive evidence" that the Altoona-Johnstown diocese or administrators at Bishop McCort had knowledge of his alleged sexual misconducts. But evidence did indicate his Franciscan superiors knew of abuse claims against him.

Baker served at Bishop McCort from 1992 to 2000, though the grand jury found he returned on numerous occasions through 2010 to partake in school events. But it was his time at an Ohio high school (1982-1992) that in 2013 brought allegations against him to the public light.

In January that year, media reported that Baker had sexually molested at least 12 students in his role as a sports trainer and baseball coach at John F. Kennedy High School. Eleven of the former students -- between the ages of 14-18 at the time of the alleged abuse -- reached settlements with the school, the religious order and the Youngstown diocese, which said it did not learn of allegations against Baker until 2009.

The grand jury found a similar pattern of abuse during Baker's time at Bishop McCort, where he taught religion and served as equipment manager for the football team. That role eventually developed into the friar treating student athletes' injuries -- despite lacking qualifications or training in physical therapy.

According to documents seized by the grand jury, Schinelli, provincial from 1986-1994, learned in 1988 of an allegation against Baker, and eventually sent him for psychological examination. While testifying before the grand jury, Schinelli acknowledged that the ensuing recommendations included no one-on-one contact with children; yet he still allowed Baker in 1992 to begin working at the high school, which was not informed of any allegations.

When Baker was removed by the order from Bishop McCort in 2000 following a credible allegation, D'Versa, provincial from 1994 to 2002, failed to notify the school of allegations or offer a reason for his reassignment, or to inform local law enforcement. Still, Baker, appointed vocations director for the order, continued attending school functions, and according to alleged victims who spoke to the grand jury, continued to abuse.

In a letter to the order, the friar said in his role as vocation director that he held 11 youth retreats throughout Pennsylvania, including one for 140 Bishop McCort students, and conducted others in Florida, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Other travels led him to Florida, North Carolina, Illinois and Ohio. Later, Baker served as a volunteer baseball statistician* at Mt. Aloysius College, in Cresson, Pa., ran a church bingo program and worked at a Franciscan-run shop at a local shopping mall -- all positions that potentially placed him in contact with minors.

In testimony to the grand jury, Criscitelli, provincial from 2002-2010, said he was told Baker wasn't "high risk," and that he required "safety plans" for the friar that restricted contact with minors. But the grand jury found holes in these plans, noting Criscitelli lived in Minnesota while Baker was in Pennsylvania, and that a communal system of friars mutually responsible for one another at the St. Bernadine Monastery often left alleged abusers looking out for one another. The investigation found the order had knowledge of at least eight friars, including Baker, accused of sexual abuse of children.

A fellow friar who was asked by Criscitelli to review the "safety plans" with Baker testified that, in reality, there was no real supervision of the friar.

"Sadly, he was right," the grand jury said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.] 

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story reported, as stated by the grand jury, that Baker was a volunteer trainer at Mt. Aloysius College. The school has said he was not a trainer but instead volunteered as a baseball statistician. 

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