3 Franciscan officials charged for allowing 'predator' access to kids

| Tuesday, March 15, 2016, 10:21 a.m.

JOHNSTOWN — Three retired officials with a Franciscan friars' order in Blair County covered up the actions of a known child sex predator for decades, repeatedly reassigning him to posts in the Roman Catholic Church where he abused more than 100 victims, a statewide grand jury charged Tuesday.

The three men, Anthony Criscitelli, 61, Robert D'Aversa, 69, and Giles Anthony Schinelli, 73, have been living in Florida and Michigan and are retired from the Franciscan Friars, Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception.

They're charged with one count each of endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children in connection with their oversight of the late Brother Stephen Baker.

“These men knew there was a child predator in their organization. Yet they continued to put him in a position where he had countless opportunities to prey upon children. I think they were more concerned with protecting the religious order than the flock they served,” Attorney General Kathleen Kane said in announcing the charges at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Attorneys for the three men did not immediately return calls.

Baker committed suicide at the St. Bernardine Monastery in Hollidaysburg on Jan. 26, 2013, days after the announcement of a multimillion-dollar settlement with his accusers. He was first accused of sexual abuse in 1988, but his superiors never reported allegations to police.

Even though a recommendation was made in 1991 that Baker be barred from unsupervised contact or overnight visits with children, the grand jury said his superiors assigned him to a post as a religion teacher and sports trainer at Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown, where he was accused of molesting more than 80 children between 1992 and 2010.

According to victims, he groped the genitals of male students and molested them in other ways, the grand jury said. Two victims said they were assaulted on Bishop McCort grounds after Baker was officially removed from the school.

Kane said the men are expected to turn themselves in for arraignment this week.

In an email Tuesday, the Franciscan Friars in Hollidays­burg apologized to the victims and their families and asked for prayers for healing.

“We are deeply saddened by the news released today by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. With compassion for the victims and their families, as well as for the Catholic family and the community at large, the province and its leadership have worked to cooperate with the Office of Attorney General throughout this 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.”

The grand jury said the religious order's leaders “had considerable experience in hiding members of the organization who were accused of sexual abuse. Documents seized in the investigation revealed the order had at various times reassigned up to eight members — seven of whom have since died — who were accused of sexual abuse.

“They failed to protect the children to whom they owed a duty of care,” the investigative panel concluded.

The charges against the Franciscan leaders, all third-degree felonies carrying maximum sentences of seven years in prison, were the first to emerge from a two-year grand jury investigation of clergy sexual abuse in the region. Two weeks ago, the panel issued a separate 147-page report concluding that at least 50 priests were involved in a cover-up of child sexual abuse over five decades in the Altoona-Johns­town Catholic Diocese.

Kane said no charges were filed in connection with the initial grand jury report because some alleged abusers and the victims had died, the statue of limitations had expired or victims were still too traumatized to come forward.

In the latest finding involving the three Franciscans, Kane said the statute of limitations for failure to report abuse involving Baker had expired, but authorities were able to file charges under the conspiracy and child endangerment statutes.

A grand jury subpoena that allowed agents to seize reports documenting Baker's history from the St. Bernardine Monastery was critical to the investigation, Kane said.

Kane herself is a criminal defendant facing charges in an unrelated case of perjury, obstruction of justice and official oppression in Montgomery County. She maintains her innocence.

Charges against the three Franciscan officials allege that:

• Schinelli, minister provincial from 1986 to 1994, sent Baker for a psychological evaluation. He was told Baker was not to have “one on one” contact with kids, the grand jury said, but he assigned Baker to Bishop McCort in 1992 anyway.

• D'Aversa failed to notify school officials and law enforcement officials of the reason Baker was removed from the school in 2000 following what D'Aversa believed was a new “credible allegation” of child sexual abuse, the grand jury said. D'Aversa was minister provincial from 1994 to 2002. D'Aversa later appointed Baker as vocations director of the Third Order Regular. In that capacity, he conducted overnight youth retreats across the country and as a volunteer trainer at Mt. Aloysius College in 2008.

• Criscitelli, who directed personnel assignments from 2002 through 2010, allowed Baker to have access to children by permitting him to work at a shopping mall, the attorney general's office claimed. Baker was supposed to have “safety plans” governing his activities, but Criscitelli never signed such plans while living in Minnesota, the grand jury said. Baker lived unsupervised in Pennsylvania and for a time lived with another predator who wasn't named, the grand jury said.

Kane said a 2014 referral on the Baker case from Cambria County District Attorney Kelli Callihan triggered the investigation that focused on allegations of sexual abuse by priests and members of religious orders in the Johnstown-Altoona area.

Both investigations remain open.

Kane said her office has logged more than 215 calls to a hotline intended for sexual abuse victims in the Johns­town-Altoona area, following the grand jury's initial report.

Robert M. Hoatson, a former priest and co-founder of Road to Recovery, a New Jersey-based organization that counsels victims of clergy sexual abuse, commended the grand jury.

Hoatson, who stood outside Kane's news conference carrying a placard offering counseling services, said he is counseling one family in which multiple members were assaulted by Baker.

“This is enormous,” he said, noting that the findings of widespread abuse in the small, rural diocese mirror those documented in Catholic dioceses elsewhere.

Kane, who is Catholic, stressed that her investigation is not about the church.

“This is not about a religious order. This is not about Catholicism. This is about standing up for the law. … We are teaching our children that they do not have to hide this horrific act,” she said.

Debra Erdley and Brad Bumsted are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Erdley at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com. Reach Bumsted at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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