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Friar's suicide won't affect Johnstown sex abuse case, attorneys say

| Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, 8:20 p.m.

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 during the weekend, attorneys representing some of the accusers said on Sunday.

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

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,” Serbin said.

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. “I think the bulk of the individuals that we represent are angry about what happened to them. They're hurt about what happened to them. They're suffering for sure, and this compounds that suffering.”

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.

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