3 Franciscan leaders charged in sexual abuse at Pennsylvania school

Three leaders of a Franciscan religious order allowed a friar who was a known sexual predator to take on jobs, including as a high school athletic trainer, that enabled him to molest more than 100 children, according to a grand jury report released Tuesday.

Giles Schinelli, 73; Robert D’Aversa, 69; and Anthony M. Criscitelli, 61, were successively the provincial ministers of a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church in western Pennsylvania from 1986 to 2010. In that role, each had the power to assign and supervisor the order’s members.

Each was charged with conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children. All three now live outside Pennsylvania, and prosecutors said their arraignments would be scheduled in the coming days.

The order says it will issue a statement later Tuesday addressing the accusations, and a message was left with a lawyer for the organization. It’s unclear where the three men live and whether they have attorneys who could comment on the charges.

“These men knew there was a child predator in their organization, yet they continued to put him in positions where he had countless opportunities to prey upon children,” said Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who announced the charges.

Brother Stephen Baker, the friar at the center of the abuse allegations, killed himself in 2013 — with two knives to the heart — after church officials in Youngstown, Ohio, announced they were settling lawsuits by 11 former students who said Baker abused them at schools in Ohio from 1986 to 1990.

More than 100 abuse claims were subsequently filed by former students of Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, where Baker worked from 1992 to 2000. Millions in dollars in damages have been paid out.

Though the grand jury probe focused on Baker, prosecutors said evidence was uncovered that in at least eight other instances, Franciscan friars had been transferred to other locations following abuse allegations.

“No reports were ever made to law enforcement,” Kane said. “As the grand jury found, the ultimate priority was to avoid public scrutiny at all costs.”

In the case of Baker, the grand jury said Schinelli, the earliest of the provincial ministers charged, assigned Baker to the high school despite a 1988 sexual abuse allegation and recommendations that he not be permitted to have one-on-one contact with children.

Baker was appointed as a religion teacher and assistant football coach, but worked his way into a position as athletic trainer even though he had no formal training, the grand jury said.

Many victims indicated they were abused by Baker when he treated them for sports injuries or was stretching them.

Baker was removed from the assignment at McCort in 2000 after what D’Aversa believed was a credible accusation of child sex abuse, though the allegation is not detailed in the grand jury report.

Neither D’Aversa nor Criscitelli notified school or law enforcement officials why Baker was removed, the report said.

Baker was given a new position as vocations director for the Franciscan Friars, Third Order Regulars, Province of the Immaculate Conception. Under that assignment, he led youth retreats in several states.

He was able to continue attending high school functions and had access to McCort facilities until 2010, the grand jury said.

In 2008, Baker was assigned as a volunteer trainer at Mt. Aloysius College, where the grand jury said he was able to molest three additional children.

The charges come two weeks after a grand jury report accused two former bishops of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese of covering up or failing to act swiftly enough on abuse claims against more than 50 priests from 1966 until 2011. No charges were brought in that investigation because statutes of limitation had run their course, abusers had died and victims were too traumatized to testify, prosecutors said.

Although many Franciscans worked in the diocese, they were directly supervised by their order.

In the prosecution announced Tuesday, the grand jury found that the diocese did nothing criminal in their handling of abuse allegations against Baker, Kane said.

Officials at the diocese and Bishop McCort, which is no longer a diocesan school, did not know of the allegations against Baker until 2011, the grand jury found.

The child endangerment charge brought against the three Franciscan leaders is the same charge brought against Monsignor William Lynn, the former secretary for clergy in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. He recently had his 2012 trial conviction overturned for a second time when a court said jurors had heard from too many other church victims not directly involved in the case. Lynn remains in prison while prosecutors again appeal to the state Supreme Court.

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