Three Franciscan priests were charged with conspiracy for endangering the welfare of children as well as for endangering the welfare of children in connection with a two-year investigation into sexual abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
Franciscan Fathers Giles Schinelli, Robert D’Aversa and Anthony Criscitelli were expected to return to Pennsylvania to answer the charges, said Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane at a news conference on March 15 at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown campus.
The men were indicted followed a grand jury investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by dozens of priests and other religious leaders in the diocese.
Kane said the charges stem from the time each of the men served as provincial superior of the Franciscan Brothers of the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception based in Hollidaysburg, and their continued appointment of Franciscan Brother Stephen Baker to ministry positions where he worked with children. Brother Baker is accused of abusing more than 80 children from Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown between 1992 and 2000, where he taught religion and worked as an athletic trainer, Kane said.
The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the order and the high school have reached settlements with the victims. Brother Baker committed suicide in January 2013 at the St. Bernardine Monastery in Hollidaysburg.
The province issued a brief statement after the indictments were announced, saying it was “deeply saddened by the news.”
“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 statement said.
“The province extends its most sincere apologies to the victims and to the communities who have been harmed. It invites the community to join in prayer for healing and understanding, and for all the priests and brothers who honour their vocations and the Church,” it added.
Fr Patrick Quinn, current provincial superior, was away from his office and unavailable for comment, a person who answered the phone at the friary said.
Kane said the three priests in their capacity continued to assign Brother Baker to the school in Johnstown despite knowing of allegations of abuse against him. “They engaged in efforts to protect the image of the Franciscan priory,” she said.
After Brother Baker was removed from ministry at the high school, Kane said, he was assigned as vocations director for the province and continued to have contact with children.
Kane said none of the men reported the allegations to Johnstown police or any other law enforcement authority. The attorney general added that the role of diocesan officials and local police was investigated and that evidence indicated neither organisation was aware of the alleged abuse.
“We cannot stress enough the importance of holding those accountable” for not reporting incidents of sexual abuse, Kane said.
A report from the grand jury filed with the criminal complaints against each of the priests listed the names of six priests and one religious brother against which allegations of sexual abuse had been made. All but one of the men are deceased, according to the report.
Investigators also found correspondence between the order and the diocese indicating that diocesan officials knew of the accusations, but that “many friars remained in ministry after allegations were levied,” the report said.
The grand jury found that the province “had knowledge of at least eight” Franciscans who had sexual abuse allegations against them, but still transferred the men to assignments in Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Texas, West Virginia and other locations in Pennsylvania, the report said.
Another set of allegations was made against Brother Baker from students at John F Kennedy High School, a Catholic school in Warren, Ohio, where he taught religion, coached baseball and served as an athletic trainer from 1982 until 1992, the grand jury said. Settlements were reached in 2012 with 11 men who attended the school from 1986 to 1990, the report said.
The charges were the second shock within two weeks in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
A grand jury report released on March 1 detailed hundreds of cases of abuse of children by at least 50 priests or other religious leaders over several decades and said diocesan leaders systematically concealed the alleged abuse to protect the church’s image.
Afterward, Bishop Mark Bartchak of Altoona-Johnstown committed the Pennsylvania diocese to be transparent in its efforts related to the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and to make public the names of all priests found to have a credible allegation of abuse against them and the status of each man within the diocese.
The grand jury report commended Bishop Bartchak for cooperating with the state’s investigation and offered recommendations for the diocese to consider in its handling of abuse allegations, including keeping the needs of abuse victims foremost.
Kane said that more than 200 calls had been received on a hotline established to gather tips on alleged abuse since the grand jury report was released.