The alleged sex abuse by a Franciscan friar of boys at Johnstown’s Bishop McCort Catholic High School decades ago now is moving into the civil side of Cambria County court.
This week, Greensburg attorney Susan Williams filed a notice in county court that a civil lawsuit is being filed on behalf of Victims Nos. 1, 2 and 3.
The alleged victims – whose names were not disclosed – are in their 20s and are relatively recent graduates of Bishop McCort, Williams said Thursday.
The three men have talked to her in detail about “the severity, pervasiveness and open nature of the abuse which they suffered at the hands of Brother (Stephen) Baker,” she said.
Baker, a Franciscan who taught at Bishop McCort from 1992 through the early 2000s, was not named as a defendant in the notice known as a writ of summons.
He was both a religion teacher and a sports trainer while he was at Bishop McCort.
The notice names Bishop McCort Catholic High School, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the Youngstown (Ohio) Diocese and the Third Order Regular Franciscans as defendants.
Tony DeGol, spokesman for the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, said little Thursday afternoon.
“I’m not aware of any legal action being filed at this point so I am unable to comment on it,” DeGol said.
A similar response came from Nancy Yuhasz, spokeswoman for the Youngstown Diocese.
“We have not received anything and cannot comment,” she said.
Williams said that the notices were beginning to be served Thursday on the defendants.
McCort and the Franciscans did not return calls for comment.
Based on what the three men have told her, Williams said, “I anticipate that possibly hundreds of individuals may have been victimized by Brother Baker.”
The attorney also said that because of the open nature of the alleged abuse, Baker “was able to carry out his abuse without interference” at Bishop McCort.
She alleged, “A number of teachers and administrative employees who are required by law to report such acts to authorities failed to rectify the situation over a substantial period of time.”
A civil complaint that would outline any specific allegations of Victims 1, 2 and 3 has not yet been filed.
Williams’ filing of the writ of summons this week extends the statute of limitations, giving her two years to file a complaint detailing the alleged abuse.
Allegations of abuse of McCort students first surfaced here two weeks ago after an announcement that 11 men had reached a settlement of undisclosed terms with the Youngstown Diocese regarding alleged abuse by Baker of boys there.
Baker was a teacher and sports coach at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio, just northwest of Youngstown, before moving to Johnstown.
Williams said that she named the Youngstown Diocese as a defendant because, based on the settlements there, there is “a good possibility they did not disclose the abuse to the people here.”
Baker, now living at St. Bernardine Monastery near Hollidaysburg, no longer has contact with children, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese has said. The diocese here said that it learned of the alleged abuse in November 2011 and that Bishop Mark Bartchak then notified civil authorities about the allegations.
The number of Bishop McCort students who allegedly were abused is unknown, although Robert Hoatson, a victims advocate, has said that as many as 15 former students are alleging sex abuse by Baker, a number that he terms as the “tip of the iceberg.”
In addition, Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has been involved in the Ohio lawsuits, also has maintained that there is a large number of alleged victims in Johnstown.
“There are hundreds of victims at McCort, based on my experience, since 1995,” Garabedian said.
It is my understanding, based upon what my clients have told me, that Brother Stephen Baker was head athletic trainer and a teacher of religion at Bishop McCort High School.
My clients have revealed a significant amount of detail of the severity, pervasiveness and open nature of the abuse which they suffered at the hands of Brother Baker.
By virtue of his position of power, Brother Stephen was able to carry out his abuse without interference.
It is also my understanding that despite the open nature of his behavior, a number of teachers and administrative employees who are required by law to report such acts to authorities, failed to rectify the situation over a substantial period of time.
Based upon what I’ve heard from my clients, I anticipate that possibly hundreds of individuals may have been victimized by Brother Baker.
Susan N. Williams, esquire
Bishop McCort opens investigation
The Board of Trustees of Bishop McCort High School released the following statement Thursday night regarding allegations against Brother Stephen Baker:
The non-diocesan members of the Board of Trustees of Bishop McCort Catholic High School first became aware of the misconduct allegations against Brother Stephen Baker late last week. At the time of Brother Baker’s tenure with Bishop McCort, the school was a part of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and since that time has undergone privatization. Upon such notification, the board immediately ordered a voluntary internal review and investigation of the misconduct allegations, hiring Ms. Kathleen A. Gallagher and Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott (Eckert Seamans) to conduct the investigation.
Bishop McCort understands that sexual assault victims face tremendous trauma and that it can often take years after the incident for them to report the assault. Any victims of such a horrific event must be embraced, counseled, and comforted in their time of pain. Bishop McCort High School is a Catholic family of educators, students, and alumni; and we stand together in unity with any victims of abuse.
Although Bishop McCort is now a private institution and no longer operated by the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the school is committed to ensuring that it is the safest, most conducive educational environment for its students and families. The Bishop McCort family is committed to helping each and every student, family and parishioner associated with the school develop spiritually, morally and emotionally as a child of God. The effort launched today by the school is an attempt to help any victims of abuse associated with these allegations receive a level of closure and resolution to this painful chapter of their lives.
Kathleen A. Gallagher has 30 years of legal experience providing counsel on complex litigation and internal investigations, both in private practice and formerly as a prosecutor with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. Specifically, Ms. Gallagher prosecuted numerous sexual assault cases and thus brings a unique understanding of both the law and unique circumstances surrounding such cases. Ms. Gallagher is a member of Eckert Seamans and is resident in both the Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. offices of the firm.