3 former Franciscan leaders charged in Pennsylvania abuse case

Three ex-leaders of a Franciscan religious order were charged on March 15 with allowing a friar who was a known sexual predator to take on jobs, including a position as a high school athletic trainer, that enabled him to molest more than 100 children.

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 assigned and supervised the order's members.

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Each was charged with conspiracy and child endangerment. Prosecutors said the three have been given until Friday to surrender.

Schinelli is now a pastoral administrator at the San Pedro Center, a Catholic retreat in Winter Park, Florida. D'Aversa is pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Community in Mount Dora, Florida. Anthony Criscitelli is pastor of St. Bridget Parish Community in Minneapolis.

A message left for Schinelli at the retreat was not returned. People answering the phones at the churches where D'Aversa and Criscitelli work said they were either traveling or not available for comment.

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.

The order issued a statement saying it cooperated with the investigation and was "deeply saddened" by the announcement. It also said it "extends its most sincere apologies to the victims and to the communities who have been harmed."

"There is a need for transparency and criminal prosecution is a great road to get there," said Boston-based attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represented nearly 40 former McCort students who have settled claims that Baker sexually abused them. He also represented the 11 Ohio victims, whose settlements prompted the McCort victims to come forward.

"There's no doubt in my mind that there are hundreds and hundreds of Brother Stephen Baker victims out there," he said.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who announced the charges, said the men "were more concerned about protecting the image of the order, more concerned with being in touch with lawyers than in protecting the flock they served."

Though the grand jury probe focused on Baker, prosecutors said evidence was uncovered that at least eight other 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.

Criscitelli further allowed Baker access to children by letting him work at a shopping mall, the report said.

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 the statute of limitation had run its 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 its 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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