The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


February 16, 2014

Fleming faces challenges | Steering Bishop McCort through troubled waters

JOHNSTOWN — This isn’t an easy time for Bishop McCort Catholic High School.

Dozens of former students say that they were sexually abused by a former school employee. State Attorney General Kathleen Kane is investigating whether anyone at the school or the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown knew about the allegations against Brother Stephen Baker and allowed him to continue working with students. And the school has been without a principal for nearly a year.

While the first two problems could take years to sort out, the third has finally been solved. Bishop McCort announced last week that it has hired Richland schools Superintendent Thomas Fleming Jr. to serve as both principal and in the newly created position of chief administrative officer.

We believe that Fleming is an excellent choice to lead Bishop McCort through these turbulent times. He has done an outstanding job at Richland and is a well-respected member of the Johnstown community.

 Fleming has 30 years of experience in education, and he’ll need to rely on that solid background as he takes on his responsibilities at Bishop McCort.

There will be difficult times ahead for the school, and Fleming will need to navigate some rough waters. The pending lawsuits will continue to be an albatross around the school’s collective neck. Though the diocese will most likely be responsible for settling the suits, the school must step forward and do what it can to make things right with any victims.

Of even bigger concern for the school is what Kane finds in her investigation. Fairly or not, the Bishop McCort case has often been compared to what happened at Penn State with former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing 10 boys.

Former Penn State President Graham Spanier, former Vice President Gary Schultz and former Athletic Director Tim Curley have been charged with endangering the welfare of children, failure to report, conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice.

If Kane finds evidence of a similar cover-up at Bishop McCort – and that’s a big if – it could be devastating for the local school district. Not only would it sully the school’s reputation even further, but it could also bring about major changes at Bishop McCort.

Fleming isn’t blind to the difficulties that he could face.

“Obviously there are some challenges, but I think the Bishop McCort family is resilient and I’m hopeful and optimistic that better days lie ahead,” he told our David Hurst. “I see this as a tremendous opportunity. I’m looking forward to applying my experience and expertise – and my awareness of this school’s tradition – to good use.”

Fleming’s attitude is admirable. The school needed a fresh start, and we believe that Fleming will deliver it. We urge him to work with state investigators digging into the accusations of a cover-up and to disclose any and all persons who may have allowed Baker to continue to prey on students.  

Most importantly, we hope that he makes it a priority to work with Baker’s alleged victims to get them any help that they may need and to make sure that something similar can never happen again at Bishop McCort.

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