The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 26, 2013

Case revives pain of prior victims

JOHNSTOWN — A Franciscan Friar who worked for a decade at Bishop McCort Catholic High School committed suicide on Saturday.

But stories that emerged about alleged sexual abuse by Brother Paul Stephen Baker have caused others abused by the clergy to relive the incidents that altered their lives and brought back pain they sought to forget.

John Nesbella, 50, formerly of Lilly and now living in Nanty Glo, was a student at Bishop Carroll High School in the 1970s when he repeatedly was abused by a Catholic priest.

As a child, Brian Gergely, 43, of Ebensburg, was an altar boy who was repeatedly abused by a Catholic priest in 1981-82.

With the news about Baker, a Franciscan friar, and dozens of former McCort students contacting attorneys regarding abuse they suffered at his hands from 1992 to the early 2000s, Nesbella and Gergely are speaking out about what they went through.

“Last year I went to the confessional and sacristy where I was abused at Holy Name,” said Gergely. “It helped me enormously. It helped desensitize me.”

For Nesbella, the accounts of allegations against Baker, who was living at St. Bernadine Monastery outside Hollidaysburg before his death, brings back suppressed memories.

“Whenever I see something like this, it just brings it all back. It forces me to relive it and it’s very difficult,” he said.

Advocates and attorneys speculate that Baker may have molested hundreds of male McCort students during his tenure there as a religion instructor and athletic trainer.

Much of the abuse took place under the guise of therapy for sports injuries.

Baker would force the boys to strip naked and get into a whirlpool with him or onto a table, said Richard Serbin, an Altoona attorney who has been contacted by at least a dozen former McCort students.

Nesbella became a priest in hopes of finding emotional healing from his ordeal. But when he spoke out about his abuse and the handling of such cases by Catholic authority, he was ostracized and threatened.

The problem continues to this day for his elderly mother and siblings, he said.

Eight years ago, he left the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

“Others cannot fathom why I became angry after church,” he said in a letter to The Tribune-Democrat’s Reader’s Forum.

“My life will never be the same.

“I no longer have a church. I have emotional and psychological problems.”

Diocese spokesman Tony DeGol declined to discuss the Nesbella case, terming it a personnel matter about which the diocese does not comment.

Nesbella has married and works as an engineer in State College.

News emerged last week that a Greensburg attorney had filed notice of intent to sue the diocese, McCort, the Franciscans and others on behalf of three men who say they were abused by Baker. That is a good thing, Nesbella said.

“I’m glad to hear there might be some justice,” he said in a telephone interview.

For Gergely, the fight back has been equally difficult.

He started drinking alcohol at age 10, abused drugs had difficulty with trust in relationships.

Now he is now focused on helping others.

He has authored a book titled “The Lost Altar Boy,” set for release this spring and is working in therapy support with autistic and troubled children.

Every time he reads of clergy abuse, it gives him chills and sometimes brings him to tears, he said.

“They (former McCort students) don’t have to go down the road I went,” he said. “They need to speak out.”

Speaking up is the only way a victim can get through the abuse, Nesbella said.

“The first thing you think of is that ‘I’m the only one,’ then you hear about it happening to others,” he said.

Gergely is asking anyone abused by Baker to contact him at 472-9088.

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