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January 27, 2013

What suicide means for abuse cases

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Robert Hoatson spent Saturday afternoon and evening dealing with alleged victims of Brother Paul Stephen Baker, the Franciscan friar who committed suicide earlier in the day.

“At this point, they’re numb. They’re trying to figure out how they feel,” said Hoatson, a victim advocate who is founder and president of Road to Recovery of Livingston, N.J.

“They called him ‘Bro.’ There is shock and numbness.”

Baker, 62, had resided in Blair County since his early 2000s departure from Bishop McCort Catholic High School, where he worked on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johns­town as a religion instructor and in the athletic department.

Baker died early Saturday of a self-inflicted stab wound.

Baker took his life in his bedroom at St. Bernardine Monastery, outside Hollidaysburg, where he had lived at least since 2010. Before that he lived at St. Joseph’s Friary, a few miles away in Hollidaysburg.  

While Baker’s suicide brings out conflicting emotions in his alleged victims, it changes nothing in terms of claims and legal action, said Richard Serbin, an Altoona attorney who has been contacted by a dozen or more men.

“Only time is going to tell the impact on the victims, but whatever I do, I will, from a legal standpoint continue to go forward,” Serbin said Saturday.

Word of sexual misconduct surfaced about 10 days ago after a civil settlement involving Baker and 11 men who were former students at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio. The friar worked there as a religion instructor and in the athletic department from 1986 through 1992, when he came to Bishop McCort.

Allegations are that Baker, under the guise of offering therapy and rubdowns, would improperly touch the boys, attorneys have told The Tribune-Democrat.

Much of the abuse occurred in school training areas, but Baker also allegedly molested boys while taking them to dinner and on trips in his van.

Legal action so far has been taken on behalf of three unnamed victims, former Bishop McCort students who through Greensburg attorney Susan Williams last week filed notice of intent to sue in Cambria County.

Named as defendants in the notice are the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, the Third Order Regular Franciscans and Bishop McCort.

Bishop McCort was a diocesan school until 2008, when it became independent.

Serbin, Johnstown attorney Michael Parrish and Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian have said they are interviewing alleged victims.

A big issue is who knew what about Baker and when, Serbin said, and that issue hasn’t gone away just because the accused is dead.

In a statement last week, Bishop Mark Bartchak of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese said he first learned of allegations from Bishop McCort students in November 2011 and contacted civil authorities.

An out-of-court agreement with 11 men Baker molested at JFK was in the works for years, attorneys contacted by former Bishop McCort students said.

Judy Jones, a leader of SNAP – Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests – said that while she feels sad for Baker’s family, there is relief that he no longer is a potential predator.

“This changes nothing, for most (victims). This changes nothing,” she said in a telephone interview from a SNAP convention in Dallas.

“We  feel sad for Brother Baker’s family, but even sadder for the dozens of boys Baker assaulted.

“It’s possible that if Catholic officials had acted with more compassion, suspended Baker sooner, monitored him better, and gotten him more help sooner, that he might still be alive,” Jones said.

The reaction of victims to Baker’s death is difficult to gauge, Serbin said, adding some may be relieved while others may feel cheated that there is no justice.

Some victims who until now have remained silent may be prompted to step forward, he said, while others who had planned to contact an attorney may just forget about it.

“But one thing we know, Brother Baker will not harm another child,” Serbin said.

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