State Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office will investigate sexual abuse allegations involving Brother Stephen Baker while he was on staff at Bishop McCort High School.
Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan received a letter from Kane’s office Friday in response to A request Callihan made last month asking for an agency with greater resources to take over the investigation.
Word that Kane’s office will investigate the Baker case was met with elation by some victims’ organizations, while there was little response from some others.
“My clients hope that the attorney general will find answers as to why Brother Stephen Baker was allowed to sexually abuse several hundred innocent children,” said attorney Mitchell Garabedian.
The Boston attorney, who is believed to be representing several dozen mostly men who claim they were abused by Baker while he taught at Bishop McCort between 1992 and 2001, said the big question the state’s top prosecutor needs to look at is who were the supervisors.
“Brother Stephen Baker had free reign in his wholesale sexual molestation of innocent children,” Garabedian said.
Callihan said the most important issue is who at the school and in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown was aware of Baker’s actions with the students and failed to report him to authorities.
A law has been in place since 1992 mandating that those in supervisory positions over children report abuse or suspected abuse to their supervisors or to police.
“It is a standard letter saying the attorney general’s office is going to assume jurisdiction of the Brother Stephen Baker case,” Callihan told The Tribune-Democrat.
Baker was a religion teacher and member of the athletic staff at the Johnstown Catholic school for about nine years.
However, alleged victims and former employees have reported that Baker was seen on the school’s grounds for several years after he left.
Word of the sexual abuse of mostly male students surfaced about a year ago on the heels of reports from Youngstown, Ohio, regarding financial settlements by the diocese there with 11 Baker victims.
Former Bishop McCort students began contacting attorneys. At last count, there may be more than 80 who alleged Baker sexually molested them.
In late January, Baker was found dead in his room at St. Bernardine Monastery near Hollidaysburg, where he lived for a number of years.
The Blair County coroner ruled his death a suicide.
Any potential criminal case against Baker ended with his death. But Callihan stepped in, expressing concern about why mandated reporters at the school and the diocese did not come forward.
Bishop McCort had been operated for decades by the diocese. But in 2008 it became independent and is now run by a board of trustees made up of primarily of private citizens from the Cambria County area.
Tony DeGol, the diocese secretary of communications, said he had no comment on this latest development.
“We are not aware of any such action,” DeGol said in an email.
In a statement late Friday, the Bishop McCort trustees said through spokesman Matt Beynon that they are committed to cooperating with the state investigation.
“Since the allegations against Brother Baker first surfaced, the Bishop McCort board of trustees has been committed to learning all the facts involved and taking steps necessary to ensure that the school remains a safe learning environment for its students.
“This has included its own internal investigation into the Baker allegations and cooperating with local and state law enforcement officials.
“Bishop McCort is committed to cooperating with the attorney general’s office in their investigation,” the statement concludes.
Callihan told The Tribune-Democrat about two months ago that she was briefed by a representative for the board of trustees who, along with two former state police troopers, had conducted an internal investigation into the Baker matter.
That representative told Callihan that she would make available to the attorney general’s office information the investigation revealed.
Callihan said Friday she provided Kane’s office with a “pretty big packet,” which included police reports along with media reports on the case.
“It was everything we had on the case,” she said. “I provided them with everything we had.”
Altoona attorney Richard Serbin, who has handled priest-sex abuse cases for 25 years and represents a number of Baker’s victims, said he had heard rumors that Kane’s office was stepping in.
“This means that they’re taking control,” Serbin said.
Exposure of the facts can only prove helpful to any civil litigation, he said.
“When there is a criminal investigation, it can expedite the discovery of information,” he said. “I support any investigation that leads to any exposure of how this priest was given the title and authority to abuse so many young individuals.”
Robert Hoatson, a victims advocate and head of Road to Recovery, praised the state for stepping in.
“This is great news. A pedophile of his stature, he abused hundreds of children in Pennsylvania alone,” Hoatson said. “The wider the net can be thrown, the more victims will come forward.”
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a nationwide group working to expose priest sexual abuse, applauded involvement by the attorney general and said this aggressive approach is the only way to expose and hold accountable those who knew of Baker.
Joe Peters, a Kane spokesman, had little to say about the case.
“Our place is to neither confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” Peters said.
Speaking of general procedure, Peters said the attorney general’s office often is called upon to handle investigations because of a conflict of interest by the office of the county district attorney or that office’s limited resources.
Peters was unable to expand on how long investigations can take.
Callihan sought the state’s involvement not only because of her limited resources in the county office, but also because the Baker case involves the diocese, headquartered in Blair County. Additionally, there has been talk that some of the abuse may have occurred outside of Cambria County.
Responding to a request by Callihan in 2013, the attorney general’s office already has agreed to investigate sexual abuse allegations made by now-adult men against The Rev. George Koharchik.
He served at two parishes in Cambria County and at parishes in other locations in the diocese.
Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellottd.