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February 21, 2014

McCort board suing abuse lawyer

JOHNSTOWN — The board of directors of Bishop McCort Catholic High School is going after a Greensburg attorney who is representing a handful of people who claim they were sexually abused by Brother Stephen Baker.

Documents were filed this week on behalf of the school’s leaders in Westmoreland County court as the first step in a civil lawsuit against Susan Williams regarding assertions made on her Web page.

Additionally, Pittsburgh attorney Kathleen Gallagher, on behalf of Bishop McCort, filed what is termed notice of service of plaintiff’s first set of discovery.

It is seeking a response from Williams as the first step in gaining information from a plaintiff.

The website makes statements by Williams in relation to individuals she claims are still at Bishop McCort and makes reference to their relationships to Baker, the board maintains.

A quote from the site follows: “Our office has been contacted by numerous individuals who were affected by the alleged actions of Brother Stephen Baker and the array of adults at Bishop McCort High School.”

Baker, a Franciscan friar, taught religion at the school and was part of the athletic department from 1992 to 2001.

He was at the school during the time it was under the auspices of the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

The school became independent of the diocese in 2008 and since that time has been operated by a board of directors made up of private citizens from the Cambria County area.

The board chairman is Mark Pasquerilla, a Johnstown businessman.

Allegations against Baker began surfacing more than a year ago following word of a financial settlement between a Youngstown, Ohio, diocese and 11 men who claimed they were sexually abused by Baker while he was on staff of the JFK High School in Youngstown.

Baker was in Youngstown prior to coming to Johnstown.

To date, more than 80 individuals, mostly men, have contacted attorneys claiming abuse at the hands of Baker while they were students at Bishop McCort.

At age 62, Baker was found dead in late January 2013, in his room at a monastery outside Hollidaysburg. The Blair County coroner ruled the death a suicide.

The civil cases against Baker are being handled by a number of attorneys, including Williams, and negotiations are ongoing.

Williams said Friday that she had not been served with notification of the filings.

“I have no clue what it might be about,” she wrote in an email to The Tribune-Democrat.

Williams was one of the first to file notice of a civil lawsuit in Cambria County, but last fall said she was withdrawing the suit for three alleged victims after the Bishop McCort board demanded she provide additional information regarding her claims.

In a Nov. 11 statement, Williams said complying with the requests of the board would harm settlement talks.

A week earlier, the Bishop McCort board – through its lawyer – questioned the accuracy of the website statements regarding Baker and the school.

Gallagher in a statement made available Friday said the latest round of documents were filed in an attempt to gain information Williams may have regarding the case.

“These filings are consistent with this board’s previous legal actions to met its fiduciary responsibility to ensure it has done everything in its power to determine if anyone currently at the school was involved by either direct action, maleficence, or nonfeasance in the tragic actions of Brother Baker,” Gallagher said in an email statement.

She continues that while the board believes Williams’ claims are not based in fact, it needs to know the identity of those currently at the school she is referencing.

The board has a responsibility to the students and school families to take steps to learn everything it can that may endanger the well-being of the current students,  Pasquerilla said.

Despite repeated requests, Williams has refused to turn over any information supporting her claims on the Web page, he said.

“Her refusal tells us that she is either purposely withholding information that impacts on the safety of hundreds of children, or she is defaming our facility and administration with slanderous allegations,” he wrote in an email.

Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County Courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ kathymellotttd.

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