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November 12, 2013

Alleged victims withdraw lawsuit

EBENSBURG — A Greensburg lawyer representing alleged victims of Brother Stephen Baker has withdrawn the civil lawsuit filed in Cambria County, citing concern that complying with requests for more information would harm settlement talks now underway.

Attorney Susan Williams has filed a request to withdraw the lawsuit filed 10 months ago on behalf of three unnamed alleged victims of Baker, a Franciscan friar.

The action follows aggressive attempts by the leaders of Bishop McCort High School to learn details of the allegations being made against Baker, and in particular, the school, under its current structure.

In late October, Bishop McCort attorney Kathleen Gallagher attempted to force Williams to file the full complaint of the lawsuit spelling out dates, places and alleged acts committed by Baker.

Last week, Gallagher filed, on behalf of Bishop McCort, an inquiry seeking a response to statements regarding Baker and the alleged victims posted on the Williams Law Firm website.

Baker, 62 at the time of his death in January, worked at Bishop McCort from 1992 to 2001 as a religion teacher and as part of the athletic department.

It was in his role with the athletic department that victims have alleged he molested them to various degrees, often in the locker room and whirlpool.

The alleged victims have been represented by Williams, Altoona attorney Richard Serbin, Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian and Johns-town attorney Michael Parrish.

During Baker’s tenure at the school it was under the control of the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

That changed in 2008, when Bishop McCort and other high schools in the diocese became independent. The school is now operated by a board of directors.

Baker was said to have been seen around the school after he no longer was a staff member, and  victims reported seeing him at the Johnstown school at times for a couple of years after 2001, attorneys said.

The current board makes a clear distinction in the 2008 change and says the school, under its current structure, should not have been named in the January lawsuit filed by Williams.

Negotiations between some of the attorneys representing alleged victims and the diocese were revealed last month, and Williams indicated that she is part of those talks.

Garabedian said Monday that the Franciscan Friars, named as one of the defendants in the various lawsuits, also are part of the talks.

“We are in settlement discussions,” Garabedian said. “I expect them to be lengthy.”

Not a part of the talks is Bishop McCort High School, Williams said.

“Bishop McCort has chosen not to participate in these discussions,” she said in a statement.

Further detailing of the allegations against Baker, Williams said, could interfere with any settlements.

“Were this to occur (abuse details), the discussions would very likely come to a halt and fail,” she said.

“In the interest of resolving the claims of the victims, and bringing some closure ot this very tragic course of events, this office has filed a Praecipe to Withdraw Writs, asking the prothonotary to mark as ‘Withdrawn.’ ”

But the action does not necessarily mean the end of any further civil action, she said.

The statute of limitations on the claims of her clients will not expire for some time.

“Should it become necessary to file a complaint, such action will be taken prior to the expiration of the applicable statute of limitations,” Williams said.

Bishop McCort spokesman Matthew Beynon said Monday that official notification of Williams’ latest filing had not been served on the school and he would have no comment until it is received.

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

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