The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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June 5, 2013

Salem's lot: Principal leaving McCort amid scandal

JOHNSTOWN — Ken Salem, a mainstay at Bishop McCort Catholic High School for nearly two decades who many say was the sacrificial lamb following claims of sexual abuse by a former employee, is no longer with the school.

In what was termed as a “public statement,” issued Wednesday, the former principal said he decided to “voluntarily separate from Bishop McCort.”

The statement was circulated to the media by Matt Beynon, spokesman for the school since the beginning of the year, shortly after claims surfaced by former students that they had been molested by Brother Stephen Baker.

Baker was of the Franciscan order and worked at McCort from the early 1990s through the early 2000s as a religion teacher and in the athletic department, where he worked as a trainer.

It is not clear if Baker held any type of certification in athletic training.

Baker, who was facing claims by several dozen people, including some females, committed suicide on Jan. 26 by stabbing himself in the heart. At the time, he was living at St. Bernardine Monastery near Hollidaysburg.

As the claims of abuse continued to grow, Salem, a graduate of Bishop McCort who worked there since the early 1990s, was suspended by the board without explanation on March 1. He was replaced by former Assistant Principal D.A. Gardill.

Salem said Wednesday he made the decision to leave the school after three months of prayerful consideration and support from his family.

“I have been proud of our students, faculty and staff during this difficult time,” he said. “They have demonstrated pride in our school while compassionately remembering the victims of Brother Stephen Baker.”

The resignation is effective immediately to enable Salem to pursue other opportunities.

Salem’s suspension prompted an immediate and aggressive response by some Bishop McCort supporters, who formed Friends and Family of Bishop McCort High School within four days of the move.

Wednesday’s announcement was not taken lightly by members of the group, Vice President Rob Eckenrod said. Eckenrod said Salem’s resignation marked a sad day for the Bishop McCort family and one the school will come to regret once the Baker abuse issue is resolved.

“I think the (Altoona-Johns-town Roman Catholic) diocese and the (school’s board of trustees) have unjustly allowed the reputation of a good man to be tarnished for the sake of the politically correct thing to do in regards to their legal concerns,” Eckenrod said in a statement.

The vast majority of the school’s teachers, alumni, parents and students fully support Salem, Eckenrod said. Eckenrod said it is a shame that their voices have been ignored.

“Ken has been the consummate professional throughout this entire ordeal, always putting the needs of the school and the victims above those of his own and his family,” Eckenrod said.

Beynon said Gardill continues in the post of acting principal but would not speculate if she will remain in that post.

But the controversy has apparently had little overall impact on Bishop McCort.

“The school is doing great. Graduation was this week and next year the freshman class will be as large as ever,” Beynon said.

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