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January 25, 2013

More alleging abuse by friar: Serbin gets involved

JOHNSTOWN — The number of former Bishop McCort students claiming sexual abuse by Brother Stephen P. Baker continues to grow, with an Altoona attorney saying Friday that he has been contacted by 12 alleged victims.

Attorney Richard Serbin said he is amazed by the number of students that the Franciscan friar had access to during a span of about two decades at Catholic schools in Ohio and Johnstown.

The number of former Bishop McCort students who have stepped forward since the story emerged a week ago is an indication that many people may have been molested, Serbin said.

An unofficial count of victims contacting attorneys Serbin, Michael Parrish of Johnstown, Mitchell Garabedian of Boston and Susan Williams of Greensburg shows the number reaching close to 50.

Williams filed notice that a civil lawsuit will follow in Cambria County court on behalf of three former Bishop McCort students. She named Bishop McCort Catholic High School, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the Youngstown (Ohio) Diocese and the Third Order Regular Franciscans as defendants.

“This is just in this short period of time since this has opened up. The number of victims will continue to grow,” Serbin said. “Kids will realize, ‘Wow, that’s what he did to me.’ ”

Baker, thought to be 61 or 62, was a religion teacher and athletic trainer at Bishop McCort from 1992 to the early 2000s.

Prior to his time at Bishop McCort, he served in the same capacity at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Warren, Ohio, where he also coached baseball.

Allegations about Baker surfaced locally following an announcement that a settlement in a civil lawsuit was reached with 11 men who claim they were molested by Baker while they were students at the Ohio school.

According to a report in the Tribune Chronicle of Warren, the settlements were in the high five figures, a number disclosed by the Youngstown diocese.

According to the story, the diocese is paying 30 percent of the settlements and the Franciscan order is paying 70 percent.

“A pedophile can’t help  themselves. And we’ve got two decades of this guy,” Serbin said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if it was over 200 victims.”

Serbin represented Michael Hutchison and his mother, Mary, of Altoona, in the late 1980s in a civil suit against the diocese and the Rev. Francis Luddy.

It took until 1994 for the case to get to the courtroom. Following a three-month trial, a jury awarded Hutchison more than $1.5 million in combined compensatory and punitive damages.

The total payment to Hutchison, who died in 2012 at age 44, reached more than $2.5 million with interest added due to years of delay until trial and post-trial appeals.

While much case law, even at the national level, stems from the Luddy case, Serbin said he expects the Baker case to top all he’s seen, at least in the terms of numbers of victims.

“The (potential) for the number of kids is probably bigger than any I’ve seen, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” he said.

Serbin is concerned that no news about Baker was made public until now.

“There was talk this guy was weird and strange. But it went further than that,” he said.

Through the years Serbin has sued every diocese in Pennsylvania, but he said the Baker case marks the first instance of what he termed “dual masters.”

While at Bishop McCort, Baker was answerable to the local diocese as well as his superiors in the Franciscan order.

Serbin shares concerns expressed by SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The 12,000-member group wants to make sure Baker has no contact with children.

“If Brother Baker still dresses like a priest or brother he can use the cloth to gain access to kids,” he said.

Serbin said he continues to interview and evaluate former Bishop McCort students. He gave no indication when or if he will take legal action.

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