Friday’s announcement by the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown that it is suspending settlement talks with alleged victims of the late Brother Stephen Baker has generated a firestorm of controversy, with one victims’ advocate calling the news outrageous.
Robert Hoatson, founder and president of Road to Recovery Inc., protested outside diocesan headquarters in Hollidaysburg.
Late Friday afternoon, Tony DeGol, the diocese secretary of communications, sent an emailed statement that the diocese was temporarily suspending negotiations to reach settlements with the mostly men who claim they were sexually molested by Baker, a Franciscan friar.
Baker taught at Bishop McCort from 1992 to about 2001, however he was a frequent visitor for the school until about 2005 or 2006, according to sources who worked there.
In January 2013, news of a settlement between Baker victims in the Youngstown, Ohio, diocese surfaced, prompting what is now said to be nearly
90 victims to allege that they were sexually molested by Baker while they were students at Bishop McCort.
Within days, civil lawsuits were being filed in Cambria and Blair counties.
Baker, who lived at a monastery outside Hollidaysburg, committed suicide later that month.
News then surfaced that the diocese and Franciscans contacted the attorneys to begin settlement negotiations.
Any settlement was to include all or most of those alleged victims who had stepped forward.
Several months ago, acting on a request by Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan, the attorney general’s office agreed to take jurisdiction in the case and look for possible criminal charges against those adults who may have known of Baker’s actions and failed to report them.
The decision to suspend talks was made based on the ongoing investigation by the office of the state attorney general, DeGol said in the email.
It would be inappropriate for the diocese to proceed with civil matters while the investigation is active, according to the release.
The announcement came days before victims’ attorneys and those representing the diocese were set to meet in Philadelphia in front of a mediator, possibly to reach a settlement.
Attorneys stopped filing the civil lawsuits last spring because of what was believed to be a desire by the diocese and Franciscans to avoid litigation.
Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 33 of Baker’s alleged victims, said Monday said the diocese refuses to consider the fragility of the victims and is taking action that re-victimizes those molested.
The reason for the suspended talks can only be linked to money, he said.
“Bishop (Mark) Bartchak should reconsider in light of the unnecessary pain this is causing,” he said. “The diocese is more concerned about it’s wallet than it is of the victims.”
The diocese did not comment on the allegations made by Garabedian and Hoatson.
With the talks suspended, Garabedian, said, new civil lawsuits should be anticipated.
While he offered no details, Garabedian said the cases of many of the victims are “very strong.”
“It’s simply beyond the bounds of reason. It makes no sense,” he said.
Hoatson said settling the lawsuits would go a long way toward closure for the victims and allow them to begin healing.
“We want to know what Bishop Bartchak knows about Baker,” he said. “What prompted him to cancel these talks? We want to know why they are postponing the mediation.”
Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County Courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.