The Pennsylvania Superior Court’s order overturning the conviction of a Philadelphia Catholic Church official could profoundly impact any criminal prosecution of those who knew and failed to report the sexual abuse by Brother Stephen Baker, experts say.
The year 2007 is key, said Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston attorney representing a couple of dozen former students at Bishop McCort Catholic High School who allege Baker sexually molested them while carrying out his duties as part of the athletic department.
Garabedian and Altoona attorney Richard Serbin, along with others, are representing alleged Baker victims in civil lawsuits. The recent appeals court action stems from criminal prosecution of Monsignor William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
“It appears it’s going to be difficult for the government to prosecute supervisors prior to 2007 if they didn’t have direct contact with the student,” Garabedian said Friday.
According to the Superior Court’s decision, someone who is not a direct supervisor of the victim would not be held responsible under the interpretation by the state.
But Serbin said it’s way too early to say.
“It’s premature to say what impact it will have on any investigation or even if any criminal charges can be filed,” Serbin said.
Lynn was convicted in June 2012 of endangering the welfare of a child by reassigning a priest known to have sexually molested children to another parish without informing church officials there.
He was serving a three- to six-year prison sentence when, the day after Christmas, a three- judge Superior Court appeals panel reversed the conviction and ordered Lynn be freed.
The conviction marked the first senior Catholic Church official in the U.S. to be convicted of covering up child sex abuse by a priest.
Lynn served as secretary for clergy of the Philadelphia Archdiocese from 1992-2004, where he was tasked with passing information to higher officials in the church.
The decision, the justices said, was based on the Pennsylvania law as written prior to 2007 that applied to a parent, guardian or other person supervising someone 18 or younger.
An amendment to the law six years ago significantly broadened the term of supervisor and the person who supervises the supervisor, Garabedian said.
Indications by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams are that he will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, meaning a higher court may change things, Serbin said.
Baker, who was 62 when he was found dead in his quarters at a monastery outside Hollidaysburg in late January 2013, allegedly molested as many as 80, mostly boys, while he worked at Bishop McCort as a religion teacher and part of the athletic staff.
It has since been learned that Baker, who came to the area two decades ago from Youngstown, Ohio, molested boys there, and there are allegations of earlier molestation while working in Michigan.
He was at the Johnstown school as an employee from 1992 to to 2001. However, victims and former employees at the school said he was seen on the campus for a number of subsequent years, perhaps as late as 2008.
While any potential criminal prosecution of Baker ended with his death, the issue of failure by mandated reporters to contact authorities after becoming aware of Baker’s actions has been pursued by Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan.
Earlier this month, Callihan said that the office of the state attorney general had agreed to assume jurisdiction in the case and will conduct an investigation.
It is anticipated the investigation will look at who was in supervisory positions at the school during Baker’s tenure, what they knew of his activities and what, if any, reporting to superiors occurred.
The result may be some in supervisory positions at Bishop McCort can be prosecuted; perhaps a principal could not be, but maybe a football coach could, Garabedian said.
The question is pre-2007, was the supervisor in direct contact with the abused child aware of Baker’s actions? Garabedian said.
Bishop McCort for many years was operated by the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, and in 2008 was taken over by a board of trustees made up of residents of the area.
“We don’t know all the information the investigation will reveal,” Serbin said. “The circumstances could be different.”
Priest abuse survivor organizations fear the worst when it comes to criminal prosecutions for administrative and diocesan officials at Bishop McCort.
“It’s not a done deal, and we sure hope this doesn’t stop things,” said Judy Jones of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Many also are watching the Lynn case in light of the pending criminal cases against a number of Penn State officials who did not act on the sexual abuse of boys by former football coach Jerry Sandusky, said Robert Hoatson, founder of Road to Recovery, a New Jersey-based victims organization.
“Maybe legally they can’t charge in the Baker case, but morally and ethically who knew and let him have free access to these victims?” Hoatson said.
Jones cautioned against anyone who knew about Baker and did not report, thinking they may have gotten lucky.
“It’s not over yet for Lynn and those who knew about Baker,” she said.
Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County Courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.