The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

February 16, 2013

Accused friar’s history examined

JOHNSTOWN — His name was Paul Stephen Baker, he was a friar, a member of the Catholic religious order known as the Franciscan Third Order Regular.

The group takes a vow of chastity, poverty and obedience.

Baker, 62, at the time he died Jan. 26 of a self-inflicted stab wound to the heart, was part of one of the largest religious orders in the world, but was committed to one of the smallest religious communities.

He was one of only eight religious brothers in the United States who are members of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate Conception Province, headquartered in Blair County at Hollidaysburg.

Immaculate Conception also has 34 ordained priests as reported to the Internal Revenue Service as part of its U.S. tax exempt filing and recorded in the Official Catholic Directory.

There are 900 friars in the order throughout 14 countries, according to Immaculate Conception’s website.

Along with the St. Bernardine Monastery, outside Hollidaysburg, the order also has St. Joseph Friary in Hollidaysburg and a handful of locations elsewhere.

“They’re shrinking radically. They’re collapsing,” said Patrick Wall, a Franciscan who was a priest and monk for 12 years and worked on clergy sex abuse cases for six years before leaving.

The Immaculate Conception Province should not be confused with the Franciscan TOR that founded St. Francis University in Loretto in 1847.

The university is the Sacred Heart Province, a large national and international order.

Sacred Heart Province continues as the university’s sponsor, operated by a board of trustees, said Marie Young, St. Francis spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, despite efforts by victim advocacy groups, knowledge of Baker’s birthplace and early years remain elusive.

The man many at Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown referred to as “Bro,” is now alleged to have a history of sexual abuse of minors – mostly involving middle school and high school age boys starting in the late 1970s.

It is known he worked to earn money for his province, usually as a religion instructor and in athletic departments in schools for at least four dioceses in the the Midwest and East. He also worked at a private academy in Virginia in the 1970s.

A big gap in Baker’s history is an 18-month period between 1977 and 1979, something Bob Schwiderski of SNAP – the Survivors Network of those Abuses by Priests – is working to fill.

Information gathered from Catholic directories show he was at Bishop McCort from 1992 to 2000, but there have been reports that he continued to show up around the high school for some time after that.

Altoona attorney Richard Serbin, a clergy sexual abuse civil litigator, told The Tribune-Democrat recently that citizens have contacted him with information that Baker was seen in and around the Johnstown campus for some time after the 1999-2000 school term.

Bishop McCort, which became independent of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in 2008, announced last month that its Board of Trustees only recently became aware of allegations against Baker, and an investigation has begun.

In early January, a settlement was announced in a civil suit between the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, and 11 of Baker’s victims. That exposed the link to the friar who taught religion and worked in the athletics department at Bishop McCort. Since then, several dozen men have come forward with allegations.

Notices of pending civil suits have been filed at the Cambria County Courthouse for four alleged victims. None are named.

While many of the investigations by attorneys are in their infancy, any future settlement will be interesting, said Patrick Marker, a victim of abuse by a priest several years ago.

Of the Youngstown settlements, Marker said, “I guarantee you there were huge arguments regarding how much each would pay.”

Published reports in January indicated that the total settlement was about $1 million, with each of the 11 victims receiving an amount in the high five figures.

The breakdown showed 30 percent of the settlement came from the Youngstown diocese and 70 percent from the Franciscans.

It was recently learned that in 2005 a settlement was reached between a St. Cloud, Minn., man and the Franciscans for abuse he suffered at Baker’s hands in 1977.

Estimates from the handful of attorneys approached by former Bishop McCort students are that the number of accusers likely tops 60, one that represents a fraction of those actually abused, said Marker.

“More than 50 percent of his victims will never come forward. But God bless the Internet,” said Marker who has a website to monitor sex abuse among priests.

It is because of the Internet that word of Baker’s abuse at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Warren, Ohio, became public knowledge in Johns­town and elsewhere. The exposure has served as a sort of therapy, even to those who may never step forward, he said.

“For many, all they want is to be validated, for the last 20, 30 or 40 years they’ve been thinking it was something they did, maybe something they instigated,” Marker said.

Now they realize they are not the only one, they are not alone, he said.

“They need to know they were just a warm body. If it hadn’t been them, then it would have been someone else,” Marker told The Tribune-Democrat. “Those who needed to hear Baker’s name in this reference are hearing it.”

A Catholic directory lists Baker as spending 2000-2003 at the rural Hollidaysburg monastery and 2003-2010 at St. Joseph Friary, two miles away. He is not listed in any of the dioceses monasteries beyond that time.

It was recently learned that Baker volunteered as a baseball scorekeeper at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson from 2007 through the first part of the 2011 baseball season.

There have been no allegations raised regarding Baker while he served in that volunteer capacity.

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