The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

March 10, 2013

McCort faces tough questions amid scandal

JOHNSTOWN — An application for notice of incorporation forming Friends and Family of Bishop McCort was shipped off to Harrisburg late last week, as Catholics in the area take another step toward coming to grips with what allegedly happened at one of their most sacred institutions – the place where they send their children to be educated.

Still reeling from the revelation two months ago of alleged sexual abuse by a Franciscan friar employed at Bishop McCort Catholic High School, parents, alumni and financial supporters of the school were shocked when principal and longtime school employee Ken Salem was placed on leave with pay.

The response has been swift and harsh.

The hope is that a formal organization will help the group, now several hundred strong and growing, get a response as they demand answers to why Salem was placed on leave and seek information about the makeup of the board of directors.

“Who is in charge at Bishop McCort High School? As far as we know, no one else has been suspended,” said Tim Burns.

Burns, an Ebensburg lawyer and McCort graduate, is co-organizer of the friends group, which formed Monday, three days after Salem’s suspension.

After hitting a wall with his questions, Burns said he was more optimistic in recent days after speaking to Kathleen Gallagher, the Pittsburgh attorney representing Bishop McCort.

“I’m not saying it’s in bad hands, I’m not saying it’s in good hands,” Burns said of the school. “I know a very good leader was put on leave.”

Late Friday, Gallagher forwarded a copy of the school’s bylaws to Burns.

As many as 50 former students at Bishop McCort have contacted lawyers alleging they were sexually molested by Brother Stephen Baker, a friar who worked at schools in Minnesota and Michigan before relocating to John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio, in the mid-1980s.

In 1992, Baker came to Bishop McCort as a religion teacher and as part of the athletic department. His role, according to victims, was therapeutic in nature, treating sports-related injuries with massage and use of a whirlpool.

He left in the early 2000s, but those coming forward in recent weeks said Baker, who was living among the Franciscans in the Hollidaysburg area, was seen often on the Johnstown campus around 2001 and 2002.

The first reports of sexual misconduct at Bishop McCort surfaced in early January following release of information regarding a settlement between 11 men and the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, involving Baker.

The friar, known by many students as “Bro,” died in late January of suicide at the age of 62.

Notice of civil lawsuits have been filed on behalf of nine alleged victims, with defendants named in some or all of them including the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Bishop McCort, the Franciscans and most recently Bishop Joseph Adamec, leader of the diocese during the years Baker was at Bishop McCort.

While no mention of Baker was made in last week’s announcement by the board of directors, a statement from George Bills, the Pittsburgh attorney representing Salem, spoke of Baker’s victims, after saying the friar’s actions were unknown to Salem.

Burns’ investigation supports Bills’ statement.

“I’ve met with some of Baker’s victims, and they were adamant that Ken Salem knew nothing about Brother Baker and what he did,” Burns said. “It’s the Franciscan friars and the diocese that approved putting Baker in the school.”

Salem, a 1987 graduate of Bishop McCort, has been at the school for much of his adult life in the capacity of computer science teacher, assistant principal and principal.

He also was a longtime successful member of the Crimson Crushers football coaching staff.

In July 2006, he was named high school principal – only the second lay principal in the history of the school. He remained football coach until late 2010.

One of four high schools in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Bishop McCort was long operated under the policy and control of the bishop, said Tony DeGol, secretary of communications for the diocese.

In 2008, Bishop McCort, Bishop Carroll in Ebensburg and Bishop Guilfoyle in Altoona became independent of the diocese, and while Bishop Mark L. Bartchak remains involved, it is primarily in an advisory role.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg since has opened, becoming the fourth high school in the diocese.

The Bishop McCort advisory board, appointed by the diocese, was replaced with a board of directors, a dozen people primarily with corporate backgrounds, a few medical and legal professionals and a priest.

Johnstown businessman Mark Pasquerilla has been around for a while, serving on the advisory board while it was controlled by the diocese. In 2008 he was asked by Salem to serve on the newly formed board of directors.

Pasquerilla was elected chairman of the board a few weeks ago, he told The Tribune-Democrat late last week.

“Ken Salem, he recruited the current board except for the bishop. They’re basically his board,” he said.

The school has been run pretty much by Salem, and Bartchak is relied on for what Pasquerilla termed, “faith matters.” The board is tasked with fundraising – keeping the operation financially afloat.

Citing litigation involving the Bishop McCort-Baker issue, Pasquerilla would not discuss any particulars leading up to Salem’s leave.

The Tribune-Democrat has learned the decision to put Salem on leave came on a 7-5 vote.

Meanwhile, Pasquerilla said he welcomes a dialogue with others interested in the future of the school.

“I can’t speak for the whole board, but we would be open to having more input from parents, students and donors,” he said.

The action taken against Salem is not in keeping with past practices of the Catholic Church, but is in keeping with a business/corporate approach, said a lawyer who has had an adversarial relationship with the church for 25 years.

“They’re acting in a way as they should and making decisions as a business and for the best interest of the school,” said Richard Serbin, a clergy sex abuse civil litigator. “Those at Bishop McCort failed in their responsibility to protect the children, but the Franciscans and diocese officials were more responsible than staff.”

Serbin, of Altoona, is one of the attorneys representing victims in the Baker case.

One of his biggest complaints is that diocese officials allowed Baker to act in the role of a certified athletic trainer when there is no evidence he had any training in the field.

Pennsylvania’s Medical Practice Act dates to 1985 and spells out training requirements for athletic trainers.

“All of the kids that have contacted me said they understood that’s what he was when he would “stretch them,” Serbin said.

As for the past four years of operation at Bishop McCort, Pasquerilla said the school has been highly successful.

“Things have gone as planned. We never abandoned our Catholic roots,” he said. “I think we’re the school of choice. It has been a good run for the school.”

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