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HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A hearing is beginning in the case of three Franciscan friars who purportedly allowed a known homosexual abuser to have access to minors.
Five witnesses testified Thursday in the case against Giles Schinelli, Robert D'Aversa and Anthony Criscitelli, the three former provincial ministers of Franciscan Friars, Third Order Regulars, Province of the Immaculate Conception in western Pennsylvania. The trio are charged with permitting Br. Stephen Baker to work with children despite known allegations of abuse, resulting in the molestation of potentially over 100 minors, the vast majority being post-pubescent males.
The first testimony came from Jessica Eger, a special agent with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Criminal Investigation, who asserted that all three friars knew of the allegations against Baker as early as 1977. According to Eger, Giles Schinelli, the first of the three to head the province, assigned the brother to Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown in 1992 in spite of accusations of abuse and a private admission from Schinelli himself that Baker should not have "one-on-one" contact with children.
While at the high school, Baker managed to become the school athletic trainer despite having no experience or training, and used the position to molest male high school students, including giving massages to high school males "so they could run faster," Eger stated.
Schinelli's successor, Robert D'Aversa, pulled Baker out of Bishop McCort in 2000 and clandestinely removed him from active ministry after the provincial minister was presented with a "credible allegation" of molestation; however, D'Aversa failed to divulge to school officials and law enforcement why the brother had been reassigned.
D'Aversa instead appointed Baker to be the provincial "vocations director," which entailed leading overnight youth retreats all across the country, including at the St. Bernardine Monastery, Baker's place of residence. D'Aversa additionally permitted the brother to continue attending high school events and retain his access to the school's facilities.
Under Anthony Criscitelli, who followed D'Aversa in 2002, Baker was assigned a position at the Friars' Store, a Catholic gift shop in a local mall, where he continued to have unsupervised access to children.
In 2013, the Church in Pennsylvania announced it would be settling lawsuits brought forth by 11 of Baker's alleged victims from his time at Bishop McCort; the announcement resulted in an additional 25 claims of sexual abuse at Baker's hands. Weeks later, Br. Baker committed suicide at St. Bernardine Monastery in Hollidaysburg by driving two knives into his heart.
A state grand jury report commissioned to investigate abuse within the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, in which the Province of the Immaculate Conception resides, concluded Baker had sexually abused more than 100 minors under the leadership of Schinelli, D'Aversa and Criscitelli.
The second witness to testify was a former Bishop McCort student who claimed Baker had regularly molested him while an athlete at the high school. Additionally, the witness, now 30 years old, claims Baker would assault him on car trips and in the monastery; any objections to the abuse would spur rage from the brother.
"Well, he just got angry. He just put all his weight on you. He was a big dude, a big guy," the alleged abuse victim explained.
Prior to the hearing the legal representation for the three friars petitioned the judge to drop the charges based on an expired statute of limitations, but the judge denied the request, declining to rule until all testimonies had been heard. The attorneys for the three men then argued their clients had done all they could with regard to the disputable allegations against Baker.
For their involvement in Baker's criminal activity, Schinelli, D'Aversa and Criscitelli have each been formally charged with endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children, all third-degree felonies.
The hearing is scheduled to resume April 27.