Two Pa. friars plead no contest in sexual-abuse case

Franciscans Child Sex Abuse
Anthony Criscitelli, left, and Robert D’Aversa, right, the Franciscan friars who pleaded guilty to charges of child endangerment. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

HARRISBURG — Two Franciscan friars who supervised a third friar who fatally stabbed himself in the heart while facing child-molestation allegations pleaded no contest to child endangerment charges Friday and were sentenced to five years of probation.

Prosecutors say Brother Robert J. D’Aversa, 71, of Hollidaysburg, Blair County, failed to tell officials at Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown that he reassigned the friar, Brother Stephen Baker, in 2000 because of new credible allegations about Baker’s past.

They also say Brother Anthony J. Criscitelli, 64, of Hollidaysburg, knew a safety plan was in place for Baker, but still allowed him to potentially be around children.

Former Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane brought charges against the two, along with a priest, following a March 2016 Pennsylvania grand jury report accusing bishops of ignoring or hiding decades of sexual abuse by priests and religious leaders against hundreds of children in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Messages left with attorneys for Criscitelli and D’Aversa were not immediately returned.

“These defendants knew the abuser was a serious threat to children — but they allowed him to engage with children and have access to them as part of his job within their order,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “They chose time and time again to prioritize their institution’s reputation over the safety of victims.”

Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented 86 victims of Baker in civil litigation in three states, said the two defendants knew that Baker posed a serious threat to children.

“Of course, many victims would like these Franciscan friars to be serving jail time, but the sentences are very important steps in the right direction of healing,” Garabedian said.

Baker took his own life in 2013 at the Franciscans’ St. Bernardine Monastery near Hollidaysburg after a settlement over molestation by Baker in Youngstown, Ohio, became public.

That prompted former McCort students to accuse him of sexual abuse, resulting in more than $8 million in settlements by the diocese with 88 former students.

A judge threw out the case against a third defendant last year because the statute of limitations had expired. He had stopped supervising Baker in 1994.

Baker worked at McCort from 1992 to 2001.

Garabedian called Baker a “relentless pedophile” who also victimized children while working at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Warren, Ohio, in the late 1980s and at St. Mary’s Preparatory High School in Orchard Lake, Mich.

“Baker would sexually abuse children by posing as an athletic trainer and treating them for phantom injuries,” Garabedian said. “He would insist that the child had an injury when the child didn’t, and he would treat the child by sexually abusing the child.”

D’Aversa and Criscitelli also were fined $1,000.