JOHNSTOWN, Pa. - In what appears to be the first case of its kind, state prosecutors Tuesday charged three former leaders of a Pennsylvania-based religious order with conspiracy and endangerment for not removing a cleric who sexually abused scores of children over decades.
A grand jury report said each of the Franciscan supervisors - the Revs. Giles A. Schinelli, Robert J. D'Aversa, and Anthony M. Criscitelli - had known about the trail of victims Brother Stephen Baker left in multiple states, but did little to halt it or protect the schools or communities he served. Baker, suspected of sexually abusing more than 100 minors over at least two decades, killed himself in 2013 as the claims began trickling out.
"These men turned a blind eye to the innocent children they were trusted to protect," Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane said at a news conference. "Their silence resulted in immeasurable pain and suffering for so many victims."
The charges were the second prong of a two-year investigation by Kane's office into clergy sex abuse in central Pennsylvania. A grand jury report released two weeks ago said 50 abusive priests in the eight-county Altoona-Johnstown Diocese harmed children for decades with no recrimination from its leaders.
But Baker wasn't under diocesan supervision, and the wide reach of his order - it served schools and communities in multiple states - helped him elude scrutiny the way some diocesan priests could not. The prosecution of his former Franciscan supervisors marks what investigators called the first criminal strike into the hierarchy of a U.S.-based religious order over abuse by one of its members.
"This is rare," said Massachusetts lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 48 of Baker's alleged victims, and praised Kane's office for bringing the case.
Each of the defendants had acted as minister provincial of the order's Immaculate Conception Province, which is based in Hollidaysburg, and serves schools and communities in several states. All are now retired.
Baker was 20 when he joined the order in 1970. He worked at parishes and schools in Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan before being transferred in 1992 to Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown.
According to the report, Schinelli assigned Baker to the school despite knowing he had been accused of sexual abuse in 1988 in Missouri. Baker was given a post teaching religion and working as an equipment manager for McCort's football team.
D'Aversa, who had succeeded Schinelli as provincial, removed Baker from the school in 2000 after learning about another credible assault allegation, the report said. But he allowed the friar to remain in the area, attend high school functions, and serve as "vocations director" for the order, which included hosting teens on retreats, the report said.
Criscitelli, who took over as the province leader in 2010, allegedly allowed Baker to work at a shopping mall despite knowing the friar was the subject of a "safety plan" by the order that suggested he not have contact with minors.
During his years in central Pennsylvania, Baker sexually assaulted scores of children, grand jurors said, and the provincials "engaged in efforts to protect the image and reputation of the Franciscan Friars rather than act in the best interests of the children served by their organization to whom they owed a duty of care."
The three accused priests are retired and live out of state but will travel to Pennsylvania for court appearances in the coming days, Kane said. Each faces up to seven years in prison.
Attorneys for each did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday. The Franciscan order released a statement saying it had cooperated with investigators, and also apologizing and expressing sadness.
In early 2013, as reports emerged that his order had settled claims with 11 Ohio victims, Baker, then 62, killed himself by plunging two knives into his chest. He left behind multiple suicide notes, including one apologizing for bringing scandal to his order and another "wondering why an alleged victim or victims took so long to report," according to the presentment.
In late 2014, his order settled claims filed by 80 Pennsylvania accusers.
Baker was the focus of the investigation, but the grand jury report also outlined information about the order's handling of other suspected abusers.
One, it said, was the Rev. Cletus Adams, a now-deceased Franciscan who had been the subject of decades-old abuse allegations in South Dakota. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, Adams asked for permission to teach piano lessons to children.
According to the report, Schinelli discussed that request with Charles J. Chaput, who at the time was bishop of the Rapid City Diocese and has since become the leader of Philadelphia's archdiocese. The report does not detail their conversation or correspondence.
Schinelli ultimately denied Adams' request, the report said, and wrote to Chaput: "I recognize any inconvenience this may have caused and know how difficult these cases are and how very important it is for all of us to proceed carefully and deliberately for the good of the Church and God's people."
Asked Tuesday about the reference, a spokesman for Chaput noted that "at no time was Father Adams under the direct supervision" of Chaput while he was a South Dakota bishop. The spokesman, Kenneth Gavin, also said that since his arrival in Philadelphia, Chaput has "recommitted the local church to doing all it can to support survivors on their path toward healing, and to create parish and school environments to protect our young people and keep them from harm."
At her news conference Tuesday, Kane said a clergy sex-abuse hotline established after the first Altoona grand jury report has logged 215 calls in about two weeks. She said the investigation was ongoing, and reflected progress in uncovering decades of abuse. "The light is shining in," she said.
Daniel Dye, a deputy attorney general and lead prosecutor, said he and his team were determined to make the case stick.
"We're going to be with this all the way," Dye said. "We're going to see it through to the end."
Staff writer Caitlin McCabe contributed to this article.