“Attorneys representing two Franciscan friars facing child endangerment and criminal conspiracy charges have asked Blair County Court to bar evidence at their forthcoming jury trial about settlements with individuals who reported being molested by a fellow friar.
If a jury hears about settlements or payments to the victims of Brother Stephen Baker, the danger of an improper conviction will prevail, attorneys Robert Ridge and Charles Porter argue in pre-trial motions filed recently at the courthouse on behalf of friars Robert J. D’Aversa and Anthony J. Criscitelli.
D’Aversa and Criscitelli were administrators for Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular, Hollidaysburg, between 1994 and 2010, when Baker was assigned to work at Bishop McCort High School as a religion teacher, athletic trainer and vocations director.
After abuse allegations against Baker became public, Baker committed suicide in 2013 at St. Bernadine’s Monastery in Hollidaysburg.
In 2014, it was announced that an $8 million settlement, paid by the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, the Franciscan friary and Bishop McCort, would be divided among 88 victims who said they were abused by Baker.
“While Father D’Aversa certainly acknowledges and sympathizes with the suffering by all victims of child sexual abuse, this court should exclude all evidence of the consequences of the alleged abuse perpetuated by Baker,” Ridge wrote in his pre-trial motion.
In addition to settlements and payments, Ridge also wants a judge to exclude evidence about consequences that the victims attributed to having been abused by Baker, such as emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, suicidal and other suffering.
“Numerous individuals have alleged that Baker abused them at various times and in various places,” Ridge wrote in his motion. “Baker, however, is not on trial.”
In answering the defense attorney requests, Senior Deputy Attorney General Daniel J. Dye has advised the court that he intends to restrict trial evidence to the defendants’ actions or inactions as they relate to Baker or complaints about Baker.
Dye acknowledged evidence and records relating to other “similarly accused friars, priests or members of the Third Order Regular.” And while that can be excluded, Dye said he intends to introduce Baker’s “misconduct” or “bad acts” because “it is part and parcel of the course of criminal conduct.”
Certain historical evidence about Baker’s abuse of children will help prove that D’Aversa and Criscitelli, by allowing Baker to remain at Bishop McCort High School and at other locations within the community, placed children in circumstances “that could threaten their physical and psychological welfare,” Dye advised the court.
But that argument lacks a critical link, defense attorney James Krause advised the court in a document filed Thursday, because there’s no evidence of an awareness.
“Without evidence that Father Criscitelli knew of Baker’s past conduct, (that past conduct) is not relevant,” Kraus said.
Legal arguments in the case will be reviewed by Senior Judge Jolene G. Kopriva who handled related matters through December when she retired from the Blair County bench.
Kopriva, who agreed to retain this case as part of her work as a senior judge, scheduled a pre-trial conference for April 4 and is likely to rule on the legal questions before the April 30 jury selection date. The trial is scheduled for May 7-18.
In preparation for trial, attorneys were asked to submit questions they intend to ask potential jurors.
In addition to typical questions about knowledge of the case and familiarity with those involved, Krause has proposed asking jurors about their knowledge of sexual abuse within the Catholic church or another religious organization.
Krause also proposed that potential jurors be asked if they have seen a movie called “Spotlight” or the documentary series, “The Keepers.”
“Spotlight,” released in 2015, tells the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into child sexual abuse by local priests. “The Keepers,” a 2017 mini-series available with a Netflix subscription, details the story of an unsolved murder of a Baltimore nun who may have suspected several priests of sexually abusing minors.
If those questions are permitted, jurors with positive responses will likely be asked if such exposure would affect their ability to render a fair and impartial verdict.”