Prosecutors say Pennsylvania church leaders hid sex abuse

PA AG: 2 Bishops Hid Sex Abuse Over 40 Years
PA AG: 2 Bishops Hid Sex Abuse Over 40 Years

HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa., April 14 (Reuters) - Pennsylvania prosecutors on Thursday presented church records and a witness they said showed that three former leaders of a Roman Catholic order endangered hundreds of boys by putting them in contact with a cleric they knew was a sexual predator.

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The three Franciscan friars, Giles Schinelli, 73, Robert D'Aversa, 69, and Anthony Criscitelli, 61, face felony charges of endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy by enabling the sexual predations of Brother Stephen Baker, a member of their order who committed suicide in 2013.

The first witness, a 30-year-old man identified only as Witness #1, described how Baker molested him repeatedly beginning at age 13 and continued through high school and college. He said he remembered complaining only once.

"He was yelling and screaming," the witness said at a hearing intended to establish whether prosecutors have enough evidence to make the three friars face trial. "He was a big guy."

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The witness, a former student athlete at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, said that Baker, who was working as an athletic trainer, would put him on a table in the guise of a massage and then fondle his genitals.

Prosecutors also showed a series of letters and meeting minutes they said showed each of the three defendants knew Baker was an active pedophile but continued to assign him to jobs where he had contact with adolescents.

D'Aversa, according to documents introduced by Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye, removed Baker from the athletic trainer job because of an abuse allegation but assigned him to recruit young men to the Franciscan order.

The three priests appeared in court in black religious garb and white clerical collars. They sat quietly behind their attorneys, occasionally looking down at the floor.

If Magisterial District Judge Paula Agnier rules that the state has established a case, they will then go to trial in Blair County Court of Common Pleas.

Reports that priests had sexually abused children and that they routinely covered up their actions first burst onto world stage on 2002 in Boston and subsequent reports found similar patterns in many other countries and parts of the United States. The scandal has damaged the Catholic Church worldwide, eroding its moral authority and requiring costly legal settlements.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed charges against the three last month after releasing a grand jury report detailing decades of sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. (Reporting by David DeKok; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)