PITTSBURGH – Eighty-eight former students who were sexually molested by a Franciscan friar who worked as an athletic trainer at a Catholic high school have settled their legal claims for $8 million, according to two attorneys who represent more than half the victims.
Altoona attorney Richard Serbin represents 13 former students at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, and Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian represents 33. The students said they were abused by Brother Stephen Baker, who worked at the school, 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, from 1992 to 2001.
Baker, 62, committed suicide at his monastery in Newry by stabbing himself in the heart in January 2013. That occurred nine days after the Youngstown, Ohio, diocese disclosed abuse settlements with 11 former students who said they were abused by him at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio, from 1986 to 1990.
News of those settlements prompted many of the Bishop McCort victims to come forward.
Serbin has been pursuing clergy abuse claims for nearly 30 years but said, "What's unique here is the sheer number of students that were abused."
"I've filed claims against child predators who have had multiple victims, but this certainly was a predator that was prolific, and the position he was given as an athletic trainer allowed him to have such easy access to young people," Serbin said.
Garabedian said the victims settled for amounts between $60,000 and slightly more than $120,000 each, depending on the duration of abuse, its impact on their lives and other factors, including whether their claims would have been barred by the statute of limitations.
"The settlements will help the victims gain a degree of closure and assist them in trying to heal from these terrible acts of sexual abuse," Garabedian said.
A spokesman for Bishop McCort did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment Tuesday.
The school was owned and operated by the diocese, based 85 miles east of Pittsburgh, when the abuse occurred, but it is now run by an independent board. The school's principal, who served when Baker was on the staff, resigned in June 2013 as the abuse allegations surfaced.
Altoona Bishop Mark Bartchak said in a statement: "The diocese hopes that this outcome will allow the victims to seek counseling and find the healing and comfort they deserve. We continue to pray for them and all victims of sexual abuse."
Diocesan spokesman Tony DeGol announced in August that the sale of the bishop's home was pending and that money from the nearly $1 million asking price might be used to care for sexual-misconduct victims. Bartchak, who was not targeted in the abuse claims, has moved into the rectory at Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona.
"Once again, you're dealing with dioceses and religious orders that appear to be doing the right thing but are only reacting to getting caught," Garabedian said.
The settlement also named a former Altoona bishop who headed the diocese when the abuse occurred; Baker's order, the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular, based in Loretto; and the related Province of the Immaculate Conception. The Youngstown, Ohio, diocese also participated in the settlement.
Franciscan officials didn't immediately return calls for comment. A spokesman said the Youngstown, Ohio, diocese planned to release a statement.
The settlement is believed to cover nearly all the former Bishop McCort students, nearly all males, who have alleged abuse. Garabedian said another former student had just come forward and separate legal action will be taken on his behalf.