ALTOONA, Pa. — Two Franciscan friars who served as superiors of their community in Pennsylvania have pleaded guilty to charges of endangering children, for allowing a friar suspected of sexual abuse to continue to work with children.
Father Robert D’Aversa, 70, and Father Anthony Criscitelli, 63, were each charged with first-degree misdemeanors for their role in assigning Brother Stephen Baker to positions in which he had access to children, even after several credible accusations of abuse were brought against him.
The friars belong to the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which has undergone a recent investigation for the cover-up of past sexual abuse.
In 2016, a grand jury released a “staggering and sobering” report on years of reported abuse and cover-up within the diocese, affecting hundreds of victims. Most alleged offenders have either died or have been unable to be criminally charged, due to most cases having passed the statute of limitations.
Brother Stephen was working at a local Catholic high school, Bishop McCort, from 1992 to 2000, during which time the bulk of his sexual abuse reportedly occurred. Father D’Aversa, who was provincial in 2000, transferred Brother Stephen to another assignment after having learned of a credible accusation against Brother Stephen, but did not disclose the reason for the transfer.
Father Criscitelli succeeded Father D’Aversa as provincial and assigned Brother Stephen to other positions where he would have access to children, despite knowing that Brother Stephen had several credible accusations against him as a sexual predator.
“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,” Josh Shapiro, attorney general of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “They chose time and time again to prioritize their institution’s reputation over the safety of victims. I won’t stand for that in any institution, and any person who fails to protect and safeguard children in their care will answer to me.”
This case is the first time members of a religious order have been sentenced for the cover-up of clerical abuse in the state of Pennsylvania. Shapiro told a local newspaper that the convictions of the friars will send a message that “(enablers) will be held accountable for covering up rampant sexual abuse of children.”
Fathers D’Aversa and Criscitelli were both sentenced to five years’ probation and $1,000 fines each, plus court fees.
Brother Stephen reportedly committed suicide in 2013 by stabbing himself in the heart when abuse allegations against him were made public. He had been accused of abusing victims in Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota, in addition to Pennsylvania.
Accusations of child endangerment were also brought against a third friar, Father Anthony “Giles” A. Schinelli, for assisting in the cover-up of Brother Stephen’s abuse, but the charges were dropped because the statute of limitations had been reached. Settlements have been reached with more than 90 of Brother Stephen’s Bishop McCort High School victims.
In January 2018, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown created an Office of Child and Youth Protection, which “is responsible for implementing and overseeing the full diocesan response to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and compliance with the law.”
The charter, implemented in 2002, obligates all compliant dioceses and eparchies to provide resources both for victims of abuse and resources for abuse prevention. Each year, the USCCB releases an extensive annual report on the dioceses and eparchies, including an audit of all abuse cases and allegations, and recommended policy guidelines for dioceses.