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Settlement talk set in friar abuse suits

on August 13, 2014 10:29 AM

HOLLIDAYSBURG (AP) — A judge has scheduled a settlement conference for civil claims by people who say a Franciscan friar molested them when he was an athletic trainer at a Johnstown Catholic high school from 1992 to 2001.

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has said it may sell its bishop’s residence to raise money to settle the cases involving Brother Stephen Baker.

Baker committed suicide in January 2013 after abuse settlements with an Ohio diocese where he formerly worked were publicized.

That has prompted dozens of former students at Bishop McCort High School to come forward with similar allegations.

The settlement conference was scheduled for today before Blair County Judge Jolene Kopriva, the Altoona Mirror first reported.

But the judge’s staff said it has been postponed until Aug. 20 because some attorneys couldn’t make the first date.

Kopriva told the newspaper that a federal judge was helping to mediate the claims — some of which have been filed, and some for which attorneys have merely filed notices that they intend to sue — and that her work is “supplementing” that mediation.

Altoona attorney Richard Serbin, an expert in clergy abuse litigation, has filed notice of seven lawsuits and told the newspaper only that settlement talks were continuing. Serbin said the court has expressed interest in helping to settle other claims, too.

Tony DeGol, a spokesman for the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, said he’s not aware of any developments, and couldn’t comment on the coming conference.

The state attorney general’s office is reviewing the allegations against Baker to determine whether school or diocesan officials properly reported any information they had about alleged abuse to law enforcement authorities.

A state law enacted the same year Baker came to the school makes it a crime for certain types of officials who supervise children not to report such information.

The school was run by the diocese until 2008 when it became independent and is now run by a board of trustees. The school’s board has said it was cooperating with the state investigation.

The 62-year-old friar committed suicide Jan. 26, 2013, at a monastery in Newry by stabbing himself in the heart.

That happened a little more than a week after the diocese in Youngstown, Ohio, disclosed financial settlements in alleged abuse cases involving 11 students at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren. That abuse allegedly occurred from 1985 to 1992, and news of those settlement have prompted more than two dozen former students at the Ohio school to file abuse claims in that state’s courts.

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