By Ashley Luthern
For the third time in almost three years, the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown is pledging transparency and again reassuring the public that it is “taking every possible action” to protect children from sexual abuse.
But those promises are increasingly being met with skepticism from victim advocates, such as the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Bishop George V. Murry had a Thursday news conference to address recent reports that 11 men settled out of court as a result of sexual abuse perpetrated by Franciscan Brother Stephen P. Baker, who worked at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren from 1986 to 1991 but was never a member of the clergy.
He is a member of the Franciscan Third Order Regular, and victims said the abuse most often occurred in an athletic training room where Brother Baker would find excuses to massage athletes and would sometimes massage their genitals.
The bishop said the diocese was first alerted about the Brother Baker case in 2009 when the victims’ attorney sent a letter requesting information about the students’ transcripts and indicated there was “a possibility of an abuse claim.”
The allegations relating to Brother Baker did not surface during public discussions in 2010 and 2011 when two clergy members in the diocese resigned after allegations of sexual abuse.
“I think the issue there is credibility. There’s a difference between an allegation and credible allegation. With Father [John] Warner, there was a credible allegation. With Father [Thomas] Crum, we had allegation and an admission,” the bishop said.
“At the time of the Warner case, all we had from the Warren JFK people was a letter asking for transcripts and a vague statement from the attorneys. So at that point, we didn’t know if it was credible allegation,” he said in an interview.
In October 2011, Father John Warner, 69, resigned as pastor of Sts. Philip and James Parish in Canal Fulton after an allegation that inappropriate touching occurred more than 30 years ago at St. Edward Parish in Youngstown.
The year before, Father Crum, who taught at Cardinal Mooney High School, was defrocked after he was accused of sexual abuse at the school, where he was assigned from 1975-77. Crum served in the diocese from 1975 to 2009.
Judy Jones, SNAP’s Midwest associate director, said Bishop Murry is “not being open and transparent.”
“Why does he have to wait until SNAP or even the victims of this Brother Baker, or their attorney, to make this public? Why wouldn’t he do that right away? They had been working on it for years. He’s known about it for a long time,” Jones said.
Bishop Murry said as the diocese received the details of the allegations, the organization’s attorneys followed procedure and reported them to civil authorities. The diocese’s Child Protection Policy is available online at www.doy.org.
“Our attorneys wanted us to get all the details before we moved forward with that. Again, it’s a matter of trying to respect the individuals involved but also not jumping the gun and saying something which could be damaging to a case or worrisome to a victim until we have all the ducks in a row,” he said in the news conference.
The bishop said although the diocese did not have legal liability in the case, “in order to promote healing” representatives met with the Franciscans to participate in the mediation process with the victims and their counsel.
The Franciscans covered 70 percent of the total monetary settlement — said to be five figures per victim — and the diocese contributed the remaining 30 percent.
Bishop Murry said in an interview that the diocese scoured all available records relating to Brother Baker and found nothing.
“There’s always a haunting sense of questioning of could we have done more?” he said. “... In the records, there’s absolutely nothing said about Brother Baker, so either no one at JFK at the time noticed the problem, or if they did notice, they didn’t say anything.”
During the news conference, Bishop Murry said he has not been contacted by two victims who notified SNAP this week that they were abused by someone still working in the diocese.
“I can tell you that there are no credibly accused priests in ministry nor any credibly accused employees working for the Diocese of Youngstown,” he said, encouraging those who have suffered abuse to come forward to civil authorities and the church.
Jones said she is in contact with the victims and they assured her that they have gone to the diocese.
“They are being ignored and not being listened to, and they’re worried the predators — who they are saying abused them when they were young — are still working with kids there,” she said when contacted afterward.
Jones said there is no way to independently verify how many victims have gone to the diocese.
“I just know of victims who have communicated with me. What else is he hiding?” Jones said.
She encouraged any victims to come forward and contact law enforcement, no matter when the abuse occurred, so that it is on the record. Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains also encouraged victims to contact the police agency within the jurisdiction where the alleged act occurred.
“It’s where the crime occurred — that’s the office that would handle any investigation and prosecution. We cannot just initiate a grand jury investigation. We need a victim and then we have a police investigation and then [police] will testify as will the victim. We need a victim,” Gains said.