HARRISBURG, Pa., March 15 (UPI) -- Three leaders of a Catholic-based religious order in Pennsylvania face felony conspiracy charges for allegedly allowing a friar -- an accused child predator -- to continue his work and molest numerous additional children in the course of his duties, authorities said Tuesday.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed the charges against the leaders of the Franciscan Friars, Third Order Regulars -- identified as Giles A. Schinelli, 73; Robert J. D'Aversa, 69; and Anthony M. Criscitelli, 61.
All three were aware of the sexual abuse allegations against Brother Stephen Baker, but did nothing about it, prosecutors said following a two-year investigation into the matter -- after which a grand jury recommended charges against the three men.
"These men knew there was a child predator in their organization. Yet they continued to put him in positions where he had countless opportunities to prey upon children," Kane said. "Their silence resulted in immeasurable pain and suffering for so many victims. These men turned a blind eye to the innocent children they were trusted to protect."
Kane's office charged each of the three with conspiracy to endanger children because none of them ever notified police. However, they did allow Baker to continue as a friar in the church -- and keep his position as an athletic trainer at a local high school, where officials say he routinely made students undress and gave them massages.
"They were more concerned with protecting the image of the order and more concerned with being in touch with lawyers than with the flock that they served," Kane said at a news conference Tuesday.
The ordeal marks the first time a Roman Catholic-based order has been formally charged with aiding an abuser. Authorities say Baker sexually assaulted more than 100 children.
Baker stabbed himself to death in 2013, about two weeks after dozens of former students moved to start legal action against him.
Tuesday's charges follow a blistering report by a grand jury earlier this month that detailed many of the abuses. The report also stated that sex abuse allegations involved at least 50 of the order's priests over a period of four decades at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
"The heinous crimes these children endured are absolutely unconscionable," Kane said at the time. "These predators desecrated a sacred trust and preyed upon their victims in the very places where they should have felt most safe.
"Just as troubling is the cover-up perpetrated by clergy leaders that allowed this abuse to continue for decades," she added.
No charges were ever filed against most of the other alleged culprits, officials said, because the statute of limitations in their cases had expired.
Despite a recommendation from church officials to keep Baker away from children, authorities say the order's minister provincial from 1986 to 1994 nonetheless assigned him to work at a school where regular contact with children would be an essential part of his job.
"They knew who he was, and yet they put him in a place where he was like a kid in a candy store," Richard M. Serbin, a lawyer who has represented 88 victims of the friar's abuse, said.
Officials said the very next minister provincial, from 1994 to 2002, temporarily removed Baker from his assignment at the school -- but placed him in charge of recruiting young men. Baker was later reassigned to the high school, where police believe additional abuses occurred.
The minister provincial between 2002 and 2010 also allowed Baker direct access to children, investigators added, even though he was aware of the "no contact" order.
"The evidence shows the organization's leaders acted callously when dealing with members accused of sexual abuse," Kane said. "No reports were ever made to law enforcement. As the grand jury found, the ultimate priority was to avoid public scrutiny at all costs."