Former students allege abuse at hands of JFK?coach

BRACEVILLE – Two men who claimed they were molested by “Brother Steve” at Warren John F. Kennedy High School in the late 1980s said that they never knew when to expect the former coach to single them out.

“It wasn’t like it was every single time,” one of the men said Wednesday. “You just never knew. Sometimes you were going in for a massage or because you had an injury, and everything that day would be OK. Then there were those times it wasn’t.

”You just never really knew going into it. You just hoped this wasn’t the day it was going to go further,” he said.

The men are among a group of former JFK students who claim Stephen P. Baker sexually abused them. The men allege that Baker, a former JFK religion teacher, sports trainer and baseball coach, used his authority to manipulate and prey on his young, male students. Baker also used the student athletes’ injuries as a cover to isolate and abuse them, they said.

The men said the abuse took place from 1986 to 1990 – often on the massage table inside the JFK training room. They said that a cardboard cutout covered the window so no one could see into the room.

Baker has not been criminally charged in the matter. Now living in a monastery in Hollisdayburg, Pa., he said Wednesday that he was “flabbergasted” when he was told of the allegations.

In October, JFK, the Youngstown Diocese and the Brothers of the Third Order of St. Francis religious order settled a potential civil lawsuit with 11 students against Baker through Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian. Some of the men were between 14 and 18 when they said they were molested. They now are all between 36 and 40 years old, and many live outside the area.

Garabedian said a 12th man has since contacted him claiming he was also abused by Baker. The attorney said that initially, one of the first 11 in the settlement contacted him, and from there the attorney searched out other possible victims, sending them letters and sorting through their experiences.

The two men who spoke Wednesday during a news conference at the Holiday Inn Express in Braceville said they came forward to represent the group because of proximity.

“We still live in the area,” remarked Victim 1. “We’re the ones here.”

Because of the sensitive nature of the interview, the Tribune Chronicle has agreed to identify the men as Victim 1 and Victim 2.

“The settlement wasn’t life-changing,” Victim 1 said. “The act was. But the settlement wasn’t.”

The men, who were each members of the JFK baseball and football teams, said Baker abused them when he was helping them with their sports-related injuries. They said he also advised them that they needed massages to avoid injury, giving him additional opportunities to sexually molest them.

They said that they know of several instances in which boys would suffer through their injuries rather than be forced into a situation where they were alone with Baker.

The 40-year-old men, who remain Trumbull County residents, claim Baker abused them at school, during school events and on trips – including one during which the two of them and another boy traveled with Baker to Virginia.

“We went to his mother’s home,” Victim 2 said. “We stayed at a hotel, but we visited his mother.”

Victim 2 said that the abuse was so rampant and frequent that it was common knowledge in the halls of JFK, among their classmates and teammates.

“There were times he would come up to a couple of us and give us a big hug,” he said.

However, much of the contact took place in the high school whirlpool, also inside the training room.

“In all honesty I can’t remember the feelings when that happened,” Victim 1 said. “It was later, as I started coming to terms with some of it, that I realized the anger and the shame and everything.”

For him, it was also a matter of guilt.

“I actually went back to JFK as a coach later, in the early 90s, and he was still there at the time,” he said. “I knew what had happened to me and the other boys when we were in school. I have no doubt he was still doing it. But I didn’t do anything to stop it. I have to live with that guilt.”

The men said they were embarrassed and confused by the abuse. They said they are now sharing their experiences hoping other victims come forward.

“That’s what we want, to show other people who go through something like this that they can get past it, they can move forward,” Victim 1 said, noting the men, who were friends in high school, remain close friends now.

Victim 2 said they didn’t come forward sooner because they didn’t think that was an option.

“Nobody took that first step forward, to come forward back then, it was the way it was,” said Victim 2. “You respected your elders, your teachers, your religious leaders. You just didn’t say anything bad about them. You didn’t question them.

”You really had no options. It was the culture back then. You just didn’t react. You weren’t going to come forward and say anything … like say this Franciscan brother or this priest was molesting children.”

Franciscan Brothers are pious laymen who devote themselves to useful works, such as manual labor, schools and other educational institutions. They are also called Brothers of the Third Order of St. Francis.

Victim 1 said he believes so many of the boys were in shock for so long and couldn’t come to terms with the fact that “something like this actually happened to them at school.”

Victim 2, who still attends Mass regularly, said he doesn’t hold the church, the school or his other teachers at JFK responsible; however, Victim 1 said he does.

“As an organization as a whole, yes I do,” he said. “There’s accountability there.”

Victim 1 said he believes Baker was “caught in the act” with a student just before the Youngstown Diocese quickly transferred him to another assignment.

“They had to have known,” he said. “Enough people knew.”

Although he declined to disclose the financial terms of the settlement, Garabedian said the victims are permitted to discuss the facts of the case. He said that he and the victims consider the settlement an admission of guilt.

It was only recently that the men shared the abuse with their parents.

“They had a hard time with it,” Victim 1 said. “I think any parent that is worth being called a parent would. They still don’t know everything that transpired.”

Meanwhile, both victims said they realize that an important part of the healing process is forgiveness.

“The ramifications this has had on us is so far-reaching,” Victim 1 said. “It’s affected every area of our lives, our relationships, marriages.

“If one person can get some help out of this, knowing that they are not the only ones to go through something like this, if they can get something out of this, that’s what we want.”

The men said they believe there are many more victims out there.

“I’m on my way to forgiveness,” Victim 1 said. “It’s not easy, but it’s necessary.”