‘No church was safe’ for hundreds of Maryland clergy abuse victims

The Maryland Attorney General has identified more than 600 young victims of clergy sex abuse over the course of 80 years in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, according to a court document filed Thursday.

The filing, which broadly outlines the attorney general’s findings, is asking a judge to allow the release of the full report: a 456-page document detailing decades of clergy sex abuse in Maryland.

The new report marks a symbolic milestone in the long-running international abuse scandal that has shaken faith in the Catholic Church and led to some billions of dollars in reforms and settlements. The Baltimore report is one of the first major investigations conducted by a state attorney general into sexual abuse in the church since a damning report on six Pennsylvania dioceses shocked Catholics across the country in 2018. Colorado investigators released their own report on church abuse in 2019.

More than 20 attorney generals have launched investigations, most of which are still ongoing.

Baltimore is the first Catholic diocese established in the United States and is led by an influential Archbishop, William E. Lori, who was elected vice president of the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference this week.

The level of abuse described is consistent with other large cases of abuse uncovered in court cases and other investigations in dioceses in Boston, Los Angeles, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

The Maryland report found that “no community was safe,” according to Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office filing. Both boys and girls were abused, ranging in age from preschool through “young adulthood,” which a spokeswoman for the attorney general said was as young as 18.

The filing said the archdiocese failed to report many allegations of “sexual abuse and physical torture” and failed to remove accused priests from active ministry or even limit their access to children. Some parishes and schools there had more than one abusive priest at one time. “The sexual abuse was so pervasive that victims sometimes reported the sexual abuse to priests who were themselves perpetrators,” the filing says. A congregation was assigned 11 abusers over 40 years.

“Reading the report in its entirety has made me physically ill,” said Mr Frosh. “We may be looking at the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a very big tip.”

In a letter to church members Thursday, Archbishop Lori said: “We feel a renewed sense of shame, deep regret and heartfelt sympathy, especially for those who have suffered at the hands of Church officials in whom their spiritual and physical well-being is entrusted is. Archbishop Lori has been in office since 2012.

The report identifies 115 priests who have previously been accused of sexual abuse or publicly identified by the archdiocese. Another 43 have not yet been publicly identified. Of these newly identified priests, 30 have died, indicating that 13 newly charged priests are still alive.

Mr Frosh said many of the abuse cases would have been classified as misdemeanors at the time they were committed, meaning the statute of limitations for prosecution had expired. He said most of the claims in the report are set in the 1970s and 1980s, with some before and after.

The Maryland report is the result of a criminal investigation launched by Mr Frosh’s office in 2019. A grand jury issued a subpoena requesting all archdiocese documents over the past 80 years related to allegations of sex abuse by priests and the archdiocese’s response to the allegations.

The report requires a judge’s approval to be released because it contains material from a grand jury that is normally kept secret. A spokesman for the archdiocese said it would not oppose the request for disclosure. But it also said, “The motion filed by the Maryland Attorney General does not reflect the archdiocese’s current and decades-long strong pastoral response and handling of allegations of child sexual abuse.”

The Maryland inquiry follows a grand jury investigation into abuse in the Pennsylvania Catholic Church that lasted from 2016 to 2018 and resulted in a comprehensive 800-page report documenting widespread abuse. That report accused more than 300 priests of sexual abuse for 50 years.

David Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of SNAP, an advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse, said the importance of the Maryland report was “as great as Pennsylvania.” He pointed out that the report addresses only one of the three dioceses in the state of Maryland.

“Perhaps this is a day of reckoning for the church,” Mr. Lorenz said. He said he has received two calls since Thursday from clergy abuse victims who had not previously disclosed their abuse.

The sex abuse scandal has plagued the Catholic Church for 20 years, since The Boston Globe documented the cover-up of widespread sex abuse in Catholic settings in 2002.

The crisis has prompted legal reforms, including the expansion or suspension of many state laws limiting the statute of limitations on abuse claims. But it has resulted in relatively few prosecutions. Many cases uncovered this century happened decades ago, and the perpetrators have died or the statute of limitations has expired.