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  Archdiocese Protected Its Priests
Baltimore Church Officials Acting More Aggressively on Abuse Charges Lately

By Gail Gibson
Baltimore Sun
May 19, 2002

The decision to return the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell to parish ministry in 1993 after he was accused of repeatedly abusing a teen-age boy was not the only instance over the past decade where the church firmly backed its priests in the face of credible abuse allegations, records and interviews show.

The case of Blackwell, who was shot and wounded last week by the man who first raised the allegations against him, also was not the first in the region to end in tragic violence.

Parishioners at St. Stephen Church in Baltimore County were stunned in 1993 when the well-liked Rev. Thomas W. Smith shot and killed himself in his church office.

Only after his death did Smith's parish learn that he had admitted to archdiocese officials five years earlier that he had fondled seventh- and eighth-graders in the 1960s but was allowed to stay on as pastor after promising that the abuse had ended long ago.

Smith's is one of the most notorious cases of sexual abuse by clergy in the Baltimore area. But other cases that received little notice also raise questions about the Baltimore Archdiocese's response to the problem over the past decade, even as church leaders have adopted more aggressive reporting and suspension policies.

"They were too willing to take advantage of legal protections rather than see what was best for the kids," said Joanne L. Suder, a Baltimore attorney who has represented several victims of alleged clergy sexual abuse.

She is helping to represent Dontee D. Stokes, the 26-year-old man accused of shooting Blackwell on Monday.

In Carroll County, prosecutors who wanted to question a Westminster priest about sexual abuse allegations in the mid-1990s said the Rev. Brian Cox was sent away for counseling and a sabbatical and church officials would not disclose his whereabouts.

The investigation of a former nun's claim that she was raped in St. Ambrose Church in Baltimore was hampered in 1990 when a lawyer for the archdiocese canceled a polygraph test for the accused, the Rev. Thomas Schwind, according to prosecution records. That case was reopened this month after the woman, Rita Monahan, complained that church officials simply reassigned Schwind to another parish instead of sending him for counseling.

Until the early 1990s, attorneys for the archdiocese also routinely sought to have alleged victims who brought abuse allegations against the church publicly identified in court records. That was the case in two lawsuits involving the Rev. William Q. Simms, who was accused 20 years ago of molesting two teen-age altar boys.

Simms was back in the news last week, after Cardinal William H. Keeler asked him to retire in anticipation of a policy change by national Catholic leaders that would remove all priests found to have abused children. Simms had been removed as pastor of St. Andrew by the Bay in 1985, but after counseling he was put in an administrative job at the Archdiocesan Tribunal, a religious court.

Raymond P. Kempisty, a chancellor for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said church leaders acknowledge that there have been past mistakes. But he said they have taken pains to draw a tough line on child sexual abuse.

"In recent years, we definitely have erred on the side of reporting fully," Kempisty said. He said local policy stops just short of a "zero-tolerance" stance for alleged abusers: "The hoops to be jumped through are pretty daunting, but it does leave the door cracked open a bit."

The church's posture on sexual abuse investigations - its willingness, for instance, to make priests available for interviews or polygraph exams - is important because child sexual abuse is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute, experts say.

Such abuse is almost always committed in secret and often is reported well after it occurs. Typically, the cases boil down to credibility: a child's word against an adult's. That balance is further strained when the adult is a respected authority figure such as a priest or teacher.

As the clergy sexual abuse scandal has unfolded in recent months, dioceses across the country have been rocked by disclosures of church leaders shuttling troubled priests from parish to parish. Since January, at least 177 priests accused of molesting children have resigned or been removed from their ministries.

In Baltimore, Kempisty has said only two monetary settlements were reached in the past decade for cases in which child sexual abuse was involved. He has refused to provide details or say how many cases were settled in previous years.

At least a dozen priests in the Baltimore Archdiocese have been suspended or removed because of abuse allegations since the late 1980s. And as the sexual abuse scandal continues, new cases are being reported.

The archdiocese will not say how many reports it has received since January. But P. McEvoy Cromwell, a Baltimore attorney who chairs a review board established by the archdiocese, said his panel will review about 15 new abuse allegations when it meets next week.

Four new complaints

The Baltimore City state's attorney's office is investigating four new complaints involving the archdiocese, the most recent from 1974, a spokeswoman said. Prosecutors in Howard and Anne Arundel counties say they have no new cases referred from the archdiocese.

Since the independent advisory board was created in 1993, it has reviewed about 60 cases, most involving priests, Cromwell said. About half of those cases included strong evidence that the allegations were true, he said.

"They run the gamut from horrendous, episodic abusive conduct with multiple victims to cases of a single act of touching inappropriately," he said. "But the majority involve incidents that allegedly occurred long, long ago."

Robert L. Hanley Jr., an attorney who won an out-of-court settlement in 1993 for a young woman who claimed she was abused as a teen-ager by priest Richard G. Deakin, said past cases of abuse might never come to light because of rulings by Maryland courts. Under state law, civil suits can rarely be brought more than three years after the offense.

Landmark case

Attorneys who have dealt with the church on sexual abuse cases say the case of John Merzbacher in the mid-1990s was largely responsible for pushing the Baltimore Archdiocese to address child sexual abuse more aggressively.

Merzbacher was not a priest, but a teacher in the Catholic Community School in South Baltimore. For years in the 1970s, he molested and raped boys and girls from his eighth-grade classes, but his actions were not publicly revealed until January 1994 despite warnings from another teacher who suspected Merzbacher was having sex with his students. He is serving a life sentence for rape.

"I was absolutely disappointed the way the archdiocese handled the case, because there were actual, real warnings, and they were pushed aside," said Suder, who represented several of the students in a civil lawsuit. "But I must say that the Merzbacher case basically was the case that woke up the Catholic Church in Baltimore."

Since that case, Suder said, church officials have been far more diligent about reporting suspected abuse to prosecutors. In 1995, the Rev. Charles O. Rouse, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Brooklyn, was suspended after accusations that he had abused several minors from 1976 to 1981.

Search for victims

Church officials told parishioners about the allegations and encouraged other victims to come forward.

In late 1997, the archdiocese also publicly sought victims of the Rev. Laurence F.X. Brett, who allegedly abused several students while he was a chaplain at Calvert Hall College in Towson in the early 1970s and was removed from the school. Before coming to Baltimore, however, Brett had been assigned to a Connecticut church, where he was at the center of a $750,000 judgment against the Diocese of Bridgeport.

 
 

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