Baltimore archdiocese is funding attorneys seeking to seal abuse proceedings

Washington Post

November 29, 2022

By Fredrick Kunkle and Michelle Boorstein

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a group was seeking to seal Maryland’s report on clergy sexual abuse. It is seeking to seal the proceedings around the report. The article has been corrected.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore confirmed Tuesday that it is helping pay the legal expenses of an anonymous group of people seeking to seal the proceedings around a report by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office on clergy sexual abuse of minors.

Christian Kendzierski, an archdiocese spokesman, reiterated that the church is not seeking to suppress a 456-page report by the office of Attorney General Brian E. Frosh. But, Kendzierski said, the church has unspecified obligations to a group of individuals who are named in the attorney general’s report but are not accused of sexual abuse and who have argued that their side should be heard before the report is made public.

“We stated last week we are supporting some of the individuals,” Kendzierski said, referring to a lengthy statement the archdiocese issued Nov. 22. In it, the archdiocese said it “may” be paying some of the legal fees. The Baltimore Sunfirst confirmed Monday that the archdiocese was footing some of the bill.

The report, according to a court filing earlier this month, followed a nearly four-year investigation and tallied more than 600 young victims and 158 abusive priests over 80 years in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Forty-three of those priests previously had not been identified in public.

Dioceses’ ways of organizing such lists vary. Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said the archdiocese’s own list of 152 accused clergy “does not include the names of priests or brothers who died before a single accusation of child abuse was received, unless the allegation could be corroborated by a third party or unless a second allegation was made against the same deceased cleric.”

The group of individuals seeking to seal proceedings around the report, and potentially the report itself — represented by attorneys William J. Murphy and Gregg L. Bernstein — have also asked the Circuit Court for Baltimore City to air their concerns and reveal their identities only in closed proceedings.

Frosh’s office suggested that the church’s financial backing of the litigants was more self-serving than the archdiocese was letting on.

“It’s clear that they are paying to oppose the release of the report,” spokeswoman Raquel Coombs said.

The archdiocese has cooperated with Frosh’s office since January 2019, turning over more than 100,000 pages of documents. Earlier this month, Frosh went to court seeking permission to release a public report on the findings of his investigation, which is based on confidential grand jury proceedings.

Bernstein, who did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment, has worked with Lori and other local clergy in the past.

In 2002, Bernstein represented a former Catholic priest “who faced claims of wrongdoing after admitting a decade earlier to sexually abusing six children.”

In 2018, he led a team picked by Lori to investigate Michael J. Bransfield, a former West Virginia bishop who used his position to engage in sexual and financial abuses. The investigation found that Bransfield gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to fellow clergymen, among them Lori, and the West Virginia diocese reimbursed him to cover the gifts.

Bernstein’s team removed Lori’s name from the report at his request. The archbishop said he would return the money Bransfield gave him and, he asked that it be donated to Catholic Charities.

Earlier this month, Lori was elected by his fellow bishops to be vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for the next three years.

Cate Brown contributed to this report.

By Fredrick Kunkle

Fredrick Kunkle is a reporter on the Metro desk. He has written about transportation, politics, courts, police, and local government in Maryland and Virginia.  Twitter

By Michelle Boorstein

Michelle Boorstein has been a religion reporter since 2006. She has covered the shifting blend of religion and politics under four U.S. presidents, chronicled the rise of secularism in the United States, and broken financial and sexual scandals from the synagogue down the street to the Mormon Church in Utah to the Vatican.  Twitter