Baltimore judge orders Catholic clergy abuse report proceedings remain secret; no decision yet on report’s release

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

December 23, 2022

By Alex Mann

The legal fight over whether to make public a comprehensive report on sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests in Maryland will continue to play out behind closed doors, a Baltimore judge ruled.

Presented with two motions from abuse victims challenging his preliminary decision to keep the proceedings secret, Circuit Judge Anthony F. Vittoria doubled down in a ruling Thursday, finding that the continued court battle was likely to reveal privileged grand jury materials.

Vittoria cited opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court and Maryland’s highest court calling grand jury confidentiality as an “integral part of our criminal justice system.” He described the legal principle as “well-settled law.”

The legal fight over the report’s release is “related to a grand jury proceeding and that pleadings about or a hearing on this initial issue, at a minimum, would reveal confidential grand jury material,” Vittoria wrote. “Accordingly, this matter must remain sealed at this time.”

His order Thursday has no bearing on whether the 456-page report authored by attorneys with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, detailing the findings of the agency’s four-year investigation into eight decades of sexual abuse by 158 priests, other clergy and laypeople in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, will be made public.

David Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he was disappointed by the judge’s ruling on motions filed by two groups of survivors, saying he believed his organization’s lawyer made clear the proceedings “should be at least partially open.”

He said the ruling jeopardized trust in the eventual decision on the report’s release and expressed concerns that Vittoria, who is a member of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore, is presiding over the matter.

“One of the major things that occurs when abuse occurs is a loss of trust — a loss of trust in an authority figure and ultimately, when you learn the priest was protected by the church, there’s loss of trust in a whole institution,” Lorenz told The Baltimore Sun.

The attorney general’s investigation and the potential release of the subsequent report provided hope, Lorenz said.

“This just yanks that back out, the idea that we can trust our system to provide justice,” he said. “The system seems to be stacked against justice for survivors because we have a Catholic judge ruling on this.”

Vittoria was assigned the case automatically because he handles all legal issues related to the grand jury in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The Baltimore Sun contacted the Maryland Judiciary requesting comment from Vittoria, but state law prohibits judges from speaking publicly about pending legal proceedings.

In November, Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office sought the court’s approval to make the report public. Frosh’s office needs a judge’s blessing to release the report because his attorneys utilized the grand jury to advance their investigation and grand jury materials are confidential by law.

A spokeswoman for Frosh’s office declined to comment Friday.

While several groups of survivors of clergy abuse in Maryland thrown their support behind making the report public, the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore has sent mixed signals. The church eventually said it would not oppose the release of the investigation’s findings but admitted to helping pay lawyers for an anonymous group of people, who are named in the attorney general’s report, but not accused of any crime, fighting to keep the document secret.

Former Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, an attorney for the anonymous group, declined to comment Friday, citing the judge’s order keeping the proceedings confidential.

Kurt Wolfgang, an attorney representing a group of clergy abuse survivors, said his clients were disappointed by Vittoria’s ruling. He said his motion cited the legal principle of a presumption of open court proceedings enshrined by the First Amendment.

“I’m not saying the judge is doing anything other than being cautious in this thing, but when secrets are being kept it’s naturally a situation where the public loses confidence in the judicial system,” Wolfgang said. “So the more open it will be the better it will be.”

Wolfgang said he is still reviewing the court cases cited in the Vittoria’s order, and that if they believe the judge erred, they will consider filing an immediate appeal.

The survivors represented by Wolfgang are part of a broader group that has criticized the church’s back-and-forth on the report’s release, and its comments on potential legislation to abolish the statute of limitations for survivor lawsuits that has appeared to gain traction ahead of the forthcoming General Assembly session.

Victims have waited on a decision on the report’s release with hope and fear.

“I’m terribly disappointed,” Lorenz said, ”and my heart goes out to all of the survivors who were hoping for a better resolution on all this.”