Baltimore judge orders proceedings to remain secret around Catholic clergy abuse report

The Baltimore Banner [Baltimore MD]

December 22, 2022

By Tim Prudente and Julie Scharper

Citing state and federal rules that protect grand jury materials, a Baltimore judge ordered proceedings to remain secret in the legal effort to release an investigation into the history of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church of Baltimore.

Circuit Judge Anthony Vittoria on Thursday denied two appeals from survivors of priest sexual abuse who sought to have the proceedings opened up.

At issue wasn’t the 456-page investigation itself; a decision is still pending on whether the report will be disclosed. Rather, the judge ruled the litigation around the release of the report will remain confidential. Those proceedings have played out behind closed doors so far.

“Pursuant to the well-settled law set forth above, the Court finds that the State’s Motion to Disclose 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. Accordingly, this matter must remain sealed at this time,” Circuit Judge Anthony Vittoria wrote.

Thursday’s order upholds the judge’s decision from two weeks ago to seal the arguments in the case. The secrecy continues to frustrate survivors of priest sexual abuse and their attorneys.

“The law indicates that this ought to be an open proceeding,” said Kurt Wolfgang, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center. “As we said in our motion, secrecy in court proceedings rails against the sense of fair play in the general public.”

Wolfgang had filed one of the motions to unseal the proceedings on behalf of his clients, Jean Hargadon Wehner and Teresa Lancaster, who say they were raped and tortured by a priest while students at the now-shuttered Archbishop Keough High School in the 1960s and ’70s.

Wehner and Lancaster were featured in the 2017 Netflix documentary series, “The Keepers,” which delved into the allegations against Father Joseph Maskell, who served as the chaplain and school psychologist at Keough. The archdiocese has paid $1.1 million to 23 people who say they were victimized by Maskell.

Wolfgang said he was considering another appeal of Vittoria’s ruling. He said the prolonged process to obtain the the report and the closed-door proceedings troubled his clients.

“Secrecy has been part of the problem all along,” he said.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office spent years investigating the church and writing the report. The office also sought to have the proceedings opened up.Sign Up for AlertsGet notified of need-to-know
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The judge’s order marks another win for attorneys Gregg Bernstein and William Murphy, who wanted the proceedings to remain secret. The two attorneys represent some people named in the report, but not accused of sexual abuse. These people have not been publicly identified, but want an opportunity to correct omissions or errors in the report. The archdiocese is paying their legal fees.

Bernstein said he could not comment Thursday.

Investigators told the courts they identified 158 priests, most of them already known, within the archdiocese accused of the “sexual abuse” and “physical torture” of more than 600 children and young adults in the past 80 years.

The attorney general’s office asked the courts last month to release the full report. The investigation was conducted through a grand jury, and state law keeps grand jury materials confidential without a court order.

An online biography for Vittoria lists him as a member of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore.