WYPR - National Public Radio [Baltimore MD]
March 13, 2023
By Scott Maucione
Survivors of alleged sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore say they are bracing for the release of a 456-page long report from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office that details a pattern of abuse in the church over the last 80 years.
The report implicates 158 priests and details the abuse of more than 600 children and young adults during that period.
Baltimore City Circuit Judge Robert K. Taylor Jr., who is overseeing the report on the Baltimore Archdiocese, gave attorneys until Monday to redact names from the report. Once he reviews the redactions the report will be made public.
Jean Hargadon Wehner, who went to a Catholic high school in Baltimore in the 1960s, says she is one of those 600 victims.
Hargadon Wehner alleges that Father Joseph Maskell, who died in 2001 at the age of 62, abused her throughout her teenage years.
“He raped me,” she said. “He put a dog collar around my neck with a leash. And I was paddled until I barked.”
At one point, Hargadon Wehner says, Maskell took the bullets out of a gun and held it to her temple.
“I can still hear the click of the trigger,” she said. “And he said, ‘If your father ever finds out you’ve been whoring around, he’ll do this, but he’ll keep bullets in it.’”
Brian Frosh, the former Maryland Attorney General who oversaw the grand jury investigation into the church, says some people who have been allegedly abused lived with fear, guilt and anxiety.
“What we heard from survivors was that the abuse changed their lives, it marked them for life,” Frosh said.
Often it takes years for people to come to terms with their abuse. A study by the medical journalBMC Public Health says the average age of a victim reporting sexual abuse is 52 years old.
That far exceeds the statute of limitations in some states to bring criminal charges and goes past the limitations in Maryland and many other states to file a lawsuit for civil damages.
“You have to look back to the culture in the 1960s and 1970s, which really didn’t encourage these folks to come forward,” Frosh said. “In fact, many of them when they did come forward, were smacked back down.”
Frosh said those people deserve to have a day in court where they can file suit against their abusers or the organizations harboring them.
Officials at the Archdiocese declined to be interviewed for this story, but Baltimore Archbishop William Lori acknowledged its role in the sexual abuse of children.
“I extend once again my deepest apologies for the abuse suffered upon them by clergy and others whose sinful and criminal acts so badly damaged them,” Lori said in aYouTube video last November. “The church failed to hold abusers accountable for their sinful and criminal behavior.”
The Maryland Catholic Conference, a religiously affiliated public policy group in Annapolis, said it supports legislation erasing the civil statute of limitations for sex crimes.
Maryland’s grand jury probe is one of a handful of recent state investigations into the Catholic Church.
New Mexico isfinishing up its own probe and in 2018, Pennsylvanialooked into six dioceses and archdioceses in the commonwealth.
That investigation implicated more than 300 priests and detailed the abuse of more than 1,000 children and young adults.
The report led to new laws in Pennsylvania that got rid of the civil statute of limitations and made the failure to report sex abuse a felony crime.
David Lorenz, the Maryland director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, says the reports are a way for victims to grieve and to hold the Church accountable.
“It’s a growing body of evidence for a national scourge,” Lorenz said. “This Catholic Church has a habit of underreporting the number of priests and are not changing the way they do their work.”
Maryland currently has legislation working its way through the House and Senate that will abolish the civil statute of limitations.
States like Ohio and Washington are considering doing the same.
Four of Maryland’s state attorney generals are also pushing legislation that will strengthen laws prosecuting people in authority positions who abuse children.
However, Jennifer Wortham, chair of the Global Collaborative, a network of child advocacy organizations, says civil suit limitations are only one part of the puzzle. The decentralized nature of the nearly two hundred dioceses and archdiocese in the United States makes the reporting and prosecution of child sex abuse complicated.
“We need significant reform and we could have uniform federal laws to protect children everywhere,” Wortham said. “This applies to Catholics and also applies to other not-for-profit organizations.”
Wortham said better federal reporting requirements will also help keep track of where abuse is happening.