After years of investigation and heartbreak, report detailing ‘horrendous’ allegations against clergy is released

Maryland Matters [Takoma Park MD]

April 6, 2023

By William F. Zorzi

Hours turned into days, turned into years, as the victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of clergy in the Baltimore Catholic Archdiocese slowly came forward, detailing horrific offenses that had been heaped upon them.

Threats with guns, rapes over and again, torture with ropes, chains, handcuffs, paddles and hot wax. Touching, grabbing, groping. God’s name was invoked, victims were blamed, complaints were ignored, childhoods were stolen, all trust was shattered.

In the end, few, if any, in the archdiocesan hierarchy seemed to escape without complicity, turning out predators to act again, moving offenders from parish to parish.

Some of the more egregious offenses came to light in recent years, adjudicated in the public courts when the justice system could no longer turn a blind eye. But with the release of a yearslong investigative report Wednesday, what once seemed extraordinary became horribly ordinary as clergy with names familiar to the current Catholic community were tied to abuse.

A redacted 463-page report titled “Attorney General’s Report on Child Sexual Abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore” lists 156 members of the clergy — priests, brothers, deacons and nuns — as abusers. More than 600 children are known to have been abused by the clergy listed in the report, though investigators expect that number to likely be far higher.

Once the Maryland Attorney General’s investigation began in the summer of 2018, the litany of offenses that started as a trickle quickly poured in on the office’s e-mail and telephone hotlines. Hundreds of victims were interviewed, hundreds of thousands of church documents dating to the 1940s were subpoenaed by a grand jury and reviewed, coverups were revealed.

It was relentless.

“It was an emotional job. You can’t hear about someone talking about being raped as a child and what it’s done to their life and not feel the pain of what humanity is capable of,” said Elizabeth M. Embry, the special assistant attorney general who headed the grand jury investigation into the Baltimore Archdiocese and wrote much of the report.

“It was a heavy load, but I wasn’t sorry to be doing it. I felt it was important work,” said Embry, a former city prosecutor and one-time chief of the attorney general’s Criminal Division. At the same time, she said, “I was constantly reminded that it was the victims who were the ones with pain.”

Embry, now a Democrat representing Baltimore City in the House of Delegates, sat in on every interview of the victims, hundreds of at-times wrenching conversations. She credited Richard J. “Rich” Wolf, a former FBI agent who is now a criminal investigator for the attorney general’s office, as being key to the probe, the principal who sat in with her on most of those interviews.

Those conversations were difficult for “the survivors who experienced all of the pain and agony of having to talk about it and relive it,” but she conceded, “it was emotional for us, as well.”

Embry left the criminal division in 2018 to run for lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by then-Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D). After an unsuccessful primary election in late spring that year, then-Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) brought her back to the office to head up the probe of the archdiocese.

“She’s an outstanding criminal lawyer, she’s smart as hell, and she is dogged when she has assignment,” said Frosh, a former legislator and two-term attorney general. “I mean, if I could have picked anybody, I would have picked Elizabeth. She happened to be available.”

Frosh initiated the investigation and saw it through its completion in November 2022, before leaving office Jan. 3.

In the beginning, he said, “it was a combination of things” that sparked the Maryland inquiry, including the release in August 2018 of a scathing report by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) on a grand jury investigation into child sex abuse by Catholic priests in six dioceses of the commonwealth.

The report by Shapiro, now Pennsylvania governor, showed that the late Cardinal William Keeler, the long-time archbishop of Baltimore, had engaged in covering up sexual abuse.

“The fact that the Pennsylvania report … mentioned Maryland officials in the church and priests, and not in a good light, and the fact that victims were coming to us …  all of those things in combination made it absolutely clear that we needed to do something,” Frosh said.

What his office’s investigators learned as they probed the archdiocese shocked him.

“It’s just horrendous, horrendous stuff. It made my hair stand on end. And, and on top of that horrendous conduct … even if you didn’t have independent verification, it would be impossible for the hierarchy of the Church not to know about it,” Frosh said.

“And, in fact, when you read through the report, it becomes clear that they did know about it, and that they were doing everything they could to protect the priests, and not so much to protect the parishioners,” the former attorney general said.

In releasing the report Wednesday, Attorney General Anthony G. Brown (D), said it “illustrates the depraved, systemic failure of the Archdiocese to protect the most vulnerable – the children it was charged to keep safe.”

“Based on hundreds of thousands of documents and untold stories from hundreds of survivors, it provides, for the first time in the history of this state, a public accounting of more than 60 years of abuse and cover-up,” Brown said. “Time and again, the Archdiocese chose to safeguard the institution and avoid scandal instead of protecting the children in its care. This report shines a light on this overwhelming tragedy, and it was the courage of the survivors that made it possible.”

Brown made it clear that he would continue to press for release of the entire unredacted report, currently subtitled “Interim Public Release (April 2023) Redacted by Order of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.”

He also said investigations are continuing into the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Wilmington, both of which have parishes, churches and schools in parts of Maryland.

In a prepared statement, The Most Rev. William E. Lori, Baltimore’s Archbishop, offered “my most earnest apology on behalf of the Archdiocese.”

“Today’s report from the Maryland attorney general is first and foremost a sad and painful reminder of the tremendous harm caused to innocent children and young people by some ministers of the Church,” Lori said. “The detailed accounts of abuse are shocking and soul searing.”

Lori said the report “details a reprehensible time in the history of this Archdiocese, a time that will not be covered up, ignored or forgotten.”

The archbishop went on to assert that changes have taken place in the Church, including child protection policies, but said that “does not excuse past failings that have led to the lasting spiritual, psychological and emotional harm victim-survivors have endured.”

Patterns of abuse

The report is the culmination of four years’ investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy and its coverup by leaders in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which encompasses Baltimore City and nine counties in Central and Western Maryland.

Making up the bulk of the report are detailed allegations against the 156 clergy members. The names of 10 were redacted under orders of a Baltimore Circuit judge because they were not known to be dead and were not previously identified as “credibly accused” by the Baltimore Archdiocese, according to a footnote in the report.

An appendix also includes a list of 43 priests who had served in some capacity in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but who committed sexual abuse outside of Maryland.

Certain parishes had multiple abusers, the report stated. St. Mark Parish in Catonsville had eleven child abusers living and working there from 1964 to 2004. Four parishes had six abusers: St. Michael-Overlea in Baltimore; St. Patrick in Cumberland; St. Mary in Cumberland; and St. Clement in Lansdowne. Three parishes had five abusers: St. Thomas More in Baltimore; Our Lady of Victory in Baltimore County; and St. Clare Parish in Essex.

And there was plenty of blame to go around.

“Even in some of the rare instances when sexual abuse was prosecuted, the judicial system and the press colluded with the Church to avoid transparency and accountability,” the report stated. “In 1958, Father Gerald Tragesser was prosecuted for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl. In letters to fellow priests, Archbishop Keough pointedly referred to one of the victim’s parents as a ‘non-Catholic’ and criticized them for ‘violently pressing charges and demanding a public trial.’ Archbishop Keough reported that, with the help of ‘some excellent Catholic laymen,’ the case was resolved privately in the chambers of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. When the victim’s mother tried to expose the abuse through the press, Archbishop Keough wrote that ‘prolonged and extremely careful negotiations’ and the ‘happy influence of a highly placed newspaper man’ prevented the story from being printed.”

A Father Gerald Tragesser could not be found in public files, but a Rev. Gerard G. Trageser was a priest in Baltimore County at the time, assigned to the Immaculate Heart of Mary parish, records showed. In June 1958, Father Trageser was reassigned to St. Clare Church in Essex.

Judge John B. Gontrum was then chief judge of the Baltimore County Circuit Court; it is unclear who the newspaperman was.

Push for public release

The report was completed in November 2022, and Frosh petitioned the Baltimore City Circuit Court to have it released to the public — a proposal the Archdiocese of Baltimore supported. The report relied on grand jury proceedings, which are secret under Maryland law unless a judge rules otherwise.

Shortly thereafter, however, Gregg Bernstein, once Baltimore state’s attorney, asked the court to have all court proceedings related to the report, including its release, remain confidential. Bernstein, who was being paid by the Church, said that he was representing an anonymous group of people named in the report but not accused of sexual abuse.

One judge in the case sealed the proceedings and ruled against release of the report. The case, however, was transferred as a matter of routine to another judge, who ordered some names, titles and other identifying information redacted from the report before its release. After his most recent review, the judge ordered additional redactions and some other text rewritten to avoid identifying people not accused of sexual abuse.

Child Victims Act passes legislature

The release of the report on Wednesday came just as state lawmakers passed a bill that would lift the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits in child sex abuse cases.

The Maryland Senate suspended its rules so lawmakers could take a final vote on a bill by Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), himself a victim of childhood sexual abuse.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the Senate companion to Wilson’s legislation, said he thought it was important to pass the House bill on the same day the attorney general’s report came out, because without Wilson, the legislative push would never have happened.

Wilson “has demonstrated courage the likes of which I’ve never seen in politics before,” Smith said.

Wilson called the vote “serendipity,” but he also had a message for lawmakers who challenged and voted against the bill he has championed as a survivor of child sexual abuse for the past several years.

“I hope they have the courage to read the report and just see who they’re protecting…and take their heads out of the sand,” Wilson said. “The victims came, they begged, they testified and for years they were ignored. I hope these individuals that have left [and] are no longer here and…have the courage to at least read this damn report.”

In addition to lifting statutory deadlines for filing cases, the bill passed this year would cap liability for governments and school boards at $890,000 and increase the liability limit to $1.5 million for claims against private institutions for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.

After agreeing to suspend its rules to vote on the same legislation twice in a single floor session, the Senate voted 42-4 to pass Wilson’s bill.

“I think this is the right response on the right day, which is going to be a painful day for very many,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said after the vote. “And so if this adds some small glimmer … of justice for folks who have been victimized previously, then we will have done our job.

Gov. Wes Moore (D) said later in the day that he was committed to signing the legislation.

“Delegate Wilson’s courage is so profound,” Moore said. “The reason we are here is because he and so many of the other victims have been so transparent, have been so forthright, and have, frankly, exposed their pain to all of us, that is then making our society better.”

He said the attorney general’s report was “a very unneeded reminder why this bill is so important.”

The governor went on to praise the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General with respect to its child abuse investigation and report.

“I applaud them for bringing this to a completion,” he said. “I know as difficult as it is for all of us to read it, because you know the human pain that its foundation is built upon, … I can imagine how difficult it was to write it.”

Wilson offered advice for survivors who are still afraid to tell their stories publicly. Simply put: “in your time.”

“I know how hard it is. I know how damaging it is. I know that it doesn’t get better. People think that it’s a relief to finally talk about it. It’s the opposite. It’s embarrassing. It never gets better. It only gets worse,” he said. “But it’s important because sometimes when you step forward, you motivate other people to step forward. And you remind everyone that they’re not alone.”

William Ford, Danielle E. Gaines and Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.