Inside the cover-ups: How the Archdiocese of Baltimore hid child sex abuse and wielded influence

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

April 8, 2023

By Lee O. Sanderlin and Jean Marbella

In 1958, a Baltimore County judge wrote a letter to the Baltimore archbishop with praise for “your great Catholic Church,” and a mention of the judge’s “extremely cordial” relationship with clergy.

That letter was in response to one sent three days earlier, in which the archbishop asked the judge to spare one of his priests, Gerald Tragesser, from jail and public shame for his molestation of a 13-year-old girl.

In the coming days, the archbishop, “through the existence of some excellent Catholic laymen,” was able to orchestrate a trial in the judge’s chambers, according to a letter he wrote to the founder of a treatment center for priests. The proceedings hidden from public view, the parties decided Tragesser would be sent to a New Mexico facility for psychological treatment. Tragesser died in 2013.

The girl’s parents, enraged, contacted a reporter at an unnamed newspaperwith the story. But the church’s influence was everywhere. With the help of the “happy influence of a highly placed newspaper man,” the archbishop wrote in another letter to the counseling center. The article was killed. The public, it was assuredly assumed, would never know.

Except now it does. That cover-up and scores of others were revealed by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office in its report on the history of widespread sexual abuse and torture of more than 600 children and young people within the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Released by the office four days before Easter, the report draws on victim interviews and hundreds of thousands of church documents to paint in detail the systemic ways high-ranking clergy and their attorneys covered up the depravity within their ranks.

“I think Holy Week is a good time for this to be released, because it is a time when we have to come to terms with a betrayal of trust, and a time when we lay this at the feet of the crucified Jesus and beg for forgiveness,” the Most. Rev William E. Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, told The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday.

The betrayal of trust Lori describes runs deep.

Diocesan officials leaned on prosecutors and police to minimize or end criminal cases. Detectives would brief them about their investigations. Prosecutors, provided with admissions of abuse, would decline to charge a priest.

When victims and their families reported the abuse to the church, the archdiocese would sometimes feign ignorance. Notes prepared before one such meeting contained advice like: “Do not talk about any other children,” and “We will deny any liability,” or “Maybe we could say we have nothing in our files.”

Should a family bring an attorney, there was a plan for that, too.

“If a lawyer is present, express surprise,” the notes read.

That criminal justice officials and local media acceded to church officials’ wishes is jarring but perhaps unsurprising, given the archdiocese’s past prominence in American Catholicism and Baltimore’s civic life. As the first diocese in the U.S., in a colony that served as a haven for Catholics escaping oppression in England, its Basilica is considered the American “mother church.” Its archbishops have long been part of the city elite, bent the ears of mayors and governors, and served on boards the way a Johns Hopkins president or T. Rowe Price CEO might.

Nonetheless, the conduct described in the report casts a pall on the justice system, said David Jaros, faculty director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

“This kind of special treatment strikes at the heart of a central pillar of our legal system — this idea that all people are treated equally, whether they be defendants or victims,” Jaros said. “Anything that suggests that a particularly party is going to be treated differently by the legal system undermines the integrity of the entire process.”

Since November, when the report was completed, the archdiocese has repeatedly stated that the church began 30 years ago to overhaul its response to allegations of sexual abuse. Archdiocese spokesman Christian Kendzierski wrote Thursday in an email to The Sun that “from the 1990s we consistently report, cooperate with civil authorities and publicize allegations.”

Asked whether the various cover-ups and concealments amounted to diocesan tactics, Kendzierski said he was “not sure” that was an “accurate” label. Instead, he said, they were “moves by individuals who were abusers and who were acting to protect themselves.”

The report said that at times during the 80-year span it covered, the church pressured victims to remain silent, hoping to avoid criminal procedures.

In March 1988, a victim with a “developmental disorder” told Baltimore County authorities that Father Marion Helowicz sexually abused him multiple times when he was around 16. The abuse often took place at St. Stephen’s Church in Kingsville, and the victim was abused several times a week.

The archdiocese initially seemed concerned about how to respond, as memorialized in notes from a conversation between individuals identified in the attorney general’s report as “Official E” and “Official C.” “Can Marion’s interview be delayed?” the notes read. “Do we need to suspend him?”

A day after police contacted the church, Official C and diocesan attorneys met with Helowicz. He admitted to molesting the boy. Despite the admission, archdiocese leadership decided to keep Helowicz in active ministry.

However, within a week Helowicz admitted to the diocese he had molested a second boy. Only then was he suspended from duty, and church officials sent him for psychological treatment.

Church officials did not tell authorities then about the second victim. When that victim approached the church about his abuse in 1990, officials again failed to disclose it to law enforcement. A third person in 1993 also told the archdiocese Helowicz abused him.

The church would not inform law enforcement about either victim until 2002.

From the time of Helowicz’s suspension until his indictment in October of 1988, “unidentified” people from the Catholic Church pressured the first victim to remain silent, contacting him on numerous occasions.

The victim did not stay silent and Helowicz pleaded guilty in 1988 to performing fellatio on him. However, Helowicz escaped punishment. A prosecutor told Judge Dana M. Levitz that the state wasn’t seeking incarceration because the boy consented to the sexual act.

“Father Helowicz has punished himself more than I can. The question is, where do we go from here?” Levitz said in court. The judge ordered Helowicz to perform 200 hours of community service. He was not required to register as a sex offender.

Contrary to what the prosecutor described in the case of the first victim, the teenager did not agree to the sex act. Lori, the current Baltimore archbishop, wrote in his 2017 request to defrock Helowicz that the abuse “was committed by force … since [the victim] did not possess the mental faculty to consent freely to Father Helowicz’s abusive actions.”
Helowicz, 77, did not return a phone call requesting a comment for this article.

The 1958 exchange of letters between Archbishop Francis Patrick Keough and Baltimore County Circuit Court Chief Judge John Gontrum, showing how they arranged for a secret trial, is one of several cases in the report in which the criminal justice system appeared complicit in the cover-ups.

While the acknowledgment of the public’s constitutional right to attend judicial proceedings has been acknowledged by various courts through the decades and is largely a matter of settled law, legal scholars say there may have been some gray areas in the 1950s allowing for the secret proceeding Keough described, regardless of the ethical implications.

In February 1993, a Catholic Charities counselor reported to police and the archdiocese that Father Kenneth Farabaugh raped her in 1985 when she was 15 and a student at The John Carroll School in Bel Air and he was a teacher, according to the report. The victim declined to give her name to the church. But when diocesan officials interviewed Farabaugh in August of that year, he immediately identified her while denying the abuse.

A month later, an unnamed attorney for the archdiocese contacted the victim, and, after speaking briefly, the victim withdrew her allegation and refused to cooperate. The archdiocese allowed Farabaugh, who had moved to St. Ignatius in Forest Hill, to keep working without disclosing the allegations to his parish.

The victim told another priest in 1998 about what happened. However, the church said it was unable to make contact with her and Farabaugh remained in his position.

In March 2000, the victim, now represented by an attorney, requested the content of any investigation by the church into Farabaugh. In July of that year, the church finally reported the abuse to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. However, church records show a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office kept top diocesan officials in the loop about the probe, at one point telling a person identified in the report as “Official A” that the investigation “is not looking real good” because “the victim has some problems.”

The investigation continued, and on Dec. 12, 2000, the sheriff’s office had a polygraph test scheduled for Farabaugh at 9 a.m. He didn’t make it. Ten minutes before he was slated to take the test, Farabaugh crashed his car into a tree and died.

The church did not disclose Farabaugh was under investigation at the time of his death and Cardinal William Keeler celebrated Farabaugh’s funeral Mass, along with more than 20 white-robed priests, according to The Sun’s coverage.

On some occasions when the archdiocese reported information to law enforcement, officials appeared to withhold key facts.

Father Robert Newman admitted in February 1987 to his superiors that he had abused 12 boys more than 100 times, according to the report, but a police report from that year “reflects only one instance of fondling one boy.”

“This stands in stark contrast to the detailed information that the archdiocese possessed,” the attorney general’s report said. “There is no indication that the archdiocese shared with law enforcement the full scope of Newman’s admitted conduct.”

Newman was never charged with a crime. The police report states Newman received an “exceptional clearance” from the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, on the condition that he get treatment. The FBI says cases are closed, without charges, by exceptional clearance under certain criteria, like when a suspect dies or a victim won’t cooperate.

A church leader identified in the attorney general’s report as “Official E,” wrote that the state’s attorney’s office was not inclined to prosecute and that the head of the sex crimes unit told Official E that she saw “the value of trying to keep a man like [Newman] in ministry.” The Sun was unable to locate contact information for Newman, 75.

Kurt Schmoke was Baltimore state’s attorney at the time, and reached by phone Thursday, Schmoke told The Sun he had never heard of Newman’s case and would not have unless there was a decision to press charges.

“If there was going to be a prosecution of a current minister, someone would have brought that to my attention — as in, if the decision was to proceed, that would have been brought to my attention,” Schmoke said.

Schmoke said there could be a number of reasons beyond the church exerting influence as to why a case against a pedophile priest is not brought and that child sex abuse cases are among the hardest to prosecute.

Asked broadly about the influence of the church in Baltimore during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Schmoke, who was the top prosecutor from 1982 to 1987, said: “I never had a leader of the church, an archbishop or Cardinal Keeler or anyone at that level contact me when I was state’s attorney about a case.” Schmoke went on to serve as mayor and is now president of the University of Baltimore.

For Ralph Moore, 70, a lifelong Baltimore Catholic, reading in the attorney general’s office how church officials protected abusive priests was disturbing, but not surprising. Given the power the archdiocese traditionally wielded in town, he said, he could see how those in the wider community might bend to the will of church officials.

“I think they bought into the thing that these are special people, they have their own institutions, their own way of taking care of things,” said Moore, a longtime activist and columnist for The Baltimore Afro-American. “Maybe some are Catholics themselves, and there was disbelief and even embarrassment.”

He was disappointed to see in the report that people like Shehan, who were told of priests abusing children, and failing to report them to authorities or to help the victims. Moore was an altar boy, and remembers Shehan washing his feet during a Holy Thursday ritual.

The attorney general’s office interviewed Father John Carney in January 2019, and he admitted to abusing a 10-year-old child in the 1970s while at Our Lady of Victory in Baltimore County. But, Carney said, “Cardinal Lawrence Shehan had advised him not to talk about it.”

The report also notes Shehan and other church officials were aware of early concerns about Father A. Joseph Maskell, the chaplain of Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore who would be accused by multiple students of abuse, and they simply transferred him to another location.

Moore said he believes the church’s power is waning, with church pews ever emptier and the continuing damage from sex abuse scandals, and that perhaps current officials would not be as successful picking up the phone and protecting a priest from prosecution.

“My experience growing up, priests acted holier than thou,” he said. “They can’t pretend that anymore. This is a new day.”