Prosecutors aided Baltimore archdiocese in hiding abuse by priests in Anne Arundel and across state, report shows

Capital Gazette [Parole MD]

April 21, 2023

By Luke Parker

In 1985, completing a church-directed evaluation, a doctor described Father William Q. Simms as being attracted to the “innocence, gracefulness and liveliness” of young boys around him.

Though parents had voiced their concerns about “some unusual behavior,” as the Archdiocese of Baltimore phrased it before ordering treatment, health care providers at the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring stopped short of calling Simms a pedophile.

Instead, in one sentence, they stated the priest was never, “in fact or fantasy,” aroused by children. In the next, they described Simms being brought to orgasm at the touch of a child’s arm or leg.

Simms was diagnosed with an unclassified sexual disorder and removed from his priestly duties at St. Andrew by the Bay Parish in Cape St. Claire. That is, Baltimore Archbishop William Borders wrote, until he could prove he had returned to “good health.” He would go on to work in parishes and diocesan leadership roles for another 20 years.

Simms was named earlier this month by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office in its report on child sex abuse and torture within the Baltimore archdiocese. He is one of at least 21 accused clergy members with connections to Anne Arundel County.

The nearly two dozen men were pastors, school chaplains and administrators who served every corner of the county — some for only a few months, others for more than a decade.

The expansive report, which recounts abuse across nearly a century by more than 150 church officials, offers a granular look at the steps Baltimore’s Catholic leaders took to protect its members and its reputation. Whenever possible, the church forced silence and scurried around responsibility.

A few months after Simms’ evaluation at St. Luke, church attorneys called an Anne Arundel County prosecutor and negotiated an immunity deal. “No matter how serious” the allegations, the priest wouldn’t see a courtroom as a defendant so long as he cooperated with law enforcement about the assaults he had committed, according to the attorney general’s report.

Agreeing not to indict Simms, who had been banned from a faith-based summer camp years before he was ordained in 1962, the unnamed assistant state’s attorney wrote that they believed the church would take “appropriate action.”

However, in the coming decades, as church officials interviewed more than 40 families from Cape St. Claire and stories of abuse continued to come to light, actors on behalf of the archdiocese would intimidate victims and downplay the torture. In 1997, when prosecutors in Baltimore County began considering charges of their own against Simms, the archdiocese pointed to its arrangement with Anne Arundel.

The conduct described in the report represents an “unforgivable” breach of trust by church officials, said Fred Paone, a retired Anne Arundel County prosecutor of 38 years and a former Annapolis alderman.

“These are organizations that you’re supposed to be able to go to for help,” Paone said, “and not only in a number of cases did they not help, they, if anything, made it worse. That’s what makes me angry and what I think makes a lot of people angry in general.”

Paone, who was raised Catholic and remains faithful, said agreements like the Simms deal were “extremely uncommon.”However, he said “there were some…[but] not many” minor crimes in which prosecutors would consider the involved institutions when determining “which prosecutions were for the public good.”

If a midshipman got into a fight, for example, the state’s attorney’s office would weigh the expected punishment of the Naval Academy as a factor to see whether “the ends of justice would be satisfied,” Paone said.

The former prosecutor said he was shocked by the arrangement made for Simms.

Most often, the church managed to evade scandal internally. Its leaders dismissed accusations and failed to investigate complaints. When an allegation was impossible to ignore, or an abuser admitted to what they had done, the church sent them away for treatment before reinstating them to a position of power elsewhere.

In the rare instances sexual abuse was brought to authorities, diocesan officials relied on their revered place in their communities to avoid accountability and preserve the church’s reputation. In some cases, like Simms, they wooed prosecutors. In others, detectives tipped off their own investigations. And at times, local media agreed to look the other way.

Simms, in what counted as “good health,” spent a year assigned to Cumberland and nearly two decades in the Baltimore Tribunal. His career survived two lawsuits, totaling $485,000 in settlements, and his criminal case in Baltimore County was eventually placed on the stet, or inactive docket. He died in 2005.

Since November, when the attorney general’s report was completed, the archdiocese has repeatedly said that for the last 30 years, its reporting policies have been “committed to the treatment and healing” of those harmed by their clergy members.

Archdiocese spokesperson Christian Kendzierski told The Capital in an email that attorneys who work with the church today are “important partners in seeking truth and transparency, reporting all allegations to government authorities and law enforcement, supporting survivors of abuse, and protecting children.”

Throughout the 80-year span it covered, starting in the 1940s, the attorney general’s report highlighted the church’s persistent attempts to cover up the behavior of its priests, often refusing to acknowledge allegations “for as long as possible.”

As a clergyman, Deacon Leo O’Hara’s only assignments were in Baltimore. Throughout his life, however, he lived in Glen Burnie, Brooklyn, and Linthicum, according to public records.

Admitting he had “homosexual tendencies” a year after he resigned in 1980, O’Hara wrote in a letter to a diocesan official that he would “never again even think of asking to serve the church in any position.”

Several years later, in 1987, the former deacon was placed under investigation for molesting children in Anne Arundel County and was even charged with 16 sexual offenses in Ocean City. Though the disposition of the latter case is “unclear,” per the report, Anne Arundel prosecutors stopped pursuing O’Hara because they couldn’t identify any specific victims.

During that investigation, O’Hara admitted to abusing more than 100 children since 1953, according to a 2004 memo cited in the report.

There is no evidence the church, which was first made aware of accusations against the deacon shortly after his resignation, cooperated with or offered to help the Anne Arundel investigation. And the 2023 report was the first time O’Hara was publicly listed as a credibly accused member of the archdiocese — one of at least 36 never before identified as a possible abuser. He died in 2004.

These delays in reporting were not uncommon. Though Father Marion Helowicz had already pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor sex offense five years earlier, in 1993, when a third victim accused him of abuse in a Severna Park church, the archdiocese did not report it to Anne Arundel prosecutors until 2002.

Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess acknowledged that prosecuting priests who are still alive would be difficult, but said her office was reviewing the report and allegations against local church leaders, including Simms and O’Hara. Five of the 21 priests with Anne Arundel County connections are still alive. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.

In attempt to keep a case out of court, church officials often promised families that a problem priest would be removed, sent to treatment and, more or less, no longer be a part of their lives. Though, in hindsight, these promises were designed in the interests of the archdiocese over the victims, Leitess said she understood why families would choose “the path that is a little less difficult” than prosecution.

“When we are examining these cases, we believe the victim,” Leitess said. “We know that they are telling us something that happened. Proving it in court may be a different matter.”

Whatever judicial review may come, years of ignoring or stifling accountability created “exponential damage” for youth who are already unlikely to report their own exploitation, said Gayle Cicero, an assistant clinical professor at Loyola University who specializes in supporting children after traumatic events.

According to CHILD USA, a national think tank dedicated to child protection and civil statute reform, on average, victims are 52 years old when they first report their abuse.

Cicero, who previously served as the director of student services at Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said there are several fears that drive children away from speaking up. Beyond the trauma of the abuse, they may feel awkward about their bodies or struggle to articulate their experiences and emotions, Cicero said.

When the abuser is a respected or trusted adult, the child may feel powerless, like they wouldn’t be believed or, worse yet, they would be punished for saying something.

The attorney general’s report includes several examples of priests manipulating their victims into silence. They would say the abuse was “God’s will,” claim no one would doubt the word of a priest, and tell the children they would “go to hell” if they spoke up.

Cicero said these silencing factors are compounded when the resources of an institution become and remain involved.

“The issue isn’t that individuals compromised other individuals. That’s part of the story,” Cicero said. “The bigger issue is that the system not only failed to take appropriate action, but they hid things that potentially hurt so many more children. I don’t think that is going to be tolerated again in this world. I hope not.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Alex Mann contributed to this story.