Ex-pol, others allege sex-abuse horrors by Baltimore priests before historic suit

New York Post [New York, NY]

May 9, 2023

By Jesse O'Neill

A former Maryland state senator and two other men have detailed their harrowing accusations of childhood sex abuse by Baltimore-area priests to The Post — as their lawyers prepared Tuesday to unveil a planned historic class-action lawsuit against the archdiocese.

The expected legal action comes on the heels of a bombshell April report by Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown that listed 156 priests suspected of abusing more than 600 children in the past eight decades — and a recent reversal on the statute of limitations that had prevented such lawsuits.

One of the men’s lawyers, Adam Slater, said the estimate of roughly 600 victims noted in the AG’s report is just the “tip of the iceberg,” and his partner in the upcoming civil suit, prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, added there are an “astonishing” additional number of people who have suffered in silence from priest abuse.

For most of his life, Marc Floto, 62, a self-employed business owner, was one of those tortured souls.

Raised as a “devout Catholic” who attended Catholic school and served as an altar boy for six years, Floto said his entire life was turned upside down when he was repeatedly abused for four years by the same man he once exalted — Father James Dowdy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who is listed as an abuser in the AG report.

“We’d go in [to a church area] changing into the gowns and the altar boy outfits, and the priest would have wine, and he’d serve me wine in the back, and of course one thing led to another,” Floto recounted before being overwhelmed with emotion as he detailed the alleged abuse, which began when he was only 10 years old.

“I guess you could say it started out with … a touching thing and escalated from there. I was just very … not understanding what was going on. I didn’t know. I knew it was wrong in my mind, but I didn’t know how to handle the situation with somebody you’re supposed to trust,” he said.

Unable to talk to his religious family about the priest who was supposed to protect him, Floto said he took up weightlifting as a teen so he could fight off any other predators, while spending decades languishing in despair over what happened to him.

“That’s when my aggression started getting very noticed to my family, where I was getting very angry and mad … acting out so much towards my family and hatred towards my family and fighting everybody,” Floto said.

“I couldn’t control it. I was screaming on the inside and acting it out differently on the outside.”

Former Maryland state Sen. Tim Ferguson, 68, said he also was an altar boy who was once “pretty much committed to becoming a priest” — before a man of the cloth he admired and trusted molested him.

Ferguson, a Republican who is the third-oldest in an Irish Catholic family of eight kids, said he was abused by a priest at his Middle River, Md., church who grew close to boys in the neighborhood and would take them to do things such as fishing and get ice cream.

One night, when Ferguson was about 13, the priest invited him to fish at his waterfront home on a Chesapeake Bay tributary for the weekend, Ferguson said.

“When it came to dinner time, he actually just started plastering me with beers. Pabst Blue Ribbon beer,” the former lawmaker recounted.

“When it came time to go to bed, he said, ‘I don’t have a spare room, it’s being renovated, you can’t use it, but you can sleep in my bed.’

“When I was in the bed with him, that’s when he, you know, reached over, began to fondle me and just do things that … I was so scared. I just pretended that I was asleep while he did his thing. And then he was finished, he rolled over and went to sleep, and I stayed wide awake for the rest of the night,” Ferguson said.

Many abusers used the same disgusting ploy to “disproportionately” target the city’s poverty-stricken black families because they made “particularly vulnerable targets,” Crump said.

“These were church leaders who were offering things as a Trojan horse. Priests … groomed victims for abuse, offering them opportunities their parents couldn’t otherwise afford,” Crump explained.

That sickening scenario was encapsulated in the case of James, a 51-year-old man who talked to The Post under a pseudonym over the phone.

James did not grow up Catholic but became friendly with a priest who had come into his tough all-black Baltimore neighborhood of Hanlon Park under the guise of “mentoring” James’ cousin.

“My cousin … he basically did not have a mom, his mom was strung out on, she was a heroin addict at the time,” James said.

“He never knew his father, he was bouncing from house to house, and he had met Father Bob Newman, and as a result of that, he [Newman] had started to basically become … almost like a father figure to my cousin,” James said of the priest.

“I would see this white man with, you know, this black and white collar. I knew what it was … I knew that he was a Catholic priest,” James said of Newman, who is also on the AG’s abuser list.

Soon James was joining his cousin and “Father Bob” on trips to go fishing, hiking and play basketball on well-kept suburban courts — an intoxicating world away from the cut-up milk cartons he would nail to abandoned boards to play basketball with in Baltimore.

One night when he was about 11, James and some other boys were at a sleepover at the priest’s house when another kid pulled him aside to warn him that something wasn’t right, he said.

“He was like, ‘I seen him with his hands down your pants last night. … He was touching on you, he a f—-t.’

“I was like, ‘Don’t say nothing like that.’ I’m vehemently defending this monster who I did not know at the time was a monster,” James said of the incident, which he slept through.

The young man couldn’t bring himself to believe it was true and continued to attend the sleepovers, brushing off other rumors of impropriety until they could no longer be ignored.

“One night he had walked in the room. It had to be 3 in the morning. I was knocked-out asleep, but I was awakened by him with his hand down my pants,” James said.

“On my penis.

“It remains one of the landmark moments of my life because I was so confused. I was so afraid,” James said.

“When I woke up and realized what was going on, what I did was I just shifted from my back and turned over on my stomach as if I was … just turning over in my sleep.”

Both Ferguson and James said they were scared to tell their fathers about the abuse because they thought their dads would literally “kill” the priests and go to jail. But James and the other children at his sleepover did tell a mother in the community.

The woman brought the accusation to church officials, who she hoped would tell the police, and even solicited a tearful confession from Newman, James recalled.

But church officials did not call the cops, James said.

“Newman was never charged with a crime relating to his admitted sexual abuse of children,” the AG’s report said, adding, “The accusations described in this Report do not constitute findings of guilt.”

Newman was fired from the Baltimore Archdiocese and sent to a Connecticut psychiatric hospital known for the treatment of pedophiles by his religious order before being hired by the Archdiocese of Hartford in 1990. He resigned in disgrace in 2002 after his abuse was revealed, according to the Baltimore Sun.

State prosecutors said he had admitted to abusing at least 12 boys between the ages of 9 and 15 over the course of at least 15 years. Many of the crimes happened at his house, officials say.

Dowdy admitted to several instances of abusing children, but misconduct claims were never raised until 1991, decades after his alleged encounter with Floto, according to the AG’s report.

He was placed on administrative leave in 1993 and prohibited from performing ministerial services and was listed as “credibly accused by the Archdiocese in 2002,” according to prosecutors.

When reached by phone by The Post on Tuesday morning, Dowdy said he had “never heard of” Floto.

“I’m sorry, I can’t comment on someone I have no idea who you are talking about,” he said.

Newman could not immediately be reached by The Post.

The victims processed their ordeals in different ways, but all knew that after decades of silence and repression, they had no choice but to come forward and tell their tales in the hopes of helping others.

Floto suffered multiple mental breakdowns before gaining the courage to tell his wife about the abuse and eventually the rest of the surviving members of his family several years ago.

Things were so grim before that that at one point, Floto was “happy” when his wife suffered a miscarriage.

“I know it sounds terrible, but I didn’t want to have children because I didn’t know if I could protect them,” he said.

Eventually the couple had a son, and the victim found peace by telling his surviving loved ones why he was always so troubled.

“This has lifted a lot of weight off my shoulders by coming forward. I felt so much anger for so many years,” he said.

“I gotta get this out,” he said through tears. “I just want to help somebody else. If I can help somebody else to be able to release their pain, somebody young…,” he continued before trailing off.

Ferguson said the abuse had likely caused intimacy and attachment issues during his three failed marriages.

“I can only assume that’s because my first sexual experience was with a priest against my will,” he said.

“I’m not qualified to speak clinically, but I’m sure it messed me up for many decades.”

The former GOP pol, who is now a registered Democrat who works as a federal consultant for the firm Booz Allen Hamilton, said the experience did help shape his public service in Annapolis, where he served as a lawmaker from 1995 to 2003 and crafted a measure called “Christopher’s Law,” which sends pedophiles to prison for life without parole after a second offense.

After the abuse, Ferguson became a practicing Protestant.

“Staying close to God helped me deal with what happened when I was younger. And I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said.

“I don’t know how young men who’ve gone through what I’ve gone through and even worse and they didn’t have anybody or anything,” said Ferguson, who added he’s “forgiven” his now-deceased abuser, whom he declined to name.

“I’ve got some scars but … I’ve did pretty good with the cards I was dealt with.”

He said he hopes he can inspire other victims to come forward.

“It’s got nothing to do with litigation or compensation or damages, I just thought, there’s got to be a lot of people out there who are still really messed up because of what happened, and if they hear a former state senator say … ‘It’s not your fault …,’ ” he said.

“There’s a lot of people right now who are probably in the boat where there’s no way they are going to reach out to anybody, they’re too ashamed. But they have to, to get better.”

Lawyers in the case said that although money will not right the sins of the diocese, it will hold church officials accountable. The archdiocese will be named as the defendant in the suit.

“We will be seeking the most amount of dollars that the law allows us to compensate these people for a life of suffering,” said Slater, of Slater Slater Schulman LLP, a lead negotiator in the recent record-setting $2.4 billion Boy Scouts of America sex abuse settlement.

“Here, the damages, the lifelong damages, are in somebody’s head, and they just suffer constantly, and it’s not like a bone that can repair,” the lawyer said.

For Crump, who has represented the families of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the case is deeply personal.

“I’m a product of a strong religious background, as many people are, especially in the black community. And, I’m a man of faith, so I think about how much I trusted and depended on my church leaders in my life,” he said.

“It is just the worst kind of injustice you can imagine.”

In April, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore signed a bill that ended the state’s statute of limitations on when child sexual abuse lawsuits can be filed against institutions. Crump and Slater said they would file on behalf of hundreds of anticipated clients October 1, when the measure takes effect.

Similar laws have recently been passed in states such as New York and California, and measures are pending in other large states, too, including Pennsylvania.

The Baltimore Archdiocese has said it has paid more than $13.2 million for care and compensation for 301 abuse victims since the 1980s.

Church officials did not respond to a request for comment or an interview from The Post.

When asked what they would say to their abusers, the victims did not mince words.

“I would like to say to [Newman] that what he did was such a horrific crime that he caused damage that is irrevocable,” James said.

“We trusted him. As a man of the cloth, as a God-fearing man, to protect us, to be a mentor to us, to be a … figure of guidance to us. And he completely violated that trust in every way. Not only did he violate that trust, but he violated it in the worst way by sexually abusing us.

“It was as horrible of a crime that you could commit to a child, doing something like that. But, when you couple that with the fact that the archdiocese covered this man’s crimes … you ask yourself, ‘What was worse, the crime or the cover-up?’”

With Associated Press