Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]
May 22, 2023
By Lee O. Sanderlin
Archdiocese of Baltimore officials, particularly Archbishop William Lori, have responded in recent weeks to a report by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church with interviews, an FAQ and messages to parishioners across Central and Western Maryland.
After a similar report was published in 2018 by the Pennsylvania attorney general into church abuse in that state, Maryland’s attorney general started an investigation here. It ran four years, culminating in November in a 463-page document that detailed how clergy, nuns and teachers tormented more than 600 children and young adults in the archdiocese, dating back to the 1940s. The report was released publicly April 5.
The Baltimore Sun fact-checked the archdiocese’s talking points about the findings of the report and church officials’ responses to survivors of abuse, the media and elected officials.
Cooperation with investigators
What the archdiocese says: The FAQ about the report on the archdiocese’s website says the following: “During the four-year investigation, the Archdiocese cooperated fully, including by providing hundreds of thousands of pages of requested documents and responding to numerous requests for information in conversations with investigators.” In letters to the half-million Catholic faithful residing in the archdiocese’s territory and in comments to the online Catholic Review, of which Lori is the publisher, he said the church cooperated with attorney general investigators by providing documents.
Fact check: The statements about cooperation lack context. The documents were obtained by way of a grand jury subpoena, meaning there would be legal consequences if church officials did not comply. Additionally, former Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh, who started the investigation in 2018, said last month that the archdiocese did not make its final document disclosure until June 2022.
What the archdiocese says: Lori has said several times that neither he nor another church official can release names redacted from the attorney general’s report because of an order by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge. He told the Catholic Review: “In spite of what has been said, we are not at liberty to violate a court order. We’re just not. That’s simply a fact.”
Fact check: This is false, according to Democratic Attorney General Anthony Brown. There is a confidentiality order in place, but the bulk of the information in the report was derived from the archdiocese’s files. Brown said last month that means the Catholic Church can disclose its own information: “They are uniquely positioned to legally release those names to the public at any moment.” Brown referred specifically to the names of 10 living abusers whose cases are described in the report butwho have not been publicly identified by the archdiocese as credibly accused. Because the attorney general’s office got the information via a grand jury subpoena, it needed a court’s permission to publish its report. But the archdiocese does not need a court’s permission to publish information in its files. The church’s argument also lacks context around how the court order came about. The archdiocese is paying legal fees for a group of people cited in the unredacted report but not accused of abuse. Those people were successful last year in asking the court to keep secret all proceedings around the report’s release.
Cover-ups vs. transparency
What the archdiocese says: “Some members of clergy whose names have been tied more recently to media coverage focusing on a ‘cover up’ are, in fact, some of the very people who helped force a culture change that rooted out evil and shut out attempts to conceal the failures or hide abusers,” Lori wrote in a letter May 12 to area Catholics. “How is it a cover up if you report everything to law enforcement?”
Fact check: Lori made this incorrect statement as he informed parishioners he had reversed plans to transfer a high-ranking archdiocese official cited in the report to a prominent Towson parish — a change published in Tuesday’s Catholic Review. The Sun revealed the identities of five such officials whose names were redacted from the public version of the attorney general’s report; the report itself said those officials aided either cover-ups of abuse or silencing of victims. The judge in the case, as well, stated in a ruling that those people whose names would be redacted until further court proceedings are alive and are either abusers themselves or accused of “covering up abuse, silencing victims” or furthering those goals.
Has the church evolved?
What the archdiocese says: Lori has sought to emphasize a key point in letters to parishioners, op-eds and video messages: The Catholic Church today is different from the church of the 20th century. The church-published Catholic Review put it this way: “The archdiocese’s response to child sexual abuse within its ranks over the eight decades covered by the attorney general’s report has grown much stronger.”
Fact check: This is true, but lacks context about why the Catholic Church in the U.S. changed how it handles reports of child sexual abuse, namely that more aggressive reporting and suspension policies came after exposure of abuse and cover-ups. Improvements were made in the Baltimore archdiocese in 1993, for instance, the year the public found out about church inaction on abuse as the result of an accused priest’s suicide. Even after that, other cases of abuse were mishandled in the late ‘90s or kept under wraps. After The Boston Globe in 2002 revealed the scope of clerical sexual abuse in Boston, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops overhauled the guidelines for dealing with allegations. As opposed to covering up allegations and shuffling problem priests from parish to parish, it says it reports every allegation to authorities. The Baltimore archdiocese has implemented training programs for employees and volunteers on how to spot signs of abuse and what to do if they suspect a child is in danger.