Gallagher family lawsuit against Baltimore archdiocese aims to shift burden from abuse onto Catholic Church

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

July 5, 2023

By Lee O. Sanderlin and Jean Marbella

Twenty years before he died, Francis “Frank” X. Gallagher Jr. wrote a letter to a Catholic bishop seeking information about Father Mark Haight, saying Haight abused him as a 14-year-old.

Had Haight had interactions with other children in Baltimore? Had the archdiocese made any effort to find other victims? What about assistance for other victims? Was there anything in Haight’s record to indicate a potential for abuse?

“One of my many regrets is that it took me 28 years to come forward,” Gallagher wrote in April 2002. “The thought that my silence on this matter could have contributed to others being abused is something that I will have to live with forever.”

What followed was largely silence and apathy on behalf of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, according to a wrongful death lawsuit Gallagher’s children filed June 27 against the archdiocese, the seminary where Haight studied and the Sulpician Order that operates it.

That lawsuit has thrust one of Baltimore’s most prominent Catholic families into the spotlight, exposing an uncomfortable truth about the prevalence of child sexual abuse over the decades in the oldest Catholic diocese in America: Everyone was vulnerable, no matter who your parents were.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Flannery Gallagher, Frank’s daughter, said the reason for going public with their family’s strife — Frank died from an overdose last August that his children directly attribute to the trauma he suffered from his abuse — was to take the shame from the family and place it squarely on the shoulders of the archdiocese.

“We’re handing it back,” Flannery Gallagher said. “We’re not going to live with that burden any longer.”

An archdiocese spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit when it was filed in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The news rippled through the city’s business and legal circles, where Frank Gallagher Jr. was well-known and admired, with some privately expressing surprise by what the lawsuit revealed.

While neither Flannery Gallagher, 34, nor her brother Liam, 31, wanted to sue — they would rather have their dad alive and family intact — she said doing so is an act of love and compassion for their father, who lived a tortured double life. The lawsuit spares little detail, showing how a once-successful businessman became ensnared in the trauma of his past.

“We decided that if we were going to file this lawsuit, the truth was going to be our guiding principle and our north star,” Flannery Gallagher said.

To the public, Frank Gallagher Jr. was a successful attorney and, later, investment banker. He worked at Venable LLP and Legg Mason. He held board positions at Catholic-run institutions. In those regards, he was like his father, Francis X. Gallagher Sr., who founded the law firm Gallagher, Evelius and Jones, which has counted the archdiocese among its clients since at least the early 1960s.

In private, Frank Gallagher Jr. was hampered by substance abuse, eventually turning to methamphetamines, according to the complaint. He would also engage in “risky,” clandestine sexual encounters with men, a compulsion the family says derived from his abuse.

Frank Gallagher Jr.’s own writings suggest as much.

“This abuse has had a profound effect on me individually, on my marriage, and indirectly but no less importantly, on my wife,” he wrote to Bishop Francis Malooly in April 2002. Frank Gallagher Jr. and his wife divorced in 2017 as a result of his continued sexual behavior, according to the lawsuit.

The Sun revealed that Malooly was one of five high-ranking Catholic officials who worked to either enable abuse or to cover it up and whose identities were redacted in a Maryland Attorney General’s Office report on clergy sexual abuse in the Baltimore archdiocese. Malooly, who eventually served as bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, has repeatedly declined The Sun’s requests to interview him.

Haight had access to Frank Gallagher Jr. after his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1972. Despite his successful law practice, the family fell on hard times financially because Gallagher Sr.’s successors cut off their benefits upon his death, according to the lawsuit.

Needing to support his mother and four siblings, Gallagher Jr. took a job as a night receptionist at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore with help from his uncle, Joe Gallagher, who was also a priest, according to the lawsuit.

In 2002, the archdiocese listed Joe Gallagher as having been credibly accused of sexual abuse. He died in 2015.

Haight, according to the lawsuit, molested Frank Gallagher Jr. in his room at the seminary and during a camping trip to Assateague Island. Haight, who was last known to be living in upstate New York, could not be reached for comment. Both the Diocese of Albany and the Baltimore archdiocese list Haight as having been credibly accused of abuse.

In 1997, the Diocese of Albany settled a claim against Haight for just under a million dollars. That settlement became public in 2002 in a New York Times article, which is how Frank Gallagher Jr. found out Haight had abused others, according to his children’s lawsuit.

In April, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office issued its report on the history of clergy sex abuse within the Baltimore archdiocese. That report, which draws on church documents and interviews with victims and abusers, identifies one of Haight’s victims as a 14-year-old night receptionist at St. Mary’s. The Gallaghers’ lawsuit identified Frank Jr. as that boy.

The report says at least two of the more than 600 known victims of clergy sexual abuse in Baltimore have died by suicide, and that several others attempted it.

It’s not known whether Frank Gallagher Jr.’s overdose was accidental. Flannery Gallagher said she believed that up to the time her father died, he was working to heal and get better.

The Gallaghers’ lawsuit is novel. Their attorneys, Steve Kelly and Christine Dunn, said similar claims have been brought in other states, but that they could not identify a wrongful death action against the Catholic Church of this sort in Maryland.

That does not mean it will be unsuccessful. Paul D. Bekman, a longtime plaintiff’s attorney who specializes in personal injury and wrongful death litigation, said the Archdiocese of Baltimore ought to be “very” concerned about this lawsuit.

“It may very well be a viable case, if the abuse can be documented and the person sustained emotional harm,” he said.

Bekman, who last year won a $15 million jury award for the family of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love in a wrongful death suit against her murderer, said the church is in a particularly vulnerable position these days as revelations continue to emerge from its history of child sex abuse.

”There is a feeling among the public that wrongs were done and should be righted,” Bekman said. “The atmosphere is not favorable for the church.”

As with all suits of this type, the Gallagher family’s action faces several hurdles — of time, given how many years have elapsed since he was abused in the 1970s, as well as linking that to his death, lawyers said.

“It’s going to be an issue of causation,” said Raymond Boucher, a California-based attorney who said he has filed several wrongful death suits for families of victims of clergy abuse who took their own lives.

“The other side is always going to point to mental health issues and other stressors. There are always going to be confounding issues,” he said. “It’s a hurdle, but I don’t think it’s an insurmountable hurdle.”

Timothy D. Lytton, author of the book “Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse,” agreed on the challenges faced by the plaintiff.

“You have to show a close enough connection between the abuse and the behavior,” said Lytton, a professor and an associate dean of the Georgia State University College of Law.

Most suits against the church are either dismissed or settled out of court. That makes it difficult to know how many suits, wrongful death or otherwise, have been filed, he said.

While plaintiffs face challenges, they also have leverage as the church seeks to protect itself and its standing, he said.

“The church will always have motivation to not go to trial,” Lytton said. “The church is always concerned about scandal.”

In the past, he said, the church wielded so much power that few challenged it. Lytton credits the litigation of recent decades with framing the problem as not just “bad apple” priests, but a church leadership that allowed the abuse to continue. Lytton said the public attention the lawsuitsgeneratedcreated pressure for attorneys general to investigate and for legislatures to lift statutes of limitation on civil suits — which happens on Oct. 1 in Maryland.

A Washington, D.C.-based attorney, Flannery Gallagher said the lawsuit was not about winning a monetary settlement. Instead, it is meant to draw attention to the realities child sexual abuse victims and their families face.

“There’s no amount of money that can bring back our dad,” she said.