Baltimore archbishop hears accounts of abuse during bankruptcy hearing

Washington Post

April 8, 2024

By Steve Thompson

William Lori, the Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, listened as six survivors of church abuse shared their stories in court

At 68 years old, a lifetime of nightmares later, a white-haired woman told a Baltimore courtroom Monday about the sexual assaults she suffered as a teenager at the hands of a priest.

Speaking directly to the Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, who looked up at her from his seat and nodded as she spoke, the woman described spending much of her life believing that God saw her as a whore and did not love her.

She is only now learning to love herself, she said.

“I am so grateful that I am allowed this moment and you are listening to me, you are hearing me,” said the woman, bursting into tears. “You weren’t there back then,” she told Archbishop William Lori, “but you are hearing me now.”

The encounter came during an unusual hearing that gave six sexual abuse survivors out of hundreds seeking damages from the archdiocesea voice in a bankruptcy case, which does not typically involve victim statements.

The moment was symbolic for survivors of Catholic Church abuse. The bankruptcy had meant there would be no public testimony before a jury.

The Maryland legislature last year created a new path for survivors of child sex abuse to pursue accountability, lifting a statute of limitations on civil lawsuits under the Child Victims Act. But two days before the law took effect, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy, halting most civil claims and giving abuse survivors a narrow window to participate in the bankruptcy proceedings.

The archdiocese’s move deepened the sense of betrayal felt by many survivors who see it as a strategy to escape accountability they have been pursuing for decades. Lori says the bankruptcy is meant to compensate survivors in an equitable way while allowing the archdiocese to continue its ministries.

On Monday, he sat alongside Bishop Adam Parker listening to the survivors’ stories.

“Over the years and in my conversations with victim-survivors, they have taught me the importance of telling their story, the importance of being heard, the importance of being believed, and that that contributes to their healing,” Lori said in a brief interview before entering the courtroom. “And so that’s why I’m here today — to listen.”

Monday’s forum for survivors came after a suggestion by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Michelle M. Harner, who had urged the parties to work out a plan for survivors to be heard.

“I encourage you to be innovative and think about the ways this Court can provide … an opportunity to be heard in a way that provides perhaps more meaningful resolution to parties than perhaps money can,” Harner said during an Oct. 3 hearing, according to a legal filing.

As the survivors spoke Monday, Harner listened intently from the bench and thanked each person.

The white-haired woman, who chose not to identify herself in open court Monday, called it “a day of liberation” for her and said the chance to speak was “a phenomenal healing tool in my recovery.”

She said she was sexually assaulted by the Rev. Joseph Maskell, who died in 2001.

The archdiocese has said in statements that it learned in the 1990s that Maskell had “abused.”

Last year, a report from the Maryland attorney general showed multiple instances starting in the mid-1960s when top figures in the archdiocese were told that Maskell would interview Boy Scouts about their sexual fantasies and was alone with young girls in the rectory for hours under “suspicious” circumstances.

That report, which came out the day Maryland Gov. Wes Moore signed the Child Victims Act into law,detailed sexual abuse and “physical torture” by more than 150 clergy members in the Archdiocese of Baltimore from the mid-1940s to 2002. Many perpetrators had already been known to the public, and no criminal charges resulted from the report.

Another of the survivors who spoke during Monday’s hearing, Teresa Lancaster, said she was abused and assaulted by Maskell. “As he touched me all over, he said he was touching me in a godly manner,” Lancaster said. “I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to vomit. I could not think.”

Speaking Monday were one more woman and three men, all of whom described fears of intimacy, trust issues, insecurities and flashbacks.

“I dealt with that for the rest of my life,” said one of the men, whose clasped hands shook as he faced Lori.

Under rules worked out by the parties and agreed to by Harner, the survivors’ statements will not be considered as evidence and were not transcribed by the court reporter. Their sole purpose was “to increase engagement and understanding” of the case, according to an order by Harner. Those giving statements were given a choice of whether and how to identify themselves.

The forum for statements was supported by lawyers for the archdiocese, which includes about 480,000 Catholics in Baltimore and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Harford, Howard and Washington counties.

A committee of survivors representing what are expected to be hundreds of other abuse claims hopes the hearings will help notify potential victims of their rights in the case ahead of a May 31 filing deadline.

The court has mandated the archdiocese to widely advertise the deadline, after which civil sexual abuse claims against it will be permanently barred. The archdiocese has said the publicity would include posting links about the deadline on parish and Catholic school websites and in prominent locations in their buildings, putting notices in church bulletins, and having priests speak about the deadline during Mass at least twice.

The deadline, called a “bar date,” enraged some survivors. Victims of childhood sexual abuse often struggle well into adulthood to come to terms with what happened — a fact that helped fuel passage of the act by an overwhelming 175-5 vote in the General Assembly.

Under federal bankruptcy law, the archdiocese was shielded from such lawsuits once it sought protection from its creditors, and it asked the court to halt sexual abuse lawsuits against 153 parishes, schools and other related organizations that it says are separate from the archdiocese but shared a common insurer. Otherwise, the archdiocese’s attorneys said, the ability of its insurance policies to pay the claims could be depleted early because of duplicative requests.

Lori participated in a warm conversation and shook hands with at least one survivor after Monday’s hearing, a member of the creditors committee who had not spoken.

But his willingness to listen did not win everyone over. Lancaster said she remains bitter about the church’s decision to seek bankruptcy, as well as the Archdiocese of Washington’s decision to fight the state constitutionality of the Child Victims Act.A judge last month upheld the law. An appeal is expected.

“That’s public relations,” said Lancaster of Lori’s attendance Monday. “He doesn’t give a damn.”

Survivors are slated to address the court again May 20; Lori is scheduled to attend.

Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.