Priests accused of sex abuse won special treatment from police and prosecutors, report shows

Published 4/14/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 4/14/2023 8:30 a.m. EDT

St. Vincent de Paul Church, 120 N. Front, St., Baltimore, MD 21202, on March 15, 2023.

When the Rev. Marion Helowicz pleaded guilty in 1988 to sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy with a development disorder and learning disability, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz questioned what would happen to the priest now that he had a criminal conviction.

Could he go to another archdiocese? Might he be able to do some other activity? Would the church provide for him? Levitz asked.

“It seems to be a tragedy for everyone involved,” said Levitz, who died in 2018. “It certainly is a tragedy for Father Helowicz.”

He said he did not believe that the priest was a danger to other people based on what he’d read and added that “he hasn’t taken anybody unwillingly and committed an act.”

Levitz sentenced Helowicz to probation and ordered him to perform 200 hours of community service.

But Helowicz had admitted months earlier that he’d sexually abused another boy — a fact that the archdiocese did not report to law enforcement until about 14 years later.

The Maryland Office of the Attorney General recently released a 456-page grand jury report that details decades of sexual abuse and cover-ups within the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The investigation, though, not only covers the conduct of priests and church leaders, but highlights the actions — and inaction — of police officers, prosecutors and judges.

“While this investigation has focused on the Archdiocese,” the report states, “it is also evident in the response by police and prosecutors that in many instances, they were deferential to the church and uninterested in probing what church leaders knew and when.”

The survivor disclosed that Helowicz sexually abused him between 1981-1984, often at St. Stephen Church in Kingsville, according to the report.

When he reported the crime to the Baltimore County Police Department in 1988, the report states, people from the archdiocese contacted him multiple times and tried to obtain his silence with promises that the priest was in treatment.

Helowicz met with an individual from the archdiocese and its attorneys to “assess this matter” and stated that “this was the only person for whom he had engaged in such activity,” according to the report.

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Lawyers determined that he could continue to serve as a priest. Several days later, though, the report states, Helowicz admitted that he’d abused another boy. But the archdiocese did not report those allegations to the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office until 2002 — even though the survivor went to the church in 1990.

Another survivor contacted the archdiocese in 1993 and reported that Helowicz sexually abused him when he was in eighth grade at St. John the Evangelist Church in Severna Park. The church did not report that allegation to the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office until 2002, according to the report.

The archdiocese, the report states, sent Helowicz to an inpatient treatment program at House of Affirmation Therapeutic Center for Clergy and Religious in Webster Groves, Missouri.

He pleaded guilty to perverted sexual practice in 1988 in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

The statement of facts in support of the guilty plea indicated that the teen sought support and guidance from Helowicz because he’d been struggling with emotional difficulties.

“What started innocuously as an attempt at counseling, accelerated slowly into a series of meetings where the defendant on occasions would fellate the victim.”

The assistant state’s attorney said force was not used and stated “at no time did the victim not consent to the fellatio,” according to the report.

The prosecutor said the state was not seeking incarceration, the report reads, and would remain silent at sentencing.

In a request for laicization dated April 7, 2017, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori wrote that “it is apparent that Father Helowicz’s sexual abuse was committed by force,” adding that the teen “did not possess the mental faculty to consent freely.”

The petition states that Helowicz was arrested in 1984 on allegations that he solicited a male police officer. Prosecutors apparently agreed to dismiss the case because he was undergoing treatment “for the problem leading to the subject offense,” according to the report.

Helowicz, 77, did not respond to a note left at his home in Fells Point.

The Maryland Attorney Listing shows one attorney in the state with that name, who is now a judge on Baltimore Circuit Court. His biography on the Maryland State Archives’ website states that he worked in the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office from 1984-1991.

Jackson did not respond to an email about the case.

In an email, Terri Charles, a spokesperson for the Maryland Judiciary, said the rules of judicial conduct prevent judges from commenting on any pending case or litigation — though the matter was disposed of almost 35 years ago.

Former Baltimore County State’s Attorney Sandra O’Connor, who was in office from 1975-2006, could not be reached for comment.

David Jaros, faculty director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said it’s difficult to parse certain portions of the report without reviewing court transcripts to understand the full context.

The Baltimore Banner contacted the Maryland State Archives, Baltimore County Circuit Court and Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, which all indicated that they did not have the records.

Jaros said there has been a greater understanding of how to talk about consent in the last 35-40 years. He expressed caution about judging the language of people in the criminal justice system back then based on today’s best practices and standards.

But the report overall, he said, paints a clear picture of how law enforcement handled these cases.

“The report as a whole screams unequal treatment both of victims and the defendants and seriously undermines the idea that the criminal justice system treats everybody equally,” Jaros said.

‘Exceptional clearance’ in Baltimore

Take the case of the Rev. Robert Newman.

Newman, the report states, sexually abused 12 boys ages 9 to 15 between 1971 and 1986.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office granted him “exceptional clearance” to receive treatment instead of prosecution, according to a police report. That document only mentions that he sexually abused one boy, the report states.

Newman later worked as a pastor in the Archdiocese of Hartford from 1990-2002, the report states.

Kurt Schmoke, who was Baltimore state’s attorney from 1982-1987, said the head of the Sex Offense Unit, Olga Bruning, would have made the decision about whether to move forward with prosecution.

Bruning, now 93, does not recall the case, her daughter said. An archdiocesan memo dated Feb. 24, 1987, reported that she saw “the value of trying to keep a man like this in ministry.”

Schmoke said assistant state’s attorneys would only bring these cases to his attention if they decided to bring charges. He said he has no recollection of anyone in leadership from the Archdiocese of Baltimore calling him during his tenure about a prosecutorial decision.

“I don’t recall this particular matter,” said Schmoke, who served as mayor from 1987-1999 and is now president of the University of Baltimore. “They just didn’t bubble up to us.”

In a statement, Ivan Bates, who took office as Baltimore state’s attorney in January, said the policy of his administration is to investigate any claim of abuse in partnership with law enforcement regardless of the subject of the accusation.

“The atrocities documented in the Attorney General’s report are sickening and horrific in nature,” Bates said. “My office will support the Attorney General’s office and the victims in any way we can to ensure some measure of justice is achieved.”

Newman, 75, could not be reached for comment.

Immunity from prosecution ‘no matter how serious’

Meanwhile, an assistant state’s attorney in Anne Arundel County in 1985 wrote a letter to a law firm representing the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP, and granted the Rev. William Simms immunity for “any instances of child abuse” that he discussed with investigators “no matter how serious, and whether we already know about them or not.”

“I am doing this to encourage Father Simms to cooperate so any child affected can be contacted and helped if necessary,” the letter stated. “I expect the church to take appropriate action with Father Simms.”

Attorneys for the archdiocese would remind prosecutors of the immunity conveyed in the letter, the report states, when new allegations against him came up.

Simms was charged in 1997 in Baltimore County with perverted sexual practice. But the case was later put on the inactive docket, according to the report. He died in 2005.

Through a spokesperson, Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess, who most recently took office in 2019, has said she could not comment on the actions that prosecutors took at that time until she reviews the files.

Warren Duckett Jr., who served as Anne Arundel County state’s attorney from 1973-1988, died in 2004.

Trial ‘conducted in a private way’ in Baltimore County

In 1958, Baltimore Archbishop Francis Keough wrote to Baltimore County Chief Judge John B. Gontrum about an agreement to spare the Rev. Gerald Tragesser jail time for charges that he’d sexually abused a 13-year-old girl during his time at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Towson, according to the report.

Records indicate that the trial was “conducted in a private way” in chambers. Tragesser was sent to Via Coeli, a treatment center for “the correction and rehabilitation of priests who have gravely deviated from the prescriptions of Canon Law,” according to the report.

Gontrum in a letter thanked Keough, writing that “the young man is suffering from some form of mental disturbance and from his demeanor at the time of the hearing, has little or no appreciation of the seriousness of his misconduct and its unfortunate effect on public judgment of all clergymen.”

“I believe that the interests of society and of justice will be best served by entrusting his correction and rehabilitation to the institution which you have recommended,” Gontrum said.

Gontrum died in 1963.

As for Tragesser, he was not released from the priesthood until 1976. He died in 2013.