In 1985, Father John Hammer was sent for treatment at St. Luke Institute in the Washington suburbs of Maryland after being accused of abusing three altar boys in Youngstown, Ohio.
A year later, with parents in Youngstown opposing his return, Hammer got a new assignment as a chaplain at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. “[A]s you know, we have had difficulty finding placements for those diagnosed with pedophilia,” Hammer’s therapist from St. Luke had written to Baltimore’s archbishop, thanking him for his “compassion and courage.”
In 1990, the Archdiocese of Baltimore removed Hammer from service. But again, the church found him a new home, this time with the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, where he was accused of abusing another child.
It was a pattern repeated around the country, and in Maryland, for decades. Priests were accused of abuse, sent for treatment that was ineffective or not medically based, and then returned to service, often in different states.
The church “exhibited a misplaced reliance on ‘treatment,’” according to a 456-page grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore released this month by the state attorney general.
Sometimes treatment came instead of criminal investigation: The archdiocese advised Father Brian Cox, who was accused of abusing at least five children between 1979 and 1989 while he was at St. John church in Westminster, to continue treatment to “avoid facing criminal charges,” according to the report.
Other times, there was neither treatment nor charges: Father Ronald Mardaga, who worked in several parishes in Baltimore between 1975 and 1996, was not prosecuted despite refusing to participate in inpatient treatment after he was accused of abuse.
“The most important concern from the church appeared to be preventing reputational damage, rather than treatment for the priest or the child,” said Elizabeth J. Letourneau, director of the Johns Hopkins University Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.
“Sometimes it looks like they were able to deal with accusations by saying they were getting the alleged offender into treatment,” said Letourneau, who was not involved in the report.
Abuse was a sin, not a symptom of disease
When there was treatment, it “wasn’t very effective,” said Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, who has researched child sex abuse by priests and also treats clergy in private practice.
For years, clergy and church-affiliated facilities viewed sex abuse as a moral failing rather than the result of a psychiatric problem, he said. Some church-affiliated treatment facilities had no psychiatric professionals on staff, according to notes kept by church leaders obtained by BishopAccountability.org, a record-keeping outfit.
You’d apologize for your sin, and that would be that, Plante said.
A report released in 2019 by the Diocese of Bridgeport in Connecticut, which included abuse accusations against a Baltimore priest, called the relationship between the diocese and mental health professionals “problematic” and “at times overly cozy.” Father Lawrence Brett was accused of abusing over 20 boys at Calvert Hall, a private all-boys school in Baltimore, after completing treatment in 1964.
Plante said treatments used from the 1960s into the early 1980s were unproven, like breaking an ammonia cap under a priest’s nose in hopes he developed an adverse reaction to sexual stimulation.
“Treatment for offenders didn’t get very sophisticated until the mid-to-late-1980s, when research that we use today really started to emerge,” he said.
Priests came to Maryland for treatment
Maryland treatment facilities accepted a large number of priests accused of abuse, said Patrick Wall, a former priest who is now an attorney working with survivors of sexual abuse by clergy.
He said the centers could not cure priests and often became “a shield from law enforcement.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, St. Luke Institute housed about 30 patients, most of whom were priests being treated for behavioral disorders. Its six-month program usually began with a dose of Depo-Provera, a drug to weaken sex drive, and several group and individual therapy sessions where priests underwent art and drama exercises. They each kept a “detailed sexual history diary,” according to news articles from the time period.
Priests were also hooked up to CT scans and electroencephalograms that measured brain waves and were stripped down for a “penile plethysmograph,” which measures a man’s arousal.
Clinical psychologist Gary Schoener said St. Luke and other facilities wouldn’t typically recommend that priests be fully removed from the church, though they would recommend against giving them responsibility for children. That advice often was ignored by church leadership, Schoener said, or priests would find ways to encounter children again.
“You cannot supervise a Roman Catholic priest in his own parish,” Schoener, who has worked with survivors of clergy sexual abuse and evaluated several centers in the 1990s, said. “He’s the king.”
He pointed to Joseph Maskell, a priest accused of sexually abusing dozens of children at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School in the 1960s and ’70s. While admitted to treatment at the Institute of Living in Connecticut, Maskell was known for having a “close relationship with a teenage girl,” according to the grand jury report.
Schoener said often priests and church leaders didn’t reveal their “sexual impulse control problems” or withheld abuse histories when arriving at treatment or their next assignments.
“The bishops basically rolled the dice and hoped that these guys wouldn’t re-offend,” Wall said.
Letourneau said studies over time indicate an estimated 5% of clergy, Catholic or other, abuse children. There is not reliable data on the general population of adults abusing children, though research among victims shows up to 10% of boys and 25% of girls report having been sexually abused in some manner.
Christian Kendzierski, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said a credible accusation now means a priest will not return to service.
“Today, there is a zero-tolerance policy that does not factor in treatment,” he said. “If someone is credibly accused they are permanently removed from ministry.”
St. Luke ended its residential treatment program in late 2021, and the center no longer serves “clients accused of sexual misconduct with minors,” Beth Davis, a spokesperson for St. Luke, said. The center still treats sex addictions and other addictive, mental and personality disorders.
“One of the hallmarks of our work is our capacity to update and expand services to meet professional behavioral health standards and our clients’ changing realities,” she said.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is used today
When priests receive treatment now, it looks vastly different from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s when many accusations of abuse were made, said Letourneau. It would involve a kind of behavioral therapy for sexual disorders as well as other conditions, such as anxiety or alcohol or drug substance abuse disorders, which commonly co-occurred. Some priests were themselves abused, she said.
She and others said most clergy didn’t likely have diagnoses of pedophilia, which is sexual attraction to prepubescent children. More are attracted to adolescents or teens, known as ephebophilia, or adults, either males or females. However, they would often prey on children, she said, because they had ready access to them.
Experts say myths persist: Abuse is not tied to homosexuality or celibacy, and most abusers do not re-offend. Priests may have re-offended because they were easily able to do so without consequence, and perhaps tacit approval.
Treatment these days begins with an assessment to identify disorders. The main treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves changing thinking patterns. Patients first learn to recognize their distorted views, behaviors and motivations, and over time replace them with healthier thoughts. The process is not quick; Plante has a patient he’s been seeing since the 1990s.
He and Letourneau say therapy is personalized to account for other conditions. Sometimes medications are used to reduce interest in sexual activity.
Keeping records of church and treatment assignments remains important so accused priests don’t end up back in service, said Terry McKiernan, founder and president of BishopAccountability.org.
“Understanding how they [treatment centers] were used in the past is important for understanding how they might be used in the future,” he said.
David Clohessy, former national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said treatment, in particular, was frequently hidden from parishioners. Though he, like the psychiatric experts, doubts many got real treatment at the church-affiliated facilities where so many went.
“The one that pays the piper calls the tune,” he said.