‘The Keepers’ women join fight to publicize investigation into child sexual abuse within Archdiocese of Baltimore

Published on: November 30, 2022 1:04 PM EST|Updated on: November 30, 2022 3:10 PM EST

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Two women featured in the Netflix series “The Keepers” are joining the legal fight to expose accused priests and complicit church leaders named in an investigation into child sexual abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Lawyers for the women featured in the 2017 documentary series filed a motion Wednesday in Baltimore Circuit Court to support the disclosure of a 456-page state investigation into the Catholic church’s history of child sexual abuse.

“Not only are we in support of the report being released, but we want all the names not to be redacted,” said Kurt Wolfgang, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center, who filed the motion along with his colleague, Victor Stone.

The attorneys represent Jean Hargadon Wehner and Teresa Lancaster, two of the women who say they were raped and sexually assaulted in the 1960s and 1970s by the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell, the chaplain and counselor at the now-shuttered Archbishop Keough High School in Southwest Baltimore, as well as another priest at the school. The Netflix series focuses on the Keough alumnae’s efforts to uncover the extent of sexual abuse and cover-up at the school, as well as find the killer of Sister Cathy Cesnik.

A popular young nun and English teacher, Cesnik was killed in 1969 after the girls told her they were abused. In the motion, the lawyers noted that the Maryland Office of the Attorney General launched the investigation after “The Keepers” aired.

“That documentary, which was viewed by millions worldwide, owes its existence to the tenacity of our victims and their supporters,” the attorneys wrote. “But the facts surrounding this matter raise many more questions that have yet to have been answered, including how it was that archdiocese employees decided to let these horrific acts continue; and what individuals were complicit in the obstruction of justice and cover-up.”

“The Keepers” women are the latest to step into the legal fight over whether the state’s investigation of the church should remain secret and the litigation around it play out behind closed doors.

The attorney general’s office spent nearly four years investigating child sexual abuse within the archdiocese, including cases at the more than 50 Catholic schools around Maryland. Two weeks ago, the office notified the courts that investigators finished a 456-page report and asked permission to release their findings to the public.

The report identifies 158 priests accused of “sexual abuse” and “physical torture” of more than 600 victims over 80 years, investigators wrote. They described a “pervasive” history of sexual abuse, as well as the cover-up and “complicit silence” by church leaders.

In addition, the report names a group of people who are not accused of sexual abuse. These people have not yet been publicly identified. They have asked the judge to keep all the proceedings and records in the case secret and are represented by attorneys Gregg Bernstein and William Murphy of the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder LLP. Both men have declined to comment.

Bernstein served as the Baltimore state’s attorney from 2011 through 2014. He has represented accused priests and served as an attorney for the Catholic church to investigate instances of abuse.

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The archdiocese will pay at least a portion of the costs for the lawyers, church leaders announced last week.

“We support the rights of individuals to participate in the legal process, particularly those named in the report who have not been accused of abuse and who have not been contacted by or given any previous opportunity to respond to the Attorney General,” according to the statement from the archdiocese last week. “The archdiocese has obligations to some of those individuals which may include indemnifying legal fees for representation. Such individuals should be heard before the court decides whether to publicly release the Attorney General’s report.”

Archdiocese spokesman Christian Kendzierski explained that these people want a chance to tell the courts about what they believe to be omissions or errors in the report. He said the the church supports them in that effort.

Wolfgang, however, said he saw hypocrisy in the position of the archdiocese to issue statements supporting the release of the report while paying for lawyers who are trying to seal the record.

“The Archdiocese of Baltimore has found a way to resist the release of this report but look like they are not resisting the release of this report,” he said.

Abbie Schaub, a Keough alumna also featured in “The Keepers,” expressed dismay that the archdiocese will pay for the lawyers who want to keep the case secret.

“They make these lovely public policy statements while they continue to hide and cover up information,” she said. “The Archdiocese of Baltimore is not opposing it; they’re paying someone else to oppose it for them.”

The Archdiocese has paid at least $462,000 to 16 people who say they were abused by Maskell. Wehner and Lancaster say Maskell ran a sexual abuse ring that involved police officers, a gynecologist and others.

“The public and the crime victims are entitled, after decades of being injured, to know if the comprehensive report finally compiled reflects that police, politicians, prosecutors or other authorities were complicit in the cover-up; if some of those individuals also participated in the sexual abuse of children,” attorneys for the women write in the motion.

The archdiocese received the 456-page report two weeks ago. Church leaders have said they have “deep disagreements” with the document, including their belief that it fails to sufficiently describe the church’s work in more recent years to protect children. Still, they have publicly said they will not oppose the release.

“We recognize that efforts on the part of the Archdiocese to challenge errors and mischaracterizations through legal processes will likely be viewed as an attempt to conceal past failures,” according to the archdiocese’s statement last week.

The attorney general investigation was conducted through a grand jury. State law requires grand jury materials be kept confidential unless a judge approves the release.

Still, the attorney general’s office already shared some of the findings in court records. Bernstein and Murphy have criticized the office for the initial disclosures without approval from the court.

“That the Attorney General’s Office was careful not to quote directly from grand jury materials, nor identify the persons named in the report, is an exercise in semantics inconsistent with both the letter and spirit of the law,” Bernstein and Murphy wrote last week in their motion to seal the proceedings.

The attorney general’s office asked the Baltimore Circuit Court on Nov. 17 for permission to release the report to the public. Investigators told the courts the victims included children from preschool age to young adulthood.

“No parish was safe,” Assistant Attorney General Carrie Williams wrote.

Investigators found 115 of the accused priests were prosecuted or previously identified by the archdiocese. The church has maintained a public list of accused priests since 2002.

State investigators found 43 of the accused priests have not yet been publicly identified, though 30 of them have died. That leaves 13 living priests who have not been previously accused of sexual abuse. Williams told the courts that the attorney general’s office has redacted those 13 names from the report. The redactions are intended to avoid further legal arguments that could tie up the release of the report.

In Pennsylvania, 11 priests accused of sexual abuse successfully argued to the state’s highest court that their names should be redacted from a similar report in 2018. The court agreed, finding the redactions necessary to protect their legal rights of due process.

Wolfgang wrote in the motion Wednesday that the names of the 13 newly accused priests in Maryland should not be redacted. He wants their cases presented to a grand jury for further investigation.

“It’s not possible for us to understand why 13 people who are still living are not being indicted,” Wolfgang said in an interview. “The attorney general’s office has spent millions of dollars over the past four years to get this all on paper, and yet they don’t indict anyone? What’s going on?”

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh retires in January. Any possible criminal prosecutions in would fall to the incoming administration of Attorney General-elect Anthony Brown. He has declined to comment.

In a previous interview, Frosh has noted challenges to prosecuting decades-old crimes. Victims and witnesses may have died or moved away. Investigators may be unable to find corroborating evidence. In many cases, the statute of limitations has expired on misdemeanors.