Parishes grapple with report of ‘pervasive’ child sex abuse in history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore

Published on: November 19, 2022 8:50 PM EST|Updated on: November 21, 2022 8:46 AM EST

A brick Catholic church in an urban setting.

The timing couldn’t be worse for the Church of the Nativity in Timonium.

State authorities announced that they had finished a four-year investigation into child sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore as the suburban parish headed into its biggest fundraising weekend of the year. Would its congregation hesitate to give? Should the church scale back? its leaders asked themselves.

Among the 153 parishes and missions of Baltimore’s archdiocese, some grappled this weekend with how to address the sex abuse investigation. The Office of the Maryland Attorney General notified the courts Thursday that investigators had found “pervasive” abuse in Baltimore-area Catholic churches over the past 80 years.

Investigators identified 158 priests, most of them already known, accused of the “sexual abuse” and “physical torture” of more than 600 victims, according to court records. Prosecutors want a judge’s approval to make public a 456-page report of the findings.

Parishes such as Nativity in Timonium sought to acknowledge the pain and trauma, but without letting it overshadow what worshipers said was the good work of the church today. To begin Mass on Saturday, the Rev. Michael White read a letter that echoed remarks from Baltimore Archbishop William Lori.

White said the court record will bring renewed pain for survivors, and he denounced “in the strongest terms possible” the abusers and those complicit in the cover-up.

“This information was released literally on the eve of our stewardship weekend, our annual celebration of our parish and all the good things happening here,” he told a crowded sanctuary. “This terrible news in no way diminishes the success and accomplishments of our parish that we rightly celebrate and the wonderful men and women who work so hard here all year long to make it happen.”

The Mass at St. Ignatius Church in downtown Baltimore was nearing an end Saturday when the Rev. Brian Frain made his apology.

First, for seeming distracted — the priest had lost his thought during the homily. Then, for forgiveness on behalf of the Jesuit clergy responsible for the abuse.

“We have six names on that list of Jesuits who were credibly accused and removed from ministry. That harm cannot be undone,” Frain said.

Frain told The Baltimore Banner on Sunday he misspoke and his own accounting of the number of Jesuits credibly accused is as high as 12.

During intercessions, assisting deacon Paul Weber asked parishioners to pray for the victims and survivors of abuse, that they find healing and support.

Before his apology, Frain detailed what much of the public already knew. In a letter Thursday evening to members of the archdiocese, Lori, the archbishop, expressed shame and remorse for the suffering of the abused and the church’s past failure to protect its people.

In that letter, Frain said, the archbishop noted that the ensuing “commotion” could cause confusion about the archdiocese’s current response to allegations of sexual abuse, over which it has been “fully” compliant for decades.

But Lori – and Frain, whose tenure has included stops in Kansas City and Boston – also acknowledged that the report could reopen old wounds or feelings that the church’s response had been inadequate.

“The information contained in the motion is deeply troubling, and it’s painful, especially for those who have been harmed, and then for the many good priests, deacons and religious who have faithfully served the archdiocese,” Frain told some two dozen congregants Saturday night.

After services, Frain said he had felt anxious from the pulpit, even zoning out during the deacon’s reading of the Gospel. An ordained priest since 2002, Frain hoped his apology came across as genuine.

The four-year investigation by the Office of the Maryland Attorney General was conducted through use of a grand jury. Under state law, the materials are confidential without a court order. That leaves room for the church to step in. The church could agree to release the report — or argue to keep it secret. A judge would decide.

Maryland law typically allows 15 days for the church to respond. A spokesman for the archdiocese has said the church does not oppose the release of a report that’s fair and accurate. But the church has had a copy since Tuesday, and the archdiocese spokesman declined to say if the church found this report fair and accurate, and would agree to its release.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who retires in January, and other attorneys general launched investigations in their states after Pennsylvania authorities released their two-year investigation in summer 2018. That 884-page report included accounts of more than 1,000 children abused over the years. The report led to criminal prosecutions of surviving priests and a flood of lawsuits. Some dioceses filed for bankruptcy.

In Timonium, Kellie Caddick, director of communications, marketing and events at Nativity, helped decide how best to handle the news of the Maryland report. The church offered printed copies of White’s letter at the door.

“We wanted to acknowledge and remember all of the hurt that has happened and to not hide from it, and to shine a light on it so it never happens again,” she said.

As churches everywhere struggle to maintain attendance, the Church of the Nativity has emerged as a success story in the archdiocese. Before the pandemic, the crowds caused church leaders to move Christmas Mass to the Timonium Fairgrounds.

Younger families have joined for the church’s modern twists, such as guitar-led hymns, children’s games and comedy sketches like “Why We’re Weird.”

Here at least, several members of the congregation said they were not dwelling on the report.

“Sure, it will hurt me to read,” Ed Fields said. “It’s not going to change me from being a Catholic.”

His wife, Linda, added, “Tell me an organization that doesn’t have some bad things in the past.”

Most of the people who were asked, however, didn’t want to talk about the history of child sex abuse in their diocese.

“The hardest part for Catholics is the cover-up,” Tricia Buchko said.