Donald Sadler knew something was wrong when he arrived for Sunday Mass at St. Benedict Church in Southwest Baltimore, where he’s been attending for 23 years.
Rev. Paschal Morlino wasn’t there.
“When I didn’t see him this morning, I wondered if he was sick and I just wasn’t comfortable,” Sadler said. “Then we got the shocking news, and I hope it turns out not to be true and he’ll be back.”
That was the sentiment of many in the congregation after hearing Morlino, who had led the parish for nearly 40 years, had been dismissed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Officials acted quickly after first learning from The Baltimore Banner he had paid $200,000 many years earlier to quietly settle allegations of fraud and sexual assault.
That did not square with the man they knew, who they said was dedicated to the church, the parishioners and those in the community who needed his help and counsel. Some of those at Mass, who included many older area residents but also young families, wished for him to be cleared and to return.
A small number of parishioners heard a statement from the archdiocese about Morlino that was read at the Saturday Mass. But many of the approximately 100 people at Sunday Mass didn’t appear to know about the settlement or how they were supposed to cope with the sting of a revelation about one of their own.
Morlino, 85, was not named in a recent attorney general’s report on the history of sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. In an interview Thursday with The Banner, he denied the allegations. He confirmed he had paid the man who had accused him of rape and fraud five years ago “to be rid of him.”
“My conscience is clear,” Morlino said. “It’s all stuff that he made up.”
The archdiocese statement said it began investigating after officials were alerted to the settlement Thursday by The Banner.
“The Archdiocese immediately engaged in an internal investigation and within 24 hours, a decision was made to remove Fr. Morlino as pastor of Saint Benedict Church in Southwest Baltimore by the Archdiocese and the Benedictines and his priestly faculties were jointly suspended,” the statement read.
“He is no longer permitted to celebrate Mass or engage in public ministry in the Archdiocese,” it said.
Morlino has returned to his religious community, Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, officials said. He has not been charged with any crimes.
Father Earl Henry, who read the statement Sunday, was visiting from Saint Vincent Archabbey, but he will not remain at the parish, said Yvonne Wenger, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.
“He is visiting for the weekend,” she said. “Given that the situation has unfolded rapidly, there is no decision about the next pastor; however, the archdiocese is expected to appoint an administrator rather quickly. There are no plans in place at this moment regarding the future of the parish.”
Wenger attended Mass and was available to parishioners, who she said expressed sadness about the situation. She said there was not more information about what comes next for him.
After the service, several parishioners said they were shocked and saddened. They were full of worry for their church and all the programs he began for the community. They said he helped launch a senior center and regularly provided food and other supplies to the needy.
They credited him with not only boosting the size of the congregation but revitalizing the church buildings, as well as a neighboring shopping center. He often worked with police on issues of crime in the area.
“He kept this parish going; he did a lot of good work,” Lois Shutt said.
“He was the glue,” Carole Shietert added.
John Gilbert Tawa said he was an altar boy at the church in 1952 and had been through many priests and leaders. But he called Morlino the “backbone” of the parish.
“If we lose him, I’m afraid we will be sh-t out of luck,” he said. “What will happen to his programs? What will happen here? Will they replace him?”
Tawa said, “This has turned our world upside down.”