The bells at St. Mark Parish in Catonsville rang many times this past Holy Week as the church celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but for some those bells carry another, haunting reminder.
“The bell signifies trauma, and every time it rings, you’re [the church is] reminding them of what went on,” said Allison Dietz, a former Catholic and neighbor to the church, which is nestled in a residential neighborhood of Catonsville and known locally as St. Mark’s.
Though many churches in the Archdiocese of Baltimore have been home to clergy accused of child sexual abuse, St. Mark’s had more abusive priests assigned to it over the years than any other — 12 between 1964 and 2000. That’s a remarkable number of accused priests for one church, national and local experts say. Of those, at least four are known to have harmed children during their time at St. Mark’s. The remainder assaulted children at other parishes, before or after they served there.
“We have to worry that they abused at St. Mark’s as well, even if we don’t know that they have,” said Terence McKiernan, president at BishopAccountability.org, a group that researches and tracks cases of alleged abuse by clergy and religious leaders across the nation. Father Francis Ernst, for example, was accused of raping a young teenage boy at St. Augustine in Elkridge during the time he served at St. Mark’s.
The painful story of St. Mark’s is part of a 456-page report on child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore released last week by the Maryland Office of Attorney General. It details how more than 100 clergy abused at least 600 children over an 80-year period and accuses church leadership of covering up “pervasive and persistent abuse by priests” and other Catholic leaders.
Speculation about why this cluster grew includes a theory that abusers requested assignments there under other perpetrators they believed were willing to protect their secrets and also that the large size of the congregation and the sheer number of priests who served it meant meant a higher percentage would be abusers. The historic church and an affiliated school opened in 1889.
As bad as the cluster of abuse at St. Mark’s was, the parish was just one of several Catholic institutions at the epicenter of an even larger concentration of abuse cases in southwest Baltimore County and Baltimore City.
Within a roughly four-mile radius was Archbishop Keough High School, which closed and merged with another school in 1988, Mount St. Joseph High School, St. Clement Parish and Our Lady of Victory, all of which were assigned abusive priests over the years. One priest at Keough, Joseph Maskell, raped and sexually abused at least 39 girls. St. Clement had six abusers and Our Lady of Victory had five, among the highest tallies of any parish across the archdiocese, according to the report.
“Church documents reveal with disturbing clarity that the archdiocese was more concerned with avoiding scandal and negative publicity than it was with protecting children,” the report said. Again and again, signs of that abuse were obvious, but church officials failed to stop it or to warn parishioners when they found abuse — actions that left their children at risk for decades.
An abuser turned mentor
St. Mark’s is remarkable not only for the number of abusers who were there, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, but also because some of those abusers were overseen by priests they considered mentors who were also abusers. Before Father Frederick Duke was assigned to St. Mark’s in 1971, he had an extensive history of abuse stemming from his time at Shrine of the Little Flower in Baltimore, where he spent 19 years. Duke admitted to sexually abusing 26 boys between 1949 and 1961, including oral and anal rape, after a victim came forward in 1988.
The archdiocese knew about Duke’s abusive behavior as early as 1953, nearly two decades before he arrived at St. Mark’s, where he oversaw Father David Smith and worked alongside Father Robert Lentz, who are both credibly accused and named in the report. A former altar boy said Lentz invited him to his bedroom in the rectory in the 1960s and on the way they passed Monsignor Joseph Leary, who asked where they were going. Lentz told Leary the victim wanted to see his bedroom and that was that. Leary simply went back to reading.
Shawn Peters, 56, remembers Smith as the young, cool priest students called “Father Dave.” Peters, who attended the affiliated St. Mark School between 1972 and 1980, knew Smith through the basketball team and said the pastor always had a following of young boys eager to befriend him.
Smith also briefly served under Father Thomas J. Bauernfeind, another credibly accused abuser named in the report with at least one instance of abuse before his assignment at St. Mark’s in the late 1970s. One victim reported that Smith sexually abused him in the rectory every couple of weeks for three years in the 1970s. Lentz and Smith both used the rectory and provided alcohol to children when they abused them, the report noted. Smith was charged, pleaded guilty to “perverted practice” in 2002, and received probation. Fifteen years later, Smith told a mental health professional he was victimized by multiple members of the church while he was studying to become a priest beginning when he was 13 years old.
Father James Dowdy was an associate pastor at St. Mark’s when Duke and Smith were assigned there. While receiving treatment at St. Luke Institute in the 1990s, Dowdy described different instances of sexually abusing children, including “tickling episodes” and inappropriate touching. He was placed on administrative leave in 1993 and had his authority as a priest removed. He left the Archdiocese in 1997.
Why clusters of abuse form
Having a confluence of abusers connected to a single parish like St. Mark’s means many people are likely to have known and trusted at least one or maybe several of them, said Catherine R. Osborne, project coordinator for Taking Responsibility, an initiative at Fordham University examining the legacy of abuse within the Catholic Church. “The impact is liable to be pretty substantial,” she added.
Explaining why such large clusters of abuse form is tougher to pin down.
“There are certainly other communities that have experienced ‘clusters’ like this where abusive priests were covering for each other or even working together to find victims,” Osborne said. “But 12 is a large number for a parish community.”
While 12 priests with abusive histories circulated through St. Mark’s at one point, only four of them are known to have abused children while at St. Mark’s.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore attributed the number of accused priests at St. Mark’s to its size.
“During those years, St. Mark’s had a large congregation and a large number of priests who would have worked at that parish,” said Christian Kendzierski, an archdiocese spokesman.
McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org doesn’t agree that St. Mark’s large community explains the size of this cluster. Each June, when assignments are made in the archdiocese, priests can ask to work in particular parishes. Abusive priests may have asked for assignments in places they knew had other abusers, and unwittingly the church assigned them there, he said.
Throughout the report and in other cases around the nation, McKiernan added, priests have abused together. So having two abusive priests in the same location doesn’t seem surprising. In addition, he said, if there is a cluster in one parish, those priests can help protect one another from being discovered.
Or, he said, perhaps supervisors who were themselves abusers or who tolerated the behavior assigned priests they knew to be abusive to serve together.
“We know in every diocese the accused priests are not distributed evenly,” he said. “This is a very high concentration.”
Worked at St. Mark’s, abused elsewhere
Six other priests assigned to St. Mark’s have been named as abusers in the attorney general’s report, but the abuse is known to have occurred at other churches in the archdiocese. Ronald Belschner was an associate pastor for four years at St. Mark’s beginning in 1965. The accusations of abuse against him date from 1975, when he worked at St. Gregory the Great and continued into 1990, when he asked a 19 year-old to come live with him in the rectory at St. Mary’s, the report said. Parishioners there complained about the arrangement.
Marion Helowicz was a deacon at St. Mark’s from 1973 to 1974, during the time that Lentz and Smith were abusing children in the church rectory. Allegations against Helowicz did not surface until 1988, when a victim came forward and told Baltimore County Police he had been fondled and orally raped by Helowicz at St. Stephen’s Church, often several times a week.
In 1981, Charles O. Rouse was assigned to St. Mark’s as an associate pastor. Victims came forward in the 1990s saying Rouse had abused them in 1981 at another church and between 1985 and 1989 in various locations — on ski trips, sailing trips, and visits to the Eastern Shore. Other victims pointed to abuse by Rouse in the 1990s.
Edward Heilman, an associate pastor at St. Mark’s from 1983 to 1987, was accused of attacking and orally raping a teenage boy along with Ronald Mardaga, another child abuser mentioned in the report.
Around the time Ross LaPorta was assigned as pastor at St. Mark’s in 1991, a man wrote to Archbishop William Keeler concerned that LaPorta was taking his 14-year-old son out on a boat without his permission and without another adult present. According to the report, the archdiocese took no action until eight years later, when victims began to come forward to say that LaPorta had sexually abused them, including one who was assaulted on his boat in the 1970s.
The last abusive priest assigned to St. Mark’s and included in the report was Monsignor Henry Francis Zerhusen, who was the senior priest at St. Mark’s between 1995 and 2000. He has not been listed as a credibly accused priest by the archdiocese, but a victim came forward in 2013 to report that he had been fondled by Zerhusen in the 1980s. The archdiocese paid a settlement of $32,500 to the victim.
On its website, the archdiocese lists Bauernfeind, Duke, Heilman, Lentz and LaPorta as deceased.
Separating religion from the institution
People who live near St. Mark’s don’t think of the church or the affiliated school as bad neighbors.
Dietz initially thought it would be nice to live next to the church when she moved into the neighborhood 11 years ago, but she said she no longer feels that way. She called the report the “proverbial nail in the coffin” that sealed her decision to fully separate from the Catholic Church.
“It’s a physical, mental and spiritual betrayal and it breaks my heart in a million pieces that people entrusted their children to these people,” Dietz said. “And this is what they did.”
Peters, who knew Father David Smith and wrote a book about the Catonsville Nine, a group of Catholic activists who burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War, said he doesn’t collectively judge all Catholics, but isn’t sure he can forgive the archdiocese for the abuse.
”I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m disgusted with the archdiocese for having known about this tragedy for many years,” he said. “And they didn’t do anything. They enabled the abuse. It’s unconscionable.”