Deep within the litany of outrages by the Catholic Church documented by the Maryland Office of the Attorney General’s report, there is a revelation as shocking as the predatory priests or the religious bureaucracy eager to hide their sins.

Nearly four decades ago, the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office, led then by Warren B. Duckett, granted immunity to a child abuser.

By 1985, angry families at St. Andrew by the Bay near Cape St. Claire demanded that the Archdiocese of Baltimore remove and punish their lead priest, William Simms. Accusations that he had abused multiple children in his care were tumbling out, and parents wanted action. The church in 2002 listed him as credibly accused, the attorney general’s report said.

The Attorney General’s office released the Catholic Church Investigation papers.  List of names.
The Maryland Office of the Attorney General released a report on clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

That July nearly 38 years ago, an Anne Arundel County assistant prosecutor sent a letter to attorneys for the church, Gallagher Evelius & Jones.

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“I agree on behalf of the State’s Attorney’s Office not to prosecute Father Simms for any incidents of child abuse he discusses with [county police investigators], no matter how serious, and whether we already know about them or not,” the prosecutor wrote in a letter referenced by the report.

As the county’s top prosecutor, Duckett must have known about that letter for it to be valid. In that case, his office failed to fulfill its responsibilities and abetted the church cover-up.

His office wasn’t the only handmaiden to injustice.

“While this investigation has focused on the Archdiocese, it is also evident in the response by police and prosecutors that in many instances, they were deferential to the church and uninterested in probing what church leaders knew and when,” wrote the authors of the Attorney General’s Report on Child Sexual Abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

What does accountability look like? If a change to state law passed in the recently finished General Assembly session withstands predicted legal challenges, victims of long-ago child sexual abuse say they will sue the church. Monetary damages likely to emerge from successful lawsuits are one way to atone for past wrongs.

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The change to state law could also lead to a lawsuit against the Key School in Annapolis, where a 2019 report confirmed allegations of rampant abuse of students by members of the private school’s faculty starting in the 1970s. That school-commissioned report blamed administrators and others for hiding what was happening.

“We conclude that the School failed to protect students from these teachers and, further, that in each of the occurrences described below, there were other adults in the Key School community, including members of the faculty and staff, administrators, and Board members, who were aware of the abuse and inappropriate conduct and chose not to intervene,” attorneys Andrew Jay Graham and Jean E. Lewis wrote in their findings.

It’s not just the church or Key that must face a reckoning. It’s the institutions — represented by individual police investigators, prosecutors and social workers — that looked the other way. It’s the news organizations that knew of the abuse but failed to report on it for fear of lawsuits or — as in one 1958 case described by the attorney general’s report — buried a secret conviction in collusion with a judge, prosecutors and the church.

“When the victim’s mother tried to expose the abuse through the press, Archbishop Keough wrote that ‘prolonged and extremely careful negotiations’ and the ‘happy influence of a highly placed newspaper man’ prevented the story from being printed,” said the report in reference to Archbishop Francis Keough, who died in 1961.

In some ways, we’re all guilty of acquiescing to the idea that the Catholic Church was above consequences. Many people knew about sex abuse in the church, and at Key School, but did nothing.

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Duckett died in June 2004, a well-regarded attorney, county councilman, prosecutor and judge. He can’t defend himself or the actions of his office.

Anne Colt Leitess, the current state’s attorney, said through a spokesperson on Friday that she can’t comment on actions that her office took decades ago regarding Simms until she reviews police files on his case or others.

There are some possible defenses of that letter to consider. The laws have changed to make it easier to prosecute this kind of abuse, particularly allowing a pattern of behavior, such as multiple allegations, as evidence of guilt. Required by law to report allegations of abuse, the archdiocese often did not make it easy for police or prosecutors to investigate. Duckett or one of his prosecutors might have looked at the allegations against Simms and thought that getting him to admit to what he’d done was the best outcome.

Former Orphans Court Judge Judith Duckett was surprised by the revelation and said her late husband never discussed the allegations against Simms or the immunity letter.

“It would have been unlike him to ignore something like that,” she said.

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Duckett was a small-town politician and lawyer who went on to win appointment and reelection as a Circuit Court judge. The actions of his office, though, reverberated beyond St. Andrew.

The unidentified assistant state’s attorney explained the reasons for immunity given to Simms in the letter handed over to the church.

“I am doing this to encourage Father Simms to cooperate so any child affected can be contacted and helped if necessary,” he wrote. “I expect the church to take appropriate action with Father Simms.”

The church didn’t do either of those things. As more accusations about Simms emerged over the following decades, the archdiocese’s lawyers used the letter from Duckett’s office, again and again, to ward off police and prosecutors and suppress allegations through threats and intimidation, according to the report.

Worse, the attorney general found that the church knew about other examples of abuse before it bargained immunity for Simms.

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Simms was removed from his position at St. Andrew by the Bay in 1985 and his priestly faculties were suspended, and lawsuits brought on behalf of two teenaged boys who alleged they were molested were later settled, The Baltimore Sun reported in 2002.

Simms was allowed to continue working as a priest in an administrative job until 2002 when the archdiocese finally pushed him out. He died three years later. The extent of the abuse that Duckett’s letter sought to address remained secret until the attorney general’s report was released last week.

Crimes hidden by the archdiocese stretch back at least 80 years, long before Duckett’s time as the top local law enforcement official.

The attorney general’s report also documents abuse by priests at St. Mary’s in Annapolis and St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park, but abusers in clerical collar spent time at almost every Catholic Church in Anne Arundel County. Attorney General Anthony Brown, who took office in January, said it is likely there are far more victims than we will ever know.

The inaction in the Simms case begs the question: How many other sexual abuse cases by clergy may not have been prosecuted by the Anne Arundel state’s attorney’s office?

If Duckett had been willing to prosecute church sex crimes, it would have been a courageous stand for justice. Instead, we have to ask if he made it worse.

Duckett was succeeded in 1988 by Frank Weathersbee, who had served as an assistant and deputy state’s attorney in the office. Weathersbee focused a significant portion of his 25 years as state’s attorney working with victims of crimes and was hailed as a founding advocate for victims’ rights in Maryland. He died in 2015.

He also demonstrated a willingness to go after people who abuse children in their care, most notably former Northeast High School teacher Ronald Walter Price, who died in prison. Leitess, the current state’s attorney, started as a prosecutor in Weathersbee’s office and later worked as the head of a unit in Baltimore City that focused on sex crimes, domestic violence and crimes against children.

There’s this old saw that justice delayed is justice denied. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said the words but long before that, they were attributed to British Prime Minister William Gladstone.

It’s too late to prosecute those involved in much or perhaps all of the sexual abuse scandal at the archdiocese. Accountability will take other forms.

Knowing more about that letter and whether Duckett’s office and local police ignored sex crimes will be difficult given the time that has lapsed, but it’s a process that Leitess, Anne Arundel police and others in positions of power should begin.

Ultimately, accountability starts with truth.

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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