Revelations of decades-long sexual abuse hang over Easter celebrations in Archdiocese of Baltimore

Published 4/9/2023 4:10 p.m. EDT, Updated 4/9/2023 9:46 p.m. EDT

Archbishop Emeritus of Baltimore, Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien, reads scripture with the congregation at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, in Baltimore, MD., on Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023.

It felt, in so many ways, like any other Easter Sunday.

Hundreds of people — families, young couples and grandparents — filed into the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, many in brightly colored spring outfits. Parishioners filled the pews from the front of the nave to the back. Cries and murmurs of young children echoed throughout the Mass in the vaulted North Baltimore cathedral.

In his homily, Archbishop William Lori marveled at the miracle of the Resurrection. The Church exists to be the “body of Christ,” he said, and each day its members must renew their allegiance to God and their resolve to follow him.

And then his homily turned.

“Sadly, in the past, representatives of the Church have betrayed the Lord’s gift of new life, especially in deceiving and in harming the innocent,” he said. “We cannot undo the past. But we can lay our failings at the feet of the risen Lord, beg for forgiveness and beseech the risen Lord to heal those who were harmed.”

Though Lori didn’t name the news explicitly, the end of his homily came in response to the earthquake event of just a few days earlier: the long-anticipated release of the Maryland attorney general’s investigation into 80 years of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Parishioners and Baltimore residents have known about this history of exploitation for years, but the 456-page report is the most comprehensive accounting of sexual abuse in the church to date, revealing more than two dozen previously unidentified abusers and an institutional cover-up spanning decades.

The report dropped in the middle of Holy Week, just four days before the holiest day on the Christian calendar — a day typically reserved for the celebration of new life and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Still, the findings didn’t seem to diminish verve for the Easter holiday this year: A spokesperson for the archdiocese said more than 1,300 people attended Sunday’s 11:00 o’clock Mass at the cathedral, the third service of the morning.

Cathedral building.

For some parishioners, though, the new report punctuates a long period of reckoning with wrongdoing and cover-up in the church’s ranks.

“It’s just a continual heartbreak and a true scourge for the church,” said Louise Phipps Senft, a Baltimore resident of about 30 years and a regular attendee at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. The revelations of sexual abuse in the church never tested Senft’s faith in God — instead driving her to “cling to that even more” — but she said it has challenged her relationship to the church and its leadership.

“This, when it was first revealed, was almost too much to bear from a church that we trusted and leadership that we trusted,” she said, choking up as she spoke.

The new state report chronicles in often excruciating detail accusations of sexual abuse, manipulation and “physical torture” by 158 priests over eight decades. While most of those priests named in the report were already known — many of them identified in a 2002 list of credibly accused clergy released by the archdiocese — the report documents more than 600 victims over the decades and a theme of cover-up by church officials, law enforcement and even one Baltimore County judge.

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Because many people are reluctant to come forward with accusations of sexual abuse, the Attorney General’s Office estimates that there are likely hundreds more victims than are documented in the report.

“The staggering pervasiveness of the abuse itself underscores the culpability of the Church hierarchy,” the report said. “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 findings also come as more victims appeared on the verge of gaining the right to sue the church — lawmakers approved a bill the day the report was released — creating a potentially perilous future for the archdiocese that could be overwhelmed with lawsuits or have to decide whether to file for bankruptcy protection.

In response to the attorney general’s report this week, Lori issued a letter of apology in which he called the findings “a heartbreaking and new reminder of a tragic and shameful time” and outlined a path forward of accountability and reform.

“The report details a reprehensible time in the history of this Archdiocese, a time that will not be covered up, ignored or forgotten,” the archbishop added in a statement Wednesday. “Acknowledgment, I know, is of utmost importance. My immediate predecessors and I have offered unyielding public acknowledgment of the horrors of this era.”

At St. Michael the Archangel in Overlea in Baltimore County, the findings of the Attorney General’s Office didn’t come up Sunday morning.

People worked hard the last few days to prepare the church for Easter, the Rev. Hector Mateus-Ariza told parishioners, to make sure everything looked “amazing.” But Mateus-Ariza never mentioned that the Overlea parish was one of several named in the report to have housed numerous sexual abusers over the decades — a total of six.

Priests “were not allowed to make any comments about it,” Mateus-Ariza said after Mass, referring questions to the archdiocese’s office of communications. He added that he opted to pray rather than talk about the report, and that St. Michael is not planning to hold any services for survivors of sexual abuse at this time.

The parish doesn’t like to talk about it, said Carroll Pupa, who has attended St. Michael for more than 50 years.

He remembers that one associate pastor named in the report, the Rev. Thomas Smith, who served at St. Michael for nearly two decades, seemed like a “nice guy.” It wasn’t until after Smith died by suicide in 1993, following new accusations of sexual abuse, that the parish learned of the pastor’s long rap sheet.

After Smith’s death, dozens of victims came forward, and the report notes nearly 40 different victims of Smith’s across four Maryland parishes, including St. Michael.

“It’s sad, what’s happening,” Pupa said.

Many of those in attendance at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen didn’t want to comment on the findings of the attorney general’s report. Others expressed encouragement at the way today’s church leaders have responded to the issue.

Gary Gray, 78, has been attending Mass at the cathedral for decades and said he has been disappointed to learn about the abuse that occurred in the archdiocese. But the revelations of sexual abuse haven’t altered Gray’s relationship to the institution.

“They’re gonna crucify the church now for things that were done in the past,” he said. “I’m gonna take it to heart that it did happen, and I’m sorry that it happened. But it’s not gonna change my belief in God or the church.”

Senft, meanwhile, expressed encouragement at how today’s leadership in the archdiocese has responded to the problem, and lamented the release of the report during Holy Week, timing she described as “purposeful” and “mean-spirited.” The proximity of the release to Easter is heartbreaking for those coming up in the church today, she said.

Following Lori’s homily, Mass at the cathedral proceeded to the sacrament of baptism; two children were welcomed into the church community. During intercessions, Lori called for prayers for the victims of abuse. Soon after, parishioners filed through the aisles to accept Communion, believed to be Christ’s own body and blood and a reminder of his sacrifice for their sins.

From outside, the light of a clear Easter day streamed through the cathedral’s stained-glass windows.