Maryland AG’s investigation of ‘pervasive’ Catholic Church abuse documents 158 priests, more than 600 victims

Published on: November 17, 2022 at 1:23 pm EST

Updated on: November 18, 2022 at 7:34 pm EST

Photo collage of a tower of the Baltimore Basilica, boy holding rosary, man holding photo of teen boy from 70s, Archbishop Keogh High School sign, Sister Catherine Cesnik, and Archbishop William H. Keeler.

Years before one priest went to prison for child sex abuse, he confessed his attraction to teenage boys. Church leaders told him not to “worry about it.”

The church paid tuition, salary and living expenses for another priest even after he confessed to abusing boys. And church leaders waited years to tell authorities that yet another priest had been sexually abusing children.

These instances of child sex abuse are documented in court records filed Thursday by the Office of the Maryland Attorney General. Investigators told the courts they uncovered a history of “pervasive” sexual abuse by the priesthood of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, as well as a coverup and “complicit silence” by church leaders.

The attorney general’s office identified 158 priests, most of them already known, within the archdiocese accused of the “sexual abuse” and “physical torture” of more than 600 victims over the past 80 years, according to the court records. Investigators told the court there are likely hundreds more victims.

“Both boys and girls were abused, with ages ranging from preschool through young adulthood,” Assistant Attorney General Carrie Williams wrote the court. “Although no parish was safe, some congregations and schools were assigned multiple abusive priests and a few had more than one sexually abusive priest at the same time.”

The attorney general’s office has asked the courts to allow the release of its much-anticipated grand jury investigation into the Archdiocese of Baltimore. State law requires a judge approve the release of grand jury materials.

The report is expected to be the most thorough examination in state history of child sex abuse within the Catholic church of Baltimore.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori responded to the motion with a letter in which he apologized to survivors and pledged to work to prevent further abuses.

“Upon reading today’s motion, we feel renewed shame, deep remorse and heartfelt sympathy, most especially to those who suffered from the actions of representatives of the very Church entrusted with their spiritual and physical well-being,” he wrote.

In the motion Thursday, Williams writes that the office compiled a 456-page report that identifies 115 priests who were prosecuted for sex abuse or previously identified by the archdiocese as credibly accused. State investigators found an additional 43 priests who were accused, but have not been publicly identified, she wrote.

Thirty of the 43 priests have died, she wrote. That leaves 13 living priests who have not been previously accused of sexual abuse. Williams told the courts that the office has redacted those 13 names from the report.

Breaking News Alerts
Get notified of need-to-know
info from The Banner

“By doing so, the office has satisfied the only outstanding argument in support of non-disclosure,” she wrote.

In Pennsylvania, 11 previously unidentified priests accused of sexual abuse successfully argued to the state’s highest court that their names should be redacted from a similar report. The court agreed, finding the redactions necessary to protect their legal rights of due process.

Still, the news surprised and alarmed survivors in Maryland that the attorney general’s office intends to redact the 13 names.

“It isn’t good. ... Now we have 13 people and we don’t know who they are? Oh my God. You got to be kidding me,” said David Lorenz, director of the Maryland Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

Lorenz called for the archdiocese to step in.

“It’s incumbent on the diocese to publish those 13 names,” he said. “OK, the attorney general can’t, or has a big hurdle, a hill they don’t want to climb. I’m very disappointed. I think the church now has a responsibility.”

The Maryland report is expected to resemble the bombshell 2018 investigation in Pennsylvania and span hundreds of pages with allegations of child sex abuse tracing back decades. Investigators told the courts they found that one congregation was assigned 11 sexually abusive priests in 40 years. The abuse was so pervasive that victims reported sexual abuse to priests who were abusers themselves, according to the court record.

“It’s a kind of relief that people will know that this is real,” said Kurt Rupprecht, 52, who reported his own childhood abuse to investigators. “Survivors want to be heard. We want people to realize how extreme the damage is.”

Still, the Harford County resident added, “It makes you anxious. I’ve got to prepare myself emotionally.”

Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office filed the request with the Baltimore Circuit Court to release the report. A judge could order additional portions redacted; it’s unknown when the matter will be decided.

Studies have found that a small percentage of victims report childhood sexual abuse. “I would be shocked if we had done a lot more than scratch the surface,” Frosh said.

Frosh, who retires in January, and other attorneys general launched investigations in their states after Pennsylvania authorities released their two-year investigation in July 2018. That 884-page report included accounts of more than 1,000 children abused over the years by about 300 priests. The report led to criminal prosecutions of surviving priests and a flood of lawsuits. Some dioceses filed for bankruptcy.

Any possible criminal prosecutions in Maryland would fall to the incoming administration of Attorney General-elect Anthony Brown. He declined to comment.

“There are many obstacles to prosecution,” Frosh said. “Many of the abusers are dead. Some of the victims are dead. The statute of limitations has run on all misdemeanors.”

Soon after the Pennsylvania report of 2018, Lori disclosed that he had been informed of a similar investigation by Frosh. Lori pledged to cooperate fully, and church leaders have said they turned over more than 100,000 pages of documents to investigators. The archdiocese had maintained a public list of accused priests since 2002.

In his letter, Lori also explained an apparent discrepancy. The attorney general’s motion references 158 accused priests, but the archdiocese lists 152 on its website. The archdiocese list does not include those priests who died before the first accusation was made against them — unless the accusation could be corroborated or supported by a second accusation.

“For some, the Attorney General’s motion may help provide answers they have spent years awaiting. For others, it may reopen wounds or feel as an inadequate or incomplete account of justice. To all, however, I pray it brings some measure of healing of the deep wounds caused by the scourge of child sexual abuse in the life of the Church,” Lori wrote.

Frosh said the archdiocese spent three and a half years producing documents for investigators, the most recent arriving in July. He apologized that the investigation took four years.

“I never dreamed it would take four years. I’m embarrassed it took that long,” he said. “We were under-resourced.”

The office maintains a policy that it does not comment on ongoing investigations. That silence frustrated survivors, advocates and their attorneys across Maryland who watched the years pass by.

“It has been difficult being patient for four years. I thought it would be two, maybe three years at the most,” Rupprecht said. “You realize the historically important legacy and the strength of the church in Maryland. After a matter of time, you start to worry: Well, gosh, this is never going to happen because you can’t fight the Catholic Church in Maryland.”

The history of the Catholic Church runs deeper here than in most states. Baltimore was home to the first U.S. bishop, first cathedral, first diocese and first archdiocese. The first order of black nuns and the first Black parish were founded here. The city is home to St. Mary’s Seminary, the nation’s first training ground for priests. In Western Maryland, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary is the second U.S. seminary.

Over the years, repercussions of abuse in Baltimore have included the shooting of a priest by a former altar boy who said the priest had molested him nearly a decade earlier.

Today, the Archdiocese of Baltimore includes the city and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Harford, Howard and Washington counties. The archdiocese has 153 parishes and missions and educates 24,000 children at its 40 elementary schools, 18 high schools and one early learning center. Protestants, however, outnumber Catholics in the state, according to the Pew Research Center.

“The investigation also revealed that the Archdiocese failed to report many allegations of sexual abuse, conduct adequate investigations of alleged abuse, remove the abusers from the ministry, or restrict their access to children,” Williams wrote. “Instead, it went to great lengths to keep the abuse secret.”

Survivors have said they want the report to lead to criminal charges.

“We hope the report is extensive,” Rupprecht said. “If it has taken four years to accomplish that, then, personally, I’ll be OK with that.”

Clergy abuse and coverups in Baltimore were the subject of a Netflix documentary series “The Keepers.” The show explores the theory that nun Cathy Cesnik was murdered in 1969 because she knew about rampant abuse by A. Joseph Maskell, a chaplain and counselor at the now-shuttered Archbishop Keough High School during the 1960s and 1970s. Multiple people have accused Maskell, now dead, of sexual abuse.

Cesnik’s sister, Marilyn, said she’s been in touch with investigators and expects the report will bring no new information about her sister’s death.

Rupprecht, of Harford County, told investigators of a day long ago in the front seat of Father Joe’s car. He told them the kindly priest bought him a Happy Meal, parked out of sight, and touched him.

He told them the priest turned violent, squeezing and choking. He told them how it feels to be a 9-year-old boy and expect to die.

Like other survivors, he repressed the childhood memory. The trauma came out in bouts of anger, depression and harmful thoughts. Only later, in adulthood, did he understand what was haunting him. The release of Maryland’s report and a full public accounting of priest abuses, however painful, will bring a step toward healing, he said.

“If it’s thorough [the report], it will be one of the most important days, frankly, in my life,” he said. “I hope that it will protect others. I will then have felt like all my pain has accomplished something.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.