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A stained-glass window casts a light upon an altar inside a dark church

After an investigation that took four years to complete, Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown has released a 463-page horror story of abuse dating from the 1940’s until last year.  The Report describes in tragic detail the suffering endured by more than 600 Maryland children at the hands of 158 (including 43 priests and other church officials the archdiocese never publicly identified) Maryland Catholic priests, deacons, and religious.  The Maryland Report is the latest in a nationwide effort to investigate the scourge of child sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy in the United States.  The most recent effort was published by the Pennsylvania Attorney General in 2018 and led to sweeping reforms of the state’s statute of limitations.

The Maryland investigation was an exhaustive effort that included hundreds of survivor and witness interviews as well as 100,000 documents related to the church’s handling of sexual abuse.

“This report illustrates the depraved, systemic failure of the Archdiocese to protect the most vulnerable – the children it was charged to keep safe,” Brown said in a statement. “Time and again, the Archdiocese chose to safeguard the institution and avoid scandal instead of protecting the children in its care. This report shines a light on this overwhelming tragedy, and it was the courage of the survivors that made it possible.”

The Archdiocese of Baltimore covers the entire state of Maryland, save for small portions of territory under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Washington DC and the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.

In 2019, the Archdiocese of Baltimore released the names of priests accused of sexual abuse but disclosed few details despite an extensive investigation. During the process, authorities subpoenaed hundreds of thousands of documents and interviewed former priests, church employees, witnesses, and survivors of sexual abuse. Authorities then compiled a report on their findings titled “Clergy Abuse in Maryland.”

In November, former Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh filed a motion to release the report to the public.

In addition to the list of accused abusers, the report contains hundreds of pages of abuse accounts by victims.

According to the report, abusers often singled out children who were “especially isolated or vulnerable” because of shyness, lack of confidence, or problems at home.

“They groomed the victims with presents and special attention,” the report states. “They told their victims the abuse was ‘God’s will’ and that no one would doubt the word of a priest. Some threatened that the victim or victim’s family would go to hell if they told anyone.”

In addition to listing the accused priests and the stories of survivors, the Report singled out the leadership of the Archdiocese of Baltimore for particular scorn.

Until recent decades, church officials who received complaints of abuse behaved no better. Time and again, bishops and other leaders in the church displayed empathy for the abusers that far outweighed any compassion shown to the children who were abused. These leaders repeatedly accepted the word of abusers over that of victims and their families. They conflated pedophilia with alcoholism and other substance use disorders, and they exhibited a misplaced reliance on ‘treatment.’ When ‘investigations’ were conducted, they were done by clergy who were neither trained as investigators nor independent of the church. These “investigators” typically questioned only the victim and abuser and made little or no attempt to seek corroboration or evidence of additional victims. They afforded the abuser’s denial equal or greater weight than the victim’s allegations. In some cases where even the most inadequate of investigations revealed undeniable abuse, the Archdiocese removed the abuser from the parish, but gave either no reason or a false reason for the removal. In many cases, the abuser was transferred—often multiple times—to another parish without warning to parishioners of the prior abuse.”

As part of their recommendations, the Report’s authors argue that the current statute of limitations in Maryland should be reformed to address the injustices described in the Report.

“Because Maryland recognizes a statute of limitations defense in civil cases – a defense that the Archdiocese consistently chooses to rely upon – victims have no recourse if they are over the age of 38.35 Yet many victims have suffered lifelong effects from the harm perpetrated on them by the Church. The impact of abuse that victims may experience is wide ranging; it can include vulnerability to substance abuse, challenges in emotionally connecting to spouses or other people close to them, depression, anxiety, anger, eating disorders and even chronic physical pain. Our judicial system should provide a means for victims who have suffered these harms to seek damages from the people and institutions responsible for them. They should also have access to the discovery afforded parties in civil litigation in order to learn what the Church knew about their abuse and what might have been done to protect them.

Fifteen states now have no civil statute of limitations for some or all claims of child sexual abuse. Twenty-four states have created a window during which claims may be brought or have allowed revival of expired claims. Maryland should pursue one of these paths to provide greater opportunity for victims to hold the Archdiocese accountable and to be compensated for the harms they have suffered.”

As a nationwide advocate for survivors and a sex abuse attorney for more than two decades, I heartily agree with the Report’s recommendation.  This injustice must be addressed by the elected officials in Maryland.  Justice demands it and the courageous Maryland survivors deserve no less.

The Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis

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