During Holy Week, the Maryland Attorney General released a 456-page report on the history of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The report includes allegations against some 137 priests, 5 deacons, 4 laymen, and 2 religious sisters. It details the abuse of more than 600 young people.
It’s a document at once horrifying in its contents and shamefully familiar to anyone who has followed the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. There is the depraved abuse itself, of course, but also the lying, the failure to recognize the gravity of harm, the deference to abusers, the indifference toward victims, the reshuffling of priest assignments, the cover-up.
Each instance of abuse constitutes an acute moment of trauma and pain in the life of the victim. Yet no matter how much one resists while reading a report like this, the details of these awful events invariably begin to blend together. Read enough reports like this, and you can become inured to the details.
A few things do stick with you. One of the eerier, if less graphic details, from the Maryland AG report: Eleven of the 137 priests named in the report served in the same parish between 1964 to 2004. Still, most of the stories of both abuse and mishandling of cases are pathetically predictable.
But reading this report, something else stood out. The office of the Attorney General of Maryland has just spent five years investigating the Archdiocese of Baltimore, looking for every scrap of evidence of child sexual abuse. It has subpoenaed hundreds of thousands of pages of Archdiocesan documents, conducted hundreds upon hundreds of interviews. And what has all this diligence demonstrated?
In short, the AG’s report is independent confirmation that the Catholic Church, at least in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has become very adept at preventing abuse, handling allegations when they do arise, and demonstrating transparency in the handling of those cases. It took far too long, and came at far too great a cost, especially to victims but also to the faithful – whose trust in their leaders has been so dramatically eroded.
Still, the trend of improvement is unmistakable. As we have known from national studies, incidents of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in this country peaked in the years between 1960 and 1980, then declined rapidly.
The abuse cases outlined in the report show the same trend. They are overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, more than twenty-five years old – which is to say before the new millennium. The average date of ordination for the priests named in the report is 1960. None of the accused priests were ordained later than 1989. Of the named abusers, 103 are deceased. Of the 137 priests named in the report, 53 were members of religious orders. (The report also names five deacons, four laymen, and two religious sisters.) Of the Baltimore priests named, only three were born in 1950 or later and all three of those have been publicly listed by the Archdiocese as credibly accused since 2002.
By the 1990s, the handling of abuse cases had improved, but lacked the clarity and decisiveness that came with the Dallas Charter in 2002. In every instance in which they are mentioned by the report, both the current Archbishop of Baltimore, Archbishop William Lori, and his predecessor, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, took the proper steps in handling allegations. On occasion, they went above and beyond to ensure priests were removed or that Rome took necessary action.
The archdiocese’s handling of cases in the worst years was grossly unacceptable, even if it was typical for how such allegations were handled at the time. And it was fairly typical for the time. The report itself makes this point, if indirectly, when it notes the history of Maryland’s criminal statutes for child sexual abuse.
“Maryland passed its first law explicitly criminalizing child abuse in 1963,” the report says. It was not until 1974 that Maryland’s child abuse statute “finally made clear that it included sexual abuse.” Maryland’s statutes covering child sexual abuse and other forms of physical abuse were not separated until 2003.
The state is not the measure of the Church’s handling of abuse cases; the Church’s law and, ultimately, the Gospel is. But the point is worth noting: It is not only the Catholic Church which has grown in it its understanding of child sexual abuse and adapted how it handles such cases.
Last week, the governor of Maryland signed a law permanently repealing the statute of limitations for civil suits in cases of child sexual abuse. This was the AG report’s primary objective and recommendation. The new law applies retroactively. In addition, the new law caps noneconomic damages in such cases, but sets the cap for suits against private institutions (such as the Church) almost twice as high as it does for public institutions (such as public-school districts).
If the law stands – it’s being contested on state constitutional grounds – it will no doubt open the Archdiocese of Baltimore to a flood of lawsuits. The Maryland Catholic Conference opposed the retroactive lifting of the statute of limitations, though it supported eliminating them going forward.
It should be clear that the Church is not done paying for the sins and crimes of the past. The shame and the truth of the matter is that the burden of those sins and crimes is borne most by those who are innocent: the victims, first of all, but also in a real way the whole of the faithful.
The Maryland report is not something to celebrate. It contains far too much that is shameful and painful for that. But the Church has been striving for decades to regain trust, insisting that she has made meaningful progress in cleaning out the filth, and made lasting and effective reforms in support of transparency and accountability.
The Maryland attorney general has just spent five years proving that, at least in our nation’s oldest diocese, the Catholic Church is telling the truth.
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Reflections on the New Sex-Abuse Norms 
Brad Miner’s Nothing to Do with Homosexuality?