5 more allegations of abuse surface after disclosure of priest's past Baltimore Co. pastor committed suicide

September 01, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer Staff writer William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

At least five people have come forward to say they were sexually molested by the Rev. Thomas W. Smith, the Baltimore County priest who killed himself Aug. 21 after being confronted with an abuse allegation.

Rob Rehg, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, said "five or six" males have contacted church officials since Sunday, when Archbishop William H. Keeler revealed to the stunned congregation of St. Stephen Church in Bradshaw that Father Smith had a history of abusing children.

The current and former parishioners who called this week said Father Smith had "improperly touched or fondled" them, generally when they were in seventh or eighth grade, Mr. Rehg said. He said he was not sure of the callers' current ages or their exact number.

Father Smith, 68, who was revered as a dynamic and caring pastor in two decades at St. Stephen, killed himself with a shotgun in the church rectory. He left a note referring to depression over the death of his mother in December.

At the time of the suicide, Bishop William C. Newman, Father Smith's supervisor, told a reporter there were no allegations of sexual impropriety or other wrongdoing against Father Smith. But in fact, as Archbishop Keeler told the parishioners a week later, Father Smith had acknowledged in 1988 that he had molested a number of boys while serving as associate pastor at St. Michael Church in Overlea in the 1960s. Father Smith had also just been informed of a new allegation of abuse from the early 1980s.

In apparent violation of Maryland law, archdiocesan officials failed to report the abuse in 1988 to either law enforcement or social service agencies. Instead, they accepted Father Smith's assurance that the abuse had stopped 20 years ago, arranged for a psychiatric evaluation and prohibited him from working with youth, though he stayed on as pastor.

Two weeks ago, the archdiocese received a letter from an attorney alleging that Father Smith had abused a boy at St. Stephen approximately 10 years ago -- long after the priest had insisted the molestation had stopped. He was confronted with the letter on Aug. 19 and directed to report to a clinic in Connecticut on Saturday, Aug. 21, for psychological evaluation. His body was found by an associate pastor at 10:10 a.m. that morning.

The archdiocese prepared a statement on the child abuse allegations that day, Mr. Rehg said, but officials decided not to release it until after his funeral, which took place the following Wednesday. On Friday, Archbishop Keeler discussed the abuse allegations with parish leaders, and on Sunday he presented the allegations at an afternoon meeting with about 500 parishioners.

At the meeting, a psychologist discussed how parents might talk with their children to learn whether they had been molested. Archbishop Keeler urged victims to make themselves known to the church by calling Monsignor Francis Malooly at 547-5446, Sheila Kelly at 547-5425 or Ronald Valenti at 547-5384.

"We want to reach out to as many people as we can, to offer assistance and to help with healing," Mr. Rehg said.

The current decision of the archdiocese to make public abuse allegations and to reach out to victims contrasts with its conduct in 1988, when no hint of the abuse Father Smith had admitted was revealed to his parishioners or to authorities.

State law requires anyone who "has reason to believe [a] child has been subjected to abuse" to report that belief to police or the local Department of Social Services. Mr. Rehg said that on advice of its legal counsel, the archdiocese believed reporting was not required if the child had reached adulthood by the time the abuse came to light.

A prosecutor and an assistant state attorney general said last night that the archdiocese's interpretation was incorrect and that church officials should have reported the abuse in 1988. "It's our position that no matter how old the case is, the reporting is mandatory," said Scott D. Shellenberger, a Baltimore County assistant state's attorney in charge of prosecuting child abuse and sexual offenses. "We're handling more and more cases that occurred five, 10, 15 or more years ago. We've prosecuted a couple of incest cases that go back 20 years."

Jack Schwartz, the assistant attorney general for opinions and advice, said his office has not issued a formal opinion on the reporting law but has offered advice.

"I have given informal advice that the reporting law requires reporting of an instance of abuse of a child, even if the alleged victim is now an adult," Mr. Schwartz said. "That's the most straightforward reading of the statute, and it also serves the public purposes of the law."

Both Mr. Shellenberger and Mr. Schwartz noted that reporting of old case may prevent the abuser from molesting new victims. It also can lead to treatment both for the abuser and the victims, they said.

An associate pastor of St. Stephen in the early 1980s, the Rev. Marion F. Helowicz, was reported to the police in 1988 by a teen-ager he had abused. The priest was sent away for treatment and dismissed from his job at another church. The archdiocese paid a substantial sum to the victim in an out-of-court settlement in 1990.

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