It was a painful moment for a man of his calling.
"I was in shock," the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell declared. "I never had sex with a kid."
That was in May, and Father Maskell, pastor of St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church in Elkridge, was describing his reaction to the first in a series of allegations that he had sexually abused students while he was a chaplain and counselor at Archbishop Keough High School more than two decades ago.
"It is absolutely untrue," he repeated over and over again in an interview with The Sun in his sparsely furnished rectory office.
Sunday, however, archdiocesan officials told surprised parishioners that Father Maskell had left his parish to seek therapy for stress and anxiety as the allegations of sex abuse mounted, a civil suit loomed, and the Baltimore state's attorney's office intensified a criminal investigation of the matter.
Those who know Father Maskell in different settings offer conflicting views of the 55-year-old cleric. He is capable of inspiring great loyalty, among parishioners as well as among the police, military officers and politicians he befriended over the years.
But the first allegations of sexual abuse in 1992 brought whispers of a possible darker side. Last week, the voices grew louder, as those who say they were abused painted a picture of a crafty manipulator who used his priestly authority and knowledge of psychology to ensnare troubled girls who were unlikely to talk.
Father Maskell grew up in northeast Baltimore and graduated from Calvert Hall College. He trained at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park and was ordained in 1965. Besides teaching at Keough, he has held posts in several local parishes -- Sacred Heart of Mary, St. Clement, Our Lady of Victory, Annunciation and Holy Cross. In 1972 he earned a master's degree in school psychology from Towson State University and then a certificate of advanced study in counseling from the Johns Hopkins University.
In addition to his pastoral and teaching duties, Father Maskell has served as chaplain for two police agencies -- the Maryland State Police and Baltimore County police -- as well as for the Maryland National Guard and, more recently, for the Air National Guard, where he held the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Yesterday, however, Father Maskell resigned from the Air Guard and was assigned to the Inactive Ready Reserve, according to Capt. Hunt Kerrigan, the guard's public information officer. The priest had been senior chaplain of the 135th Air Transport Group, based at Martin State Airport.
He was also dropped yesterday from the advisory board of Operation Challenge, a guard-sponsored program for high school dropouts at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Father Maskell delivered the invocation at the program's graduation ceremony two weeks ago.
Father Maskell's friends from his police and military posts describe him as a well-liked priest and a gregarious man who enjoyed competitive shooting and fishing.
Capt. James L. Scannell, a retired Baltimore County police precinct commander, called the priest "a rugged guy, very outgoing. He baptized my grandchildren. My children liked him. If he had been that weird, it would have come out. He was around police a lot, riding along, he rode with me. Police would have noticed; bells would have gone off. Nothing did."
''A priest's priest''
Baltimore City Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi of the 6th District said he has known Father Maskell for a decade and served as a lay reader and Eucharistic minister for him. "I think he's fine, nothing less than a priest's priest," the councilman said.
Mr. DiBlasi said he talked with Father Maskell after the first former student accused him of abuse in 1992, an allegation the archdiocese says was investigated but never confirmed.
"He said he had an accuser, but he said he knew nothing about it," Mr. DiBlasi said. "I know him to be genuinely wholesome, and he would do nothing to detract from his priestly duties."
The Rev. Robert G. Hawkins, pastor of St. Rita's Roman Catholic church in Dundalk, has known Father Maskell for 34 years. They attended St. Mary's Seminary together and would frequently go target shooting with pistols.
"Father Maskell is a good friend," Father Hawkins said. "He is a fine priest, intelligent and a hard worker. Any charges against him are absurd. He's a fine man."
Attilia Marasa, who worked in the Keough office during Father Maskell's tenure there, dismissed the allegations out of hand.
"I think Father Maskell's above reproach, an upstanding priest. All this crap that's coming out about priests is just to get money from the Catholic Church," she said.
"If it had happened to me it would have been reported at once, you can bet your bippy on that," she added. "I would have gone right away to the archdiocese, don't wait 25 years. The girls should have told their parents right away and gotten a lawyer and reported to the archdiocese."