Diocese free of errant priests, Keeler says

Some uneasy in wake of scandal in Boston

March 05, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

While Catholic bishops across the country are issuing apologies, suspending priests and strengthening guidelines in the aftermath of a pedophilia scandal in Boston, Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler is keeping a low profile, stating he is confident his diocese has weeded out all child sex abusers in its clerical ranks.

But other observers, including an attorney who has handled local clergy sex abuse cases and a psychotherapist who specializes in the area, share misgivings about such a blanket statement. And some of Keeler's priests, concerned about their congregations, are beginning to speak out about the pain and betrayal such abuse has caused.

One of them is the Rev. Jeffrey S. Dauses of the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley, who asked his parishioners Sunday to pray for all involved.

"I talked about how it was an unbelievable tragedy for everyone involved, for the church universal, for the church of Boston, for the victims, for the priests involved," he said.

A spokesman for Keeler says he sees no need to address the scandal because the archdiocese reports every allegation against any church employee to authorities, as required by law.

"There was a level of upheaval over this issue in the mid- to late-'80s," said Raymond P. Kempisty, Keeler's spokesman. "Because of work done then and careful scrutiny since, we're very confident with making a blanket statement that says in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, there are no priests in parish ministry who have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse."

Although he refused to release details, Kempisty said two monetary settlements have been reached in the past decade for cases in which child sexual abuse was alleged. The most recent lawsuit was filed seven years ago.

The city state's attorney's office confirms that it has no cases involving criminal conduct by clergy.

But Joanne L. Suder, an attorney who has represented several clients in sex abuse lawsuits against the archdiocese, is not as confident that the church has cleansed its rolls: "Their blanket statement, I would have to adamantly disagree with. Many [potential lawsuits] are handled privately, without ever being filed. Or a client, when they understand they may not get an order concealing their real names, is deterred from going forward. ... What I can agree with is, the past three years, I've seen no significant problems."

A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychotherapist who has been an expert witness in more than 50 cases of sexual abuse of minors, including some involving the Baltimore Archdiocese, shared that misgiving. Church officials haven't had enough time to double-check their records to make such a statement, he said.

"I think they're premature in giving themselves a clean bill of health," said Sipe.

Catholic church officials nationwide are reacting to an admission by Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law that he allowed suspected pedophiles to work in parishes, including a former priest accused of molesting more than 130 boys. Law, facing calls for his resignation, has given prosecutors the names of more than 80 current and former priests who have been accused of sexual abuse of minors during the past five decades.

Dioceses in New England, Pennsylvania and Southern California followed suit, acknowledging that dozens of priests had been accused of past sexual misconduct with children, and dismissing up to two dozen.

The troubling events have led some church leaders to make extraordinary apologies. "I want to add my own deep apologies for any and every crime of this kind by a priest or a minister of religion here or anywhere," wrote Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington in last week's edition of The Catholic Standard.

Reporting such allegations has been mandatory in Baltimore since 1987, which church officials say gives them confidence no cases have escaped their notice.

In 1993, the Archdiocese of Baltimore further strengthened its policies, creating an independent review board of eight laypersons, including non-Catholics, to oversee its handling of abuse cases.

But unlike the zero-tolerance policies issued in some dioceses, which ban any person who abused a minor from ministry, a priest credibly accused in Baltimore can return to a parish.

"Although we can't envision a case today where we would return someone to ministry, we don't want to take that possibility out of the hands of the many levels of review that have been established," Kempisty said.

In several instances in years past, priests accused of sexual abuse of a minor have been returned to parish ministry after investigations failed to substantiate the charges. One involved the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, who in 1993 returned to St. Edward's in West Baltimore after police dropped an investigation into whether the priest inappropriately touched a male teen and parishioners demanded his reinstatement.

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