Archdiocese protected its priests

Baltimore church officials acting more aggressively on abuse charges lately

May 19, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The decision to return the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell to parish ministry in 1993 after he was accused of repeatedly abusing a teen-age boy was not the only instance over the past decade where the church firmly backed its priests in the face of credible abuse allegations, records and interviews show.

The case of Blackwell, who was shot and wounded last week by the man who first raised the allegations against him, also was not the first in the region to end in tragic violence.

Parishioners at St. Stephen Church in Baltimore County were stunned in 1993 when the well-liked Rev. Thomas W. Smith shot and killed himself in his church office.

Only after his death did Smith's parish learn that he had admitted to archdiocese officials five years earlier that he had fondled seventh- and eighth-graders in the 1960s but was allowed to stay on as pastor after promising that the abuse had ended long ago.

Smith's is one of the most notorious cases of sexual abuse by clergy in the Baltimore area. But other cases that received little notice also raise questions about the Baltimore Archdiocese's response to the problem over the past decade, even as church leaders have adopted more aggressive reporting and suspension policies.

"They were too willing to take advantage of legal protections rather than see what was best for the kids," said Joanne L. Suder, a Baltimore attorney who has represented several victims of alleged clergy sexual abuse.

She is helping to represent Dontee D. Stokes, the 26-year-old man accused of shooting Blackwell on Monday.

In Carroll County, prosecutors who wanted to question a Westminster priest about sexual abuse allegations in the mid-1990s said the Rev. Brian Cox was sent away for counseling and a sabbatical and church officials would not disclose his whereabouts.

The investigation of a former nun's claim that she was raped in St. Ambrose Church in Baltimore was hampered in 1990 when a lawyer for the archdiocese canceled a polygraph test for the accused, the Rev. Thomas Schwind, according to prosecution records. That case was reopened this month after the woman, Rita Monahan, complained that church officials simply reassigned Schwind to another parish instead of sending him for counseling.

Until the early 1990s, attorneys for the archdiocese also routinely sought to have alleged victims who brought abuse allegations against the church publicly identified in court records. That was the case in two lawsuits involving the Rev. William Q. Simms, who was accused 20 years ago of molesting two teen-age altar boys.

Simms was back in the news last week, after Cardinal William H. Keeler asked him to retire in anticipation of a policy change by national Catholic leaders that would remove all priests found to have abused children. Simms had been removed as pastor of St. Andrew by the Bay in 1985, but after counseling he was put in an administrative job at the Archdiocesan Tribunal, a religious court.

Raymond P. Kempisty, a chancellor for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said church leaders acknowledge that there have been past mistakes. But he said they have taken pains to draw a tough line on child sexual abuse.

"In recent years, we definitely have erred on the side of reporting fully," Kempisty said. He said local policy stops just short of a "zero-tolerance" stance for alleged abusers: "The hoops to be jumped through are pretty daunting, but it does leave the door cracked open a bit."

The church's posture on sexual abuse investigations - its willingness, for instance, to make priests available for interviews or polygraph exams - is important because child sexual abuse is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute, experts say.

Such abuse is almost always committed in secret and often is reported well after it occurs. Typically, the cases boil down to credibility: a child's word against an adult's. That balance is further strained when the adult is a respected authority figure such as a priest or teacher.

As the clergy sexual abuse scandal has unfolded in recent months, dioceses across the country have been rocked by disclosures of church leaders shuttling troubled priests from parish to parish. Since January, at least 177 priests accused of molesting children have resigned or been removed from their ministries.

In Baltimore, Kempisty has said only two monetary settlements were reached in the past decade for cases in which child sexual abuse was involved. He has refused to provide details or say how many cases were settled in previous years.

At least a dozen priests in the Baltimore Archdiocese have been suspended or removed because of abuse allegations since the late 1980s. And as the sexual abuse scandal continues, new cases are being reported.

The archdiocese will not say how many reports it has received since January. But P. McEvoy Cromwell, a Baltimore attorney who chairs a review board established by the archdiocese, said his panel will review about 15 new abuse allegations when it meets next week.

Four new complaints

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