In Catonsville, a parish copes with disclosures from its past

Archdiocese list named 56 accused of sex abuse

6 had served at St. Mark

October 13, 2002|By Gail Gibson and Laura Vozzella | Gail Gibson and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore church officials released the long, detailed list last month, naming 56 priests accused of molesting children, the toll appeared greatest for a century-old parish in Catonsville that has been a bedrock in the region's Catholic community.

Of the priests named by the Baltimore Archdiocese, six had served at St. Mark Church - the greatest number with ties to a single parish.

The list of the accused brought the church scandal that erupted in Boston more than eight months ago uncomfortably close for a community so close-knit and so enduring that some church members refer to their home not as Catonsville, but as St. Mark's parish.

"I think everyone was really surprised, shocked, that it came so close to home," said Bill Garman, a father of five who has been a member of the church since 1989 and who supports the new candor about the past.

"The church has to be honest and has to be upfront," Garman, 46, a Defense Department manager says. "That's what the church is about."

It is not clear how many abuse victims once were St. Mark's parishioners, because the archdiocese has declined to provide that information. One current pastor acknowledged from the pulpit that he was dismayed to learn about the record of his predecessors.

A former St. Mark priest described as a "miracle worker" abused a 16-year-old in the church rectory; he pleaded guilty Friday. Another priest who had served at St. Mark's parish in the 1970s admitted abusing many young people decades earlier. One former associate pastor was accused of beginning an eight-year relationship with a teen-age boy while at the church.

Some parishioners, like Garman, have welcomed the church's openness about the issue. But there are many more in the traditional, middle-class congregation who do not want to confront the painful topic now, years after the alleged abuse occurred.

They defend the priests who are among the accused or quickly say that those six men do not reflect the parish they know - one that is widely respected for its high-achieving grade school and its many hardworking priests who have presided over countless weddings, christenings and funerals.

"Everybody seems like they're jumping on the bandwagon," said Cindy Keenan, an accountant from Catonsville who has been a member of St. Mark for 20 years. "And you know what? I don't think we should judge."

`Miracle worker'

One of the accused priests, David G. Smith, is remembered more than 20 years after he left St. Mark as an untiring advocate who helped get a recreation center built on the church's campus, which stretches across two quiet city blocks and includes a school and a worship center built in the late 1960s alongside the 19th-century chapel.

On Friday, Smith pleaded guilty to perverted practice after a Mount Washington man, Brian P. Hannon, now 45, accused Smith of giving him beer and molesting him in St. Mark's rectory between 1973 and 1976. According to Hannon, who said he was 15 or 16 when the abuse began, Smith "took my faith" and he has not set foot in a Catholic church as an adult.

At St. Mark, many struggle to reconcile that image of Smith with the man they knew.

"Everyone is very much in shock about it, because the whole concept was he was a miracle worker," Keenan said. "One day there wasn't a gym, and the next day there was."

Across the country, American Catholics in the past year have wrestled with conflicting reactions and emotions to the revelations of clergy sexual abuse. In Baltimore, the issue was brought home when Cardinal William H. Keeler last month publicly named the priests who have faced abuse allegations over the past seven decades.

Keeler disclosed that more than 80 priests in the Baltimore Archdiocese have been accused of molesting minors since the 1930s. Church officials identified more than 50 - withholding only the names of priests who died before they could respond to the allegations.

The cardinal's decision angered some clergy, who argued that the reputations of priests who denied the allegations were ruined. But the list has also prompted calls from 23 people who have come forward with new allegations of abuse, Stephen J. Kearney, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said last week.

He said none of the claims involves priests still serving in the ministry. In most instances, the allegations involved priests named on the list; in some instances, the newly accused priests were dead, Kearney said.

Church officials have released no details about the alleged victims of the men who once led Catholic churches across the region. In addition to Smith, though, two other priests are accused of abusing minors during the time they were assigned to St. Mark.

James Dowdy, accused in 1993 of sexual abuse, admitted to misconduct with two minors. The abuse occurred while Dowdy was associate pastor of St. Mark from 1975 to 1980 and pastor of St. Jerome's Church in Southwest Baltimore in the early 1980s.

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