Priest pleads guilty to abuse

Ex-Calvert Hall chaplain faces up to 15 years in jail

November 09, 2005|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

With his eyes closed and his head tipped back, Thomas Roberts listened yesterday morning in court to the painful details of the evenings and mornings he spent with his high school chaplain - details that have haunted him since the late 1980s.

Only this time, the 33-year-old former Calvert Hall College student heard them with a sense of relief, exhaustion and vindication.

In the moments before Baltimore County prosecutors read into the record the facts of the case, Jerome F. Toohey Jr., a priest and chaplain at the Towson boys school, had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing Roberts for six months after the high school sophomore came to him in 1987 for counseling.

"Father Jeff confessed his guilt and in doing so, there's no question about what he did," Roberts, now a news anchor for CNN in Atlanta, said quietly after yesterday's hearing. "No one can question it. It happened."

Known as "Father Jeff," the 59-year-old Roman Catholic priest was stripped of his faculties to function as a pastor in 1993 by the Baltimore Archdiocese after a former student at John Carroll School in Bel Air accused Toohey of sexually abusing him in the 1980s after he had sought counseling.

Sean Caine, an archdiocese spokesman, said yesterday that the archdiocese will now forward Toohey's case to Rome and ask the Vatican to defrock him, making permanent the archdiocese's actions. Only the Vatican can take such a permanent action against a priest.

As part of the plea agreement reached yesterday, prosecutors will not pursue criminal charges against Toohey for the sexual abuse that is alleged to have occurred with the John Carroll student, Michael Goles, 35, whose 1993 lawsuit against Toohey was dismissed because state law requires that civil suits be filed within three years of an alleged incident. But prosecutors can use evidence of that alleged conduct at a sentencing hearing in February to argue for a tougher punishment.

State sentencing guidelines recommend a prison term of one to six years on the child abuse charge to which Toohey pleaded guilty. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.

In interviews after the hearing, prosecutor Jason League said he will seek "substantial incarceration" for Toohey while defense attorney Andrew Jay Graham said he will ask the judge to approach sentencing "with some understanding and compassion."

"He made a mistake, serious mistakes here," he said of his client. "But putting this man in prison is not going to undo any of the harm or injury that occurred."

Toohey was charged in May with abusing Roberts between 1987 and 1989 at the priest's Loch Raven home. (The charge to which Toohey pleaded guilty covered abuse only between September 1987 and March 1988. Other charges involving later alleged abuse were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.)

The Sun does not publish the names of sexual abuse victims without their permission. Roberts and Goles - both of whom sat in the front row of the courtroom for the plea hearing - asked that their full names be used in coverage of Toohey's case.

Roberts' ordeal began, according to court documents, after his mother asked Toohey to counsel her then-15-year-old son, who was struggling with his parents' divorce and questions about his sexuality.

After counseling sessions, Roberts often spent the night at the priest's home. "Each time he went to Father Toohey's house for counseling, it ended with something sexual," League, the prosecutor, told the judge.

A journal that Roberts began keeping in 1988 - and turned over to police this year - included 28 entries of sexual contact with Toohey, continuing until the teenager graduated from Calvert Hall, the prosecutor said.

Toohey is not the first Calvert Hall staff member accused of sexually abusing students.

School leaders acknowledged last year in a letter to parents and alumni that two former students have said they were molested by Brother Geffrey Xavier, a Calvert Hall fixture for many years who died in 1984. The school decided to drop Xavier's name from a program for students with learning difficulties.

Last winter, the school acknowledged additional allegations of abuse - these from the early 1970s against the Rev. Laurence Brett, a former chaplain and teacher named in numerous sexual-abuse accusations at parishes and church schools across the country. School leaders have said that at least 14 Calvert Hall alumni have said they were abused by Brett. He has been on the run since 1993.

A spokesman for Calvert Hall says the school "regrets any abuse that has taken place in regard to Jerome Toohey."

"We pray that today's events continue the healing process and bring a sense of peace to the victim," said Doug Heidrick, director of communications.

He said the school has not received any other accusations of abuse by Toohey.

For Roberts and Goles, hearing Toohey plead guilty lifted a burden that has rested heavily upon them for nearly 20 years.

"The impact has been shame. Embarrassment. Secrets for a long time. Lying to everyone around me," said Roberts. "It was a prison of sorts because I couldn't tell anybody. I didn't think anybody would believe me."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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