The Archdiocese of Baltimore has added the names of 23 deceased priests and religious brothers to an online database of clergy members accused of child sexual abuse.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore has added the names of 23 deceased priests and religious brothers to an online database of clergy members accused of child sexual abuse. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / The Baltimore Sun)

The Archdiocese of Baltimore added the names Wednesday of 23 deceased priests and religious brothers to its online database of clergy members accused of child sexual abuse, signaling a revision in policy on dealing with cases that come to its attention only after an accused individual has died.

The change is in keeping with an endeavor by the diocese to enhance openness when it comes to the issue of child sexual abuse in the church, said Archbishop William E. Lori, leader of the area’s half-million Catholics.

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“It’s part of an overall effort to be more transparent,” Lori said. “In doing this, we hope we’re giving more people who have in fact been abused the courage to come forward.”

The additions bring to 126 the number of clergy in the diocese considered credibly accused of sexual abuse, with incidents dating back as far as 80 years.

The move is “a great step,” said David Lorenz, state director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

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Archbishop William Lori encouraged the more than 500,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Baltimore to report wrongdoing by clergy at all levels as part of an effort to regain public trust as church leaders worldwide confront a sexual abuse crisis.

“Even if the allegations date back to the 1950s, I guarantee there are victims of these predators who have never told anyone and who will get some sense of relief and justice,” Lorenz said. “I truly appreciate that.”

The diocese has long had a policy of notifying law enforcement of every abuse allegation it receives; the list reflects only those names it chooses to share with the public.

“Every one of these people was reported to law enforcement when the allegations became known to us,” diocesan spokesman Sean Caine said. “The issue is publishing the names, not reporting to authorities.”

The diocese, the nation’s oldest, began disclosing the names of credibly accused priests more than 16 years ago in the aftermath of a blockbuster investigative series by The Boston Globe that brought to light the scandal of widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the United States.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responded to that scandal at its 2002 national meeting by issuing a document — the so-called Dallas Charter — that proclaimed a “zero-tolerance” policy toward sexual abuse of children by priests and deacons.

Later that year, the Baltimore archdiocese became the second in the United States (after the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz.) to make a list of credibly accused priests available to the public.

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The Baltimore diocese’s policy at the time was to include, with few exceptions, only the names of clergy who had faced accusations of abuse during their lifetimes. That, according to Caine, was a matter of fairness.

“If a person isn’t alive to defend himself, you have to be sure,” Caine said. “You’ll be tarnishing their reputation permanently. You can’t unring the bell of a false allegation.”

The original list included 57 names; 46 more were added as accusations of living clergy members came in over the years.

The diocese’s concern for fairness hasn’t changed, Lori said, but the crisis of sexual abuse that has affected the church in the past few decades has prompted Catholic leaders “to acquire greater skill in learning to evaluate the evidence” surrounding sexual abuse.

In light of that understanding, as well as the diocese’s renewed commitment to transparency, Lori said he decided to ask a team of church leaders — men and women with experience dealing with the psychological and legal aspects of child sexual abuse — to review the files of dozens of late clergy members who were first accused after they died.

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The group recommended adding a clergy member’s name to the list if any of three conditions were met: the archdiocese received allegations against that individual from more than one victim, the group believed it could substantiate an allegation through the information in its files, or an accused priest’s or brother’s name already was published elsewhere.

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Recommendations were forwarded to an independent review board, a majority-lay panel the diocese relies on to review its handling of abuse cases and other complaints.

Lorenz said if he had any qualms about the process, it was that the board is less independent than it sounds, given that the archbishop appoints its members.

“Time and again,” he said, “church leaders have shown that their ability to investigate themselves is not good.”

The reviewers did exclude some clergy who were first accused of misconduct after their deaths, but according to Lori, it wasn’t many.

“Looking at what we did not publish, I’d say our definition of ‘substantiated’ has a pretty low bar,” he said. “We erred on the side of substantiating.”

The oldest of the alleged incidents took place in the 1930s, the most recent in the 1980s, Caine said. More than 70 percent occurred more than 50 years ago.

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Nearly half the men were priests of the archdiocese at the time of the alleged abuse. Two were from other dioceses, and 13 were members of Catholic religious orders.

The policy change is part of a larger effort within the diocese that included the creation, last year, of a third-party reporting system people can use to report abuse by clergy members, including bishops.

It’s a feature the U.S. bishops organization appeared ready to consider approving as a national policy in November during their most recent assembly in Baltimore, but Pope Francis issued an order just before the gathering, telling bishops to take no action at that time on the matter of sex abuse.

The decision sparked outrage among Catholics and others around the world who had hoped that the bishops would act decisively in the midst of a worldwide sex abuse scandal.

Lori said he hopes the bishops will take up the matter when they return in June to Baltimore for a national assembly.

The updated list of accused priests can be accessed here.

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