A prominent former Baltimore archbishop, the late Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan, transferred priests accused of sexual abuse to new posts without disciplining them or warning parishioners when he led the Bridgeport, Connecticut, diocese decades ago, an independent report has concluded.
Shehan, who died in 1984 at age 86, is among several former Bridgeport bishops scrutinized in a report commissioned by the diocese there in response to the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis. He was Bridgeport’s first bishop, serving in the role from 1953 to 1961 before coming to Baltimore.
“The diocese’s practice of a bishop’s reassigning a priest following an abuse accusation began during Bishop Shehan’s tenure," states the Bridgeport report, which was made public Tuesday. "He knew of multiple specific incidents of abuse by then-active priests in the diocese, and assigned the priests to new postings with no discipline, and no warnings to the communities to which the priests were reassigned.”
Current Bridgeport Bishop Frank J. Caggiano ordered an investigation last year into the diocese’s history of sexual abuse and church officials’ response. A retired Connecticut judge led the investigation and prepared the report.
Shehan served as archbishop of Baltimore from 1961 to 1974, becoming a cardinal in 1965. Baltimore’s Cardinal Shehan School on Loch Raven Boulevard is named for him.
In an email to The Sun, Baltimore Archdioese spokesman Sean Caine said that the archdiocese “has apologized repeatedly for the Church’s past response to allegations of abuse including in the time period of the 1950s and 1960s when Cardinal Shehan was serving in Bridgeport."
“The Archdiocese has certainly recognized for a long time that the Church’s response to abuse allegations, especially in the 1950s-70s was completely inadequate,” Caine added.
Described as “a revered son of Baltimore” in an Evening Sun obituary, Shehan was known for his work promoting civil rights and for his opposition to the Vietnam War. He banned discrimination in Catholic institutions and took part in the 1963 March on Washington. In 1966, he was booed at a City Council meeting when he advocated for a fair housing measure.
The report’s conclusions disappointed Catholics such as Baltimore community activist Ralph Moore, who recalled serving as an altar boy during Mass with Shehan.
"I had the highest of regard for Cardinal Shehan because I was aware of his history and record on civil rights,” said Moore, who was active in the Black Catholic Movement in the 1970s. “I think it’s just a sign of how long and how widespread this problem has been... It’s extremely disappointing.”
The report says records from Shehan’s tenure are too sparse to fully understand his decisions and his attitude toward abuse. But it appears the diocese had no consistent or written policies under him, and “in that way had already begun to underestimate the magnitude of the abuse crisis and the measures necessary to combat it.”
Current Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori also served as bishop of Bridgeport from 2001 to 2012, when he came to Baltimore.
The report mostly praises Lori’s approach to the crisis, saying he acted quickly to remove abusive priests brought a new approach to handling allegations. But it also says he engaged in a lengthy court fight with The New York Times and other news outlets over journalists’ access to documents.
That battle “somewhat undercut” the diocese’s progress on transparency, the report states.
Separately, Lori has faced criticism recently from church reform advocates for deleting mention in a report to the Vatican of cash gifts he received from West Virginia bishop Michael J. Bransfield, who he was investigating.
The Bridgeport report said that 281 people were identified as having been abused by 71 priests.
“Until the early 2000s, the collective response of diocesan officials to the sexual abuse crisis was inadequate in nearly every way, but the single gravest moral and legal lapse was the consistent practice of Bishops Lawrence Shehan, Walter Curtis, and Edward Egan — over four decades — of leaving abusive priests in service, and thereby making it possible for them to continue committing abusive acts,” it states.
In a statement, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said it was disturbing that the men singled out in the report “all had high level positions in other dioceses, meaning that their callous disregard for children and survivors as recognized in Bridgeport was likely experienced by survivors around the country.”
“Every diocese where these men served should be subject to a full investigation by law enforcement officials to determine if any of these cover-ups can be criminally prosecuted,” the group said.
In September 2018, Lori told clergy members that Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office was investigating church records related to child sexual abuse.
Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Frosh, said she could not comment on any investigation, but that victims of clergy abuse are encouraged to report information to email@example.com or 410-576-6312 .
The Connecticut investigation’s conclusions mean the Baltimore Archdiocese should no longer honor Shehan, said Abbie Schaub, whose research on abuse in Baltimore’s Catholic community was featured in the Netflix documentary “The Keepers."
The Cardinal Shehan School enrolls students through eighth grade. Video of the school choir performing “Rise Up” went viral in 2017 and the students were featured on “Good Morning America” and elsewhere.
Schaub said she asked the archdiocese in an ethics complaint earlier this year to remove Shehan’s name from the school after conducting research on him.
In a phone interview Wednesday, she pointed to the archdiocese’s decision to cancel plans to name its new school after late Cardinal William H. Keeler. That decision came after a Pennsylvania grand jury report said that said Keeler let a priest accused of multiple sex offenses resume his ministry in Baltimore. The new school will now be named for Mother Mary Lange.
“I think with that precedent, it’s only reasonable to think that they would publicly make it clear that they really will not tolerate abuse cover-ups,” Schaub said.
Last August, the Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania ordered the name of every bishop there since 1947 to be removed from all diocesan buildings and rooms, saying church leaders had failed to take enough action on abusive priests.
Caine, the Baltimore Archdiocese spokesman, declined to comment on whether church officials would consider changing the name of Cardinal Shehan School.
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Baltimore Sun reporter Jonathan Pitts and librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.