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Protesters outside Mass at Baltimore Basilica call for accountability on sex abuse by priests

a group of Roman Catholics rallies in the rain outside the Baltimore Basilica in response to the sexual abuse scandal, demanding action and reform by the church. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

As a church bell tolled, about a dozen protesters seeking accountability for sexual abuse by Catholic priests huddled under umbrellas outside the Baltimore Basilica and began to sing “We Shall Overcome.”

The group was part of planned series of demonstrations at major Catholic churches around the country this weekend in the wake of a report by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office revealing the role senior church leaders played in covering up years of abuse.

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Ryan Sattler, leader of the activist organization Call to Action Maryland, told those gathered in Sunday’s rain that the event would be the first of many similar rallies.

Sattler called on the Archdiocese of Baltimore to be more transparent about abuse and for law enforcement to conduct new investigations.

“We need to see the truth,” he said.

The Pennsylvania report has thrown the church into crisis once more over years of abuse since it was issued in August. A grand jury concluded last month that 1,000 victims had been abused by some 300 priests and drew fresh attention to the role bishops and other church leaders played in covering up the harm.

The grand jury found that the late Cardinal William H. Keeler, the longtime archbishop of Baltimore, allowed an accused priest to move from Pennsylvania to Baltimore. Church officials say there are no reports that the priest, the Rev. Arthur Long, committed any wrongdoing in Maryland. But after the report, the church announced that a new school will no longer be named for Keeler.

“We found out what the grand jury has unfolded in Pennsylvania,” Sattler said. “What is going on in the other 49 states?”

Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said what Sattler’s group is calling for is in line with what church leaders have been hearing across the state in the past few weeks.

On Sunday, Archbishop William E. Lori attended St. John the Evangelist Church in Columbia as part of a series of events combining worship and discussion. Caine said the message from churchgoers has been consistent: “A desire for greater transparency and accountability, whatever that looks like.”

Authorities in at least five other states have said they now have investigations similar to the one in Pennsylvania. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh has declined to confirm or deny whether his office is taking any action, and Caine said the archdiocese has not received any subpoenas or request for records.

Lori personally addressed the crisis at a back-to-school event for Catholic school teachers in late August.

“All of this amounts to a tsunami of moral failure, a tsunami that has hurt many innocent victims and undermined the church’s credibility,” he said. “People are bewildered and angry, both at the crimes committed against the innocent and at the failure of some bishops, especially in the past, to effectively root out out this evil from the church and its ministries.”

On Friday, churches across Maryland conducted special Masses and other events in recognition of the harm caused by the abuse and to give parishioners a chance to discuss the crisis.

Sattler, who attends St. Matthew Church in Baltimore, said he has been encouraged by Lori’s leadership, but that the church will only heal if its regular members are included in the process.

“The laity needs to be at the table,” he said. “Together, and only together, can we stop this.”

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Caine said it’s not clear whether the latest revelations have had an effect on the numbers of people attending Mass but said the archdiocese has definitely seen an increase in the number of people contacting officials to express their anger and concern. Caine said those messages are an indication that people aren’t simply abandoning the church.

Suzanne Fontanesi, one of the protesters who attended Sunday’s rally, said she felt a responsibility as a Catholic to respond to the crisis. She said that while she sees much about the church that is worth preserving, she also wants to see significant changes, including an end to the all-male priesthood and greater humility from church leaders.

“That could restore my hope in the institutional church,” Fontanesi said.

Sattler similarly said he remained committed to the church.

“We think its always easier to reform that which you are part of,” he said.

In the rain, worshipers heading into the Basilica for Mass stepped past the small group of protesters, who prayed and sang hymns.

When they were finished, some of the protesters folded up their umbrellas and headed up the steps to join the service.

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