As bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, the Most Rev. William E. Lori fought for nearly eight years — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — to prevent the wide release of information about the history of child sexual abuse in that branch of the Catholic Church.
The soft-spoken prelate argued in the case two decades ago that what was already publicly known about sexual misconduct by clergy in the diocese was all the information the public needed to grasp the scope of the crisis and understand who was responsible.
Now archbishop of Baltimore, the 71-year-old Lori is facing a tidal wave of criticism — and even calls for his resignation — as the Maryland Attorney General’s Office seeks to release the results of its four-year investigation into the abuse of children by Catholic clergy in Baltimore and nine counties in the state.
Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh announced last month that his team had finished its sprawling probe, and his staff quickly filed a motion in Baltimore Circuit Court to make the 456-page document public. After five days, the archdiocese announced it would support its release, but The Baltimore Sun confirmed a week later that the archdiocese is paying legal fees for an anonymous group of current and former employees who seek to influence what is disclosed.
The Connecticut and Maryland cases are in many ways different. In Bridgeport, Lori filed a motion on behalf of his diocese to prevent the release of thousands of documents related to abuse cases. In Baltimore, the archdiocese is supporting those who seek to affect the release — instead of taking such a step itself. Meanwhile, the identities of those seeking to control the outcome are under seal.
In an interview with The Sun, Lori defended his actions in both dioceses. He’s also used messages to parishioners, including a video on the archdiocese website, to expound on his reasoning in the Maryland case.
“The archdiocese does not and will not oppose the report’s release,” Lori says in the video. “But we [have] also pledged to support the rights of some people who are mentioned in the report, but not accused of abuse, and who were not given the ability to respond to the attorney general during the investigation.”
To some who have followed both cases, Lori’s approaches to the two situations are strikingly similar, and not in a positive way.
“I can’t pretend to read his mind, but in Connecticut, he seemed to be in favor of transparency even as he worked against it,” said Terry McKiernan, a co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a nonprofit that tracks clergy abuse cases. “He tries to have his cake and eat it, too.”
Gail Howard, a co-director of the Connecticut chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, rejected the archbishop’s reasoning.
“Lori’s explanation — hiding the truth in case it might get misused — doesn’t cut it,” Howard said. “In what universe does sealing information promote transparency? People in Bridgeport legitimately wanted to know what happened in their diocese, and he wants to keep things secret because some little group might get hurt? He’s doing the same thing down there he did up here.”
The Bridgeport battle
By the time Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop of Bridgeport in 2001, Lori was making a name for himself among church leaders as a man to help reform policies, procedures and attitudes around abuse.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Lori had helped Cardinal James Hickey in Washington craft one of the first child-protection policies in the U.S. Catholic Church.
Fellow bishops tapped him to help write the 2002 Dallas Charter, guidelines for addressing abuse by priests in the U.S., and sell it to the pope. However, Lori and the other authors were criticized for omitting bishops (on the grounds they were subject only to papal authority) from the charter’s first version. Subsequent documents have established how bishops can address other bishops’ misconduct.
When Lori arrived in Connecticut, the diocese was reeling from widespread reports of abuse and a long-percolating lawsuit filed by 24 victims. Lori’s charge included changing the culture created by his predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan, who displayed a “dismissive, uncaring, and at times threatening attitude toward survivors,” according to an independent report in 2019.
Lori removed abusive priests, put an anti-abuse policy in writing and enforced it, met with survivors and set up a victim assistance program. The 2019 report credited him with starting “meaningful outreach efforts to survivors for the first time in the diocese’s history.”
Lori did draw fire for keeping a priest in ministry in Bridgeport despite the man’s inclusion in a legal settlement. A diocesan review board found allegations against the priest weren’t credible, Lori said, and disentangling his case from others would have been too expensive.
Then there was the legal battle. Just days before he was installed in Bridgeport, diocesan officials announced a $15 million settlement of the lawsuit. Lori said the deal specified that more than 12,000 documents related to the abuse be sealed from public view and ultimately destroyed. But four newspapers, including the Hartford Courant and The Boston Globe, filed a motion to have them released. Lori fought back.
Among the principles his lawyers cited was that the government has no inherent right to the internal documents of a church, which they argued is a private entity.
Others should sound familiar to those following the ongoing debate about the attorney general report in Maryland.
Lori maintained that news coverage had made the names of every abusive priest publicly known and that the plaintiffs were free to tell their stories. He held that unsealing the documents would unveil private information, such as medical records and the names of previously unidentified survivors, and endanger church employees mentioned in the documents who were not accused of wrongdoing.
“There were a number of priests who had unsubstantiated allegations [against them], who had been very carefully investigated, and [the allegations were] found not to be credible,” Lori told The Sun. “To be mentioned publicly would have unfairly destroyed their lives and careers.”
The fight made it to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which in both 2005 and 2009 affirmed an order by a lower court to give the newspapers access to the documents. Lori charged that the judge in the case had a conflict of interest and alleged the press had “intervened” in a settled case. His appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court came up short: the high court declined to extend a stay on the sealed materials.
Lori expressed his displeasure in the form of a blog post after one of the rulings.
“Sadly, the history of this case has been about access by the secular media to internal Church documents of cases more than 30 years ago to suggest, unfairly, that nothing has changed,” he wrote. “This is despite the extraordinary measures the Catholic Church has undertaken over the past several years to treat victims with great compassion and dignity, and to put in safeguards and educational programs to ensure that such a tragedy will not happen again.”
Survivor advocates were relieved at the outcome, but some remain frustrated with Lori for taking the case as far as he did. To John Marshall Lee, a former board member of the Bridgeport chapter of the Voice of the Faithful, an organization of lay Catholics founded in 2002 over concerns about abuse in the church, the battle Lori fought belied his assertions he was a reformer.
“Many people of faith ask the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’” Lee said. “Lori was a strong officer in the bigger church hierarchy of maintaining a defensive position on the issue of clergy abuse. But where are the studies about why these collared men were doing what they did? What about the people who are still struggling? I think Jesus would have been more with the victims.”
Transparency and privacy
Baltimore Circuit Judge Anthony Vittoria, who is handling the case of the attorney general’s report, issued a gag order in the case Dec. 2. Lori cited it in his Dec. 8 interview with The Sun in no longer taking questions about the report or its potential release.
The attorney general’s motion to release the report said it identifies 158 priests who abused some 600 children over the past 80 years.
The archdiocese has argued those figures support claims it has been in the vanguard of U.S. dioceses in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse over the past two decades.
When the archdiocese instituted a new policy by disclosing the names of 57 credibly accused priests in 2002, it was only the second of the nation’s more than 180 to take the step (nearly 20 still don’t). Lori has expanded the disclosure program, adding names, brief accounts of the offenses in question, and the work histories of each accused man. The diocesan website currently lists 152 accused.
Frosh said in a November interview that he does not believe clergy abuse remains a crisis in the archdiocese.
Archdiocesan spokespersons who have read the report, which Frosh’s office shared with the church, say its named offenders include the 152 names on the church’s website. The list was among more than 100,000 documents the archdiocese turned over to investigators.
What the church’s critics don’t know has left them to wonder what the anonymous archdiocesan-backed group hopes to achieve or can accomplish by having their say with the judge. If they get a hearing, will the opponents press the court to withhold names or other information? Who, the watchdogs want to know, are the archdiocese employees who are mentioned but not accused of abuse?
McKiernan said that in other cases he has documented, such names were those of church employees working in roles that survivors believe allowed abuse to unfold, people who kept abusive priests in ministry.
“Until the report is released and we know the names, we have no way of knowing what part they might have played,” he said.
Lori declined to comment on calls for his resignation and said he does not regret pushing forward the legal case in Connecticut.
“I fought the good fight,” he told The Sun.
He also said he considers the archdiocese’s offering legal help to the anonymous group to be consistent with his support for building a culture of transparency.
Language on the archdiocese’s website describes its criteria for determining whether a priest has been “credibly accused” of abuse: “The Archdiocese of Baltimore is committed to openness and transparency. The Archdiocese will meet this commitment to the extent possible while also respecting the privacy and reputations of all individuals and applicable law.”
“I’d stand by that statement happily,” Lori told The Sun. “It does sum up our approach to all this. I think it’s the kind of approach that ought to be generally acceptable across the culture.”