A lawyer the Catholic Church is paying to represent a group of people named in the Maryland attorney general’s report into clergy sexual abuse previously urged government investigators to look into the church’s past.
Gregg Bernstein, who was Baltimore state’s attorney from 2010 until 2014, met with a group of Catholic abuse victims on June 15, 2017, in his downtown office to discuss whether he could help push Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office to investigate the Archdiocese of Baltimore, according to interviews with meeting attendees and emails.
“I have reviewed all the materials you have provided me, including the grand jury reports, and I have forwarded the information to my contact at the Attorney General’s Office who I mentioned has expressed interest in this matter,” Bernstein wrote in an email to survivors a week later, bringing them up to speed on his progress. “I will let you know when I hear back from her.”
Raquel Coombs, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, confirmed Bernstein provided documents to agency investigators.
Bernstein declined to comment for this article.
Linda Malat Tiburzi, an abuse survivor who attended the 2017 meeting, told The Baltimore Sun that it had been organized by attorney Joann Suder and was a “complimentary consultation” with Bernstein. Bernstein asked all attendees to keep the meeting secret because he was concerned about the archdiocese becoming aware of potential legal action or that people were pushing for an investigation, Tiburzi said.
“He had said ‘Don’t tell anybody about this meeting, I would hate for this to get out and have the archdiocese building get struck by lightning,’” Tiburzi recalled. “Those are his words.”
Tiburzi took Bernstein’s comment to suggest that if word got out, records about past abuses may get destroyed.
Abuse victims say that meeting now feels like a betrayal given Bernstein’s work for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, including his current representation of an anonymous group of people named in Frosh’s report.
“It’s a real smack in the face to know an attorney who was recommended to me by another attorney is now working with the archdiocese to perhaps fight the release of a report at all,” Tiburzi said.
Bernstein and another attorney at the Zuckerman Spaeder law firm, William J. Murphy, represent a group of people named in the attorney general’s report but who are not accused of sexual abuse. Paid by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the attorneys wrote in a court filing they would only reveal their clients’ identities in a closed hearing.
Lawyers with Frosh’s office filed a motion in November asking for permission to release a 456-page report that details how 158 priests and other officials sexually abused more than 600 people, and how the church either ignored the abuse or actively covered it up. The report relies on grand jury records, which under Maryland law are secret until a judge rules otherwise.
The anonymous group sought to have all court proceedings related to the report’s release made confidential, arguing in court filings that it is all privileged under grand jury rules. It’s not publicly known what the group wants, with Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori saying Friday that the church has “pledged to support the rights” of people named in the report but who are not accused of abuse and who were not given the opportunity to respond to the attorney general’s investigation.
Lori also said the church will not oppose the report’s release.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Anthony Vittoria issued an order Friday making everything in the case confidential, banning attorneys for all parties from sharing any information, including hearing dates and communications.
On Sunday, David Lorenz, director of the Maryland Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, who also attended the 2017 meeting, sent Bernstein a letter asking him to quit representing people who Lorenz believes oppose the release of the report.
“There is certainly a sense of betrayal on your part and we respectfully request that you consider breaking off your relationship with the diocese over this matter and cease attempting to stop the release of the report,” Lorenz wrote in the letter, which he provided to The Sun.
In 2018, Lori picked Bernstein to be a part of a diocesan team investigating former Bishop Michael Bransfield, of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese in West Virginia. The pope appointed Lori to oversee the investigation into accusations Bransfield had engaged in sexual and financial misconduct over the years.
Bernstein and other investigators concluded Bransfield gave improper cash gifts to dozens of other Catholic officials, including Lori. They also found Bransfield had sexually abused young priests.
In Bernstein and the other investigators’ final report to the Vatican, Lori directed them to delete any mention of the gifts he received, as well as gifts to 10 other high-ranking officials. Bransfield gave cash gifts totaling $350,000 to fellow clergymen, including $7,500 to Lori.
“It seemed arbitrary to mention one group who got gifts [and not] a lot of others who got gifts,” Lori said in a 2019 interview with The Sun about the deletions.