As he sat through a painful hearing in a Towson courtroom two days after Christmas in 1988, the Rev. Thomas W. Smith had a fearful secret.
Father Smith, 64, watched as his former associate pastor, the Rev. Marion F. Helowicz, 43, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a teen-age boy at St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church in Bradshaw. The defendant's lawyer told the judge that Father Smith had been "aghast" at the charges and "couldn't fathom that this had occurred."
Father Helowicz's disgrace was in the next day's newspaper, his career as a priest shattered. But Father Smith's secret remained intact.
Just three months earlier, Father Smith himself had been accused of the same crime. And like Father Helowicz, he had admitted the abuse, which had occurred more than 20 years earlier. In fact, he acknowledged that he had a number of victims, not just one.
But Father Smith's admission was not in a public courtroom, nor was it reported in the news media. He had confessed privately to archdiocese officials, who sent him for a psychiatric evaluation, accepted his assertion that he had not abused a child in 20 years and kept the matter quiet.
For five more years, the secret was kept. Then, two weeks ago, Father Smith was told of a new allegation of abuse. This time, the archdiocese chose to send him away for evaluation, virtually ensuring that word would leak out.
And Father Smith, a rock-solid paragon of wisdom and virtue in the eyes of his flock in northeast Baltimore County, his public record unblemished in 43 years as a priest, chose not to go. Instead, on Aug. 21, he killed himself in his room in the St. Stephen rectory.
Father Smith is far from the only priest in a similar predicament to take his own life. As the Catholic church comes under increasing public pressure to confront priests suspected of child abuse, a small but growing number have committed suicide rather than live to see their reputations destroyed.
In July, a retired Kentucky priest killed himself after being questioned by a detective about allegations of abuse of boys many years earlier.
A year ago, the chancellor of the Arlington, Va., archdiocese killed himself after a former parishioner confronted him and said he remembered the priest abusing him when he was an altar boy 25 years earlier.
A few months before that, a Catholic priest and teacher in Colorado asphyxiated himself, by running his car in his closed garage, the day after he learned police intended to charge him with sexually assaulting a student.
A 61-year-old priest in Alabama, facing trial on charges of molesting a 12-year-old altar boy, fatally shot himself in 1986, leaving a note that said he preferred to be "a dead memory rather than a living disgrace."
Pattern of cover-up
"As this has become a more and more public issue, and the church has been forced to deal with it more aggressively, we're seeing more suicides, and we will see more," said Elinor Burkette, a Washington journalist and co-author of a new book on child abuse by Catholic priests, "A Gospel of Shame." "I think that argues for the earliest possible intervention."
The cover-up of the abuse admitted by Father Smith in 1988 is characteristic of the church's past reluctance to deal with the issue forthrightly, said Ms. Burkette, who studied hundreds of abuse cases. Such discretion is not necessarily a kindness to the abuser, she said.
"In a certain sense, by not getting [Father Smith] help in 1988, [church officials] made themselves partially morally responsible for his suicide," she said. "He needed help, and instead, they just chose to believe him when he said the abuse had stopped long ago."
Baltimore Archdiocese officials have said they were convinced in 1988 that the abuse by Father Smith had ceased two decades earlier. Believing Father Smith, they did not report the abuse to police, though they prohibited him from working with youth, officials said.
Sign of challenge
The suicides by priests, in the face of a powerful taboo in Christian tradition, are a tragic sign of the challenge the problem of sexual abuse poses to the church.
A. W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and therapist who has written widely on the subject, estimates that approximately 6 percent, or 3,000, of the nation's 50,000 Catholic priests engage in improper sexual contact with minors. Other experts have arrived at roughly similar figures.
In the Baltimore Archdiocese, five priests have been the target of public accusations of sexual abuse in recent years. One source familiar with such cases said at least seven other priests have been identified as abusers by church officials, but dealt with quietly.
Until about 10 years ago, in the rare instances in which sexual abuse by a priest was reported to his archdiocese, it rarely became public, Ms. Burkette said. "They'd go to the bishop, confess and be forgiven. Then they'd be moved to another parish, and the abuse would go on," she said.
A striking number of priests discovered to be abusing children have turned out to have been very popular in their parishes. "It's rare for these priests not to be considered the best in their parishes, and among the best in the archdiocese," Ms. Burkette said.
That certainly seems to have been the case with Father Smith. His parishioners revered him as an eloquent speaker and sympathetic counselor. His history of child abuse was so effectively hushed up that even those closest to him say they had not the slightest suspicion of it.
The Rev. John Dietzenbach, his associate pastor since 1986, who lived in the St. Stephen rectory with Father Smith and was very close to him when he was first confronted with the charges in 1988, said he didn't know. Neither did J. Gerard Kellner, a dear friend who shared many vacation trips with his pastor.
"We'd gone to Bermuda several times with him and his mother," Mr. Kellner said. "He and I walked the beaches of Ocean City many times and solved all the problems of the world, but this problem never came up."
Nor, Mr. Kellner said, did Father Smith share his distress with him on that Thursday two weeks ago, when two priests and a lawyer from the archdiocese showed him a letter from a lawyer representing a man who said Father Smith had abused him in the early 1980s.
Father Smith denied the charge, but accepted his superiors' decision to send him to a Connecticut treatment center for troubled clergy. He asked for a few days to get his affairs in order: He had to cancel a trip to Disney World in Florida with the Kellners and make arrangements for what might be a long and awkward absence. He agreed to be in Connecticut by Sunday.
But the next morning, he didn't call the Kellners to back out of the trip. Instead, he called another longtime parishioner.
"He said, 'You go hunting, right?' " the parishioner recalls. "He said, 'I got a friend who asked me to go bird-shooting in Southern Maryland. You got a gun I could borrow?' "
Father Smith drove over to get the 12-gauge shotgun, asking the owner to explain how it worked. They chatted for about 20 minutes, mostly about the preparations for the first day at the parish school.
"He looked tired," the parishioner said. "But I could understand him looking tired, what with getting ready for the school year and all. When he left, he patted me on the shoulder and said, 'So long,' and he gave my wife a hug and wished us a good vacation."
That evening, he ate dinner with the rectory cook about 6 p.m. and saw her off, saying, "I'll see you tomorrow." He prepared four envelopes, one addressed to Father Dietzenbach containing a crucifix, two for members of the Kellner family and one for the parishioner who lent him the shotgun, apologizing for the deception.
v In a note left on his desk, he expressed love for his friends and parishioners, referred to depression over the death of his mother the previous December and said he could "no longer take the pressure."
"God forgive me," it concluded.
Then he pulled the trigger.
Now, parishioners struggle to recover from a double blow: first, the inexplicable suicide of their pastor; and then, as revealed by Archbishop William H. Keeler of the Baltimore Archdiocese a week later, the apparent explanation for his death. For many, it is hard to accept that Father Smith abused anyone, even though he admitted the earlier molestation.
"Nothing can convince me it's true," said Michael Moran, 27, who grew up along with his four siblings in St. Stephen.
As a boy of 9 or 10, Mr. Moran said, he and a half-dozen other boys frequently were taken on outings by Father Smith. "He'd pick us up and take us to the movies or to McDonald's or to Friendly's for ice cream," he said.
When he was a little older, he said, he went on perhaps a dozen retreats with Father Smith and accompanied him with another boy on a weekend in Ocean City. Never was there any improper advance or suggestion from the pastor, he said.
Michael Moran's father, Dennis Moran, who owns a family business selling wooden and metal doors in East Baltimore, finds the allegations bewildering and the suicide uncharacteristic.
"He was a strong-willed person, a fighter," Mr. Moran said. He finds it impossible to square the revelations with the pastor's wisdom. "There were many, many Sundays when it seemed like he was talking just to me," he said.
Mr. Kellner speaks uncertainly now of the man he thought he knew so well. He tries to piece together an explanation: "He was a very proud man. He could just not deal with the public disgrace that would come on him, his church and his friends. That must be why he did what he did."
But he adds: "In all honesty, I find the whole thing incomprehensible. It's a real test of a person's faith, let me tell you."
Among the parishioners and former parishioners coping with Father Smith's death and its aftermath, of course, are some who have no doubts. They are the people -- at least a half-dozen, possibly considerably more -- who were abused by him. In addition to those he admitted abusing in the 1960s when he was associate pastor at St. Michael's in Overlea, there is the man mentioned in the letter received last month, and at least five more people who have approached the archdiocese since the abuse was revealed.
In a rare move for a church facing abuse charges, the Baltimore Archdiocese took the initiative a week after Father Smith's death by revealing the previously secret accusations and asking other victims to come forward. The information was even sent by fax to local news organizations, a sharp break with past practice here and elsewhere.
"I believe this difficult situation, painful though it is, must be handled straightforwardly," Archbishop Keeler, who took office in told parishioners at St. Stephen a week ago.
'Very, very unusual'
"The fact that they informed the parish is very, very unusual," said Dennis A. Gaboury, 42, a law firm administrator and member of the board of the Baltimore chapter of People Against Child Abuse.
Mr. Gaboury's own experience coming to terms with the abuse he suffered as a boy at the hands of the Rev. James R. Porter in Massachusetts has led him to become an advocate for victims. He said he is skeptical about whether anything would have been revealed about Father Smith had he not committed suicide, but he said going public is the only humane course.
Among the more than 100 victims of Father Porter, Mr. Gaboury said, four committed suicide and another 12 attempted suicide, possibly a consequence of living for years with the unhealing wound of childhood abuse. "The church has a responsibility to see that the victims get treatment and that the priests get treatment," he said.
Frank Fitzpatrick, a Rhode Island private investigator and childhood victim of Father Porter who tracked down others abused by the priest, is now trying to help victims of other abusers find one another.
He has started Survivor Connections, a data base in which he stores the names of abusers -- priests and others -- with their victims. When victims so desire, he arranges for them to contact one another, he said.
(The service is free, and the number in Cranston, R.I., is 401-941-2548.)
Even if Father Smith's victims are contacting the archdiocese and receiving counseling, he said, they should reach out to one another.
"A survivor knows what another survivor is feeling," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.