The chairman of a panel named this week by Baltimore's Roman Catholic archdiocese to review alleged cases of sexual abuse by priests said yesterday that any church cover-ups that may have occurred won't be repeated.
Asked if excessive secrecy in the handling of sex-abuse accusations had hurt the church's credibility, P. McEvoy Cromwell replied, "My guess is, maybe it has. But I think the whole direction now is the other way. I don't think secrecy will be a problem in the future."
Mr. Cromwell, a Baltimore lawyer and active Catholic layman who is chairman of Mercy Medical Center, said he would be surprised if Archbishop William H. Keeler does not adopt all advice that comes from the review board and make it public.
Priests' sexual abuse of minors "is a tragic, difficult problem, with so many troublesome aspects," the lawyer said. "The only constructive, good thing to have happened is that now this is center stage, and now people are reporting what was once swept under the rug."
Mr. Cromwell said it is too early to state categorically that the recommendations of the six men and three women on the panel will be "binding" on the archdiocese. "I don't know, let's wait and see," he said. "But the recommendations made by this group will be well-thought-out and entitled to being given the greatest possible weight by the archbishop. If that's not the case, I doubt if these people will serve."
He emphasized that the group had only met twice and had not yet worked out precisely how it will function. The members have received some confidential information about "six or seven" cases of alleged sexual abuse by local priests, some cases already acted on and some still pending, he said.
Named to the panel by Archbishop Keeler, in addition to Mr. Cromwell, were:
Dr. Michael E. Johns, dean of the Johns Hopkins medical school; Jesse J. Harris, dean of the School of Social Work of the University of Maryland; Darrell D. Friedman, of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore; and Sally Michel, who serves on the Governor's Council on Child Abuse.
Also, Beverly A. Cooper, of the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation; Mary Kay Finan, an assistant professor at Frostburg State University; Leonard A. Strom, a Black & Decker Corp. vice president and financial adviser to the Catholic archdiocese; and Paul G. Wist, an accountant and financial planner.
"These people are beholden to no one," Mr. Cromwell said, emphasizing that none is employed by the archdiocese.
"Almost half of them are non-Catholics," he said. "They have agreed to look at what the archdiocese is doing [with respect to allegations of sexual abuse involving any church worker, clergy or otherwise] and make any recommendations they see fit."
He added, "We will report back to the archbishop our judgment on individual cases . . . and on policies or guidelines that should be strengthened or revised. If we have fault to find, we'll tell the archbishop."
Mr. Cromwell said the board plans to hold four "major meetings" annually. But at the outset, as it catches up with cases already acted on by the archdiocese, the board probably will meet more frequently.
"We will review carefully all decisions that have been made, but ours is an after-the-fact process," Mr. Cromwell said.
He explained that each accusation involving a priest, deacon, seminarian, employee or volunteer is handled first by an in-house "pastoral response team" of clergy, nuns and lay people on the staff of the archdiocese.
The latest case to be made public by the archdiocese is that of the Rev. Francis M. Sweeney, dismissed recently as chaplain of the Charlestown Retirement Community after allegations of child abuse more than 10 years ago.
This case "will not be reviewed by the board today or tomorrow,
but eventually," Mr. Cromwell said.