The pastor of St. Augustine's Roman Catholic church in Howard County left his parish suddenly last week to seek therapy in the face of mounting allegations of sexual abuse, an official of the Archdiocese of Baltimore told surprised parishioners yesterday.
The Rev. A. Joseph Maskell voluntarily entered residential psychological treatment for anxiety and stress because of "the prospect of civil litigation and a criminal investigation," according to a statement read by the Rev. Richard W. Woy, personnel director for the archdiocese.
The potential civil litigation involves allegations from at least a dozen women that Father Maskell sexually abused them while they were students and he was a chaplain and counselor at Archbishop Keough High School in Southwest Baltimore during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Baltimore state's attorney's office is conducting a separate criminal investigation into sexual abuse, according to sources, but details of this have yet to emerge.
Attorneys involved in the case say criminal and civil statutes of limitations have expired on most of the acts alleged by women who were students at Keough during the priest's tenure.
More than 100 parishioners of St. Augustine's church were briefed yesterday by Father Woy and Thomas Dane, an archdiocesan lawyer, at a meeting that followed the last Sunday Mass at the church at 5976 Old Washington Blvd. in Elkridge.
Father Woy told the parishioners that Father Maskell denies all the allegations and said that the archdiocese is offering him psychological and financial support. In an interview with The Sun early this summer, the 55-year-old cleric also denied the allegations.
Father Woy said a temporary administrator will be appointed at St. Augustine's by mid-week.
William Blaul, a spokesman for the archdiocese, refused
yesterday to disclose where Father Maskell is hospitalized or say how long he would be there, other than to say the treatment is "open ended."
During yesterday's meeting, most of the parishioners defended Maskell but declined to comment as they left the church.
"Just because somebody points a finger at him, is he guilty?" one man said.
This is the second time in two years that Father Maskell has left a pastorate because of allegations that he sexually abused teen-age girls while he was at Keough. He was removed from his post at Holy Cross Church in South Baltimore in 1992 after allegations by a former Keough student.
He denied those allegations then and now, Father Woy said, and he was named pastor of St. Augustine's after an investigation by the archdiocese did not corroborate the woman's statements.
However, James G. Maggio, one of three lawyers representing women who say Father Maskell abused them, scoffed at Father Woy's assertion that the archdiocese investigated the original allegations thoroughly. "Within the first five phone calls I made after I was brought into the case I learned there was substance to the allegations," he said yesterday.
In an interview earlier this summer, Father Maskell said that when he left Holy Cross in 1992, Archbishop William H. Keeler summarily suspended his priestly functions and ordered him to a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut.
This time, however, Father Woy told the parishioners, Father Maskell retains his priestly authority to administer church sacraments. Sources close to the case said the priest has retained a canon lawyer from Catholic University in Washington to defend his clerical rights.
Father Maskell was at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn. from October 1992 until April 1993, he told The Sun. He returned to Baltimore after an evaluation found no psychological or sexual abnormalities, and he was named pastor of St. Augustine's in August 1993.
An official for the Institute of Living said the cost of treatment at the Connecticut facility averages $900 a day. Officials of the Baltimore archdiocese have refused to say who paid for Father Maskell's six-month treatment in 1992.
Although the archdiocese said Father Maskell stepped down voluntarily this time, his departure comes less than a week after lawyers and other archdiocesan officials interviewed two more former Keough students who said that Father Maskell had involved them in bizarre sexual practices.
One of those women told The Sun independently that in 1969 Father Maskell engaged her in a variety of sex acts in the rectory of Our Lady of Victory church in the 4400 block of Wilkens Ave. and performed an internal pelvic examination on her in the sacristy at Archbishop Keough High School.
Asked why she never reported the alleged abuse, the woman told The Sun, "I was so intimidated by him I never would have said anything. The fact that others have come forward has been a big help."
The woman who made the allegation against Father Maskell in 1992 has been joined by 35 to 40 of other women and men, "of whom one third have reported direct sexual contact of one type or another," said Towson lawyer Beverly A. Wallace, one of the attorneys doing research for a possible civil suit.
"There are scores of people who have come forward with a wide variety of memories and first-, second- and third-hand knowledge pertaining to conduct of this priest. The range goes back from about 21 to 26 years," said Phillip G. Dantes, the lead attorney in the case.
"Unless we are able to get involved with serious negotiations with the archdiocese, the suit will be filed by the end of the month, perhaps two suits. It's too bad they didn't do something about it 25 years ago," Mr. Dantes said.
In the archdiocesan statement, Father Woy also alluded to the separate criminal investigation. Mr. Blaul, the spokesman for the archdiocese, said officials there are cooperating with that probe.
Assistant State's Attorney Sharon H. May, who heads the Sex Abuse Unit, declined to comment.