It was a painful moment for a man of his calling.
"I was in shock," the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell declared. "I never had sex with a kid."
That was in May, and Father Maskell, pastor of St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church in Elkridge, was describing his reaction to the first in a series of allegations that he had sexually abused students while he was a chaplain and counselor at Archbishop Keough High School more than two decades ago.
"It is absolutely untrue," he repeated over and over again in an interview with The Sun in his sparsely furnished rectory office.
Sunday, however, archdiocesan officials told surprised parishioners that Father Maskell had left his parish to seek therapy for stress and anxiety as the allegations of sex abuse mounted, a civil suit loomed, and the Baltimore state's attorney's office intensified a criminal investigation of the matter.
Those who know Father Maskell in different settings offer conflicting views of the 55-year-old cleric. He is capable of inspiring great loyalty, among parishioners as well as among the police, military officers and politicians he befriended over the years.
But the first allegations of sexual abuse in 1992 brought whispers of a possible darker side. Last week, the voices grew louder, as those who say they were abused painted a picture of a crafty manipulator who used his priestly authority and knowledge of psychology to ensnare troubled girls who were unlikely to talk.
Father Maskell grew up in northeast Baltimore and graduated from Calvert Hall College. He trained at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park and was ordained in 1965. Besides teaching at Keough, he has held posts in several local parishes -- Sacred Heart of Mary, St. Clement, Our Lady of Victory, Annunciation and Holy Cross. In 1972 he earned a master's degree in school psychology from Towson State University and then a certificate of advanced study in counseling from the Johns Hopkins University.
In addition to his pastoral and teaching duties, Father Maskell has served as chaplain for two police agencies -- the Maryland State Police and Baltimore County police -- as well as for the Maryland National Guard and, more recently, for the Air National Guard, where he held the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Yesterday, however, Father Maskell resigned from the Air Guard and was assigned to the Inactive Ready Reserve, according to Capt. Hunt Kerrigan, the guard's public information officer. The priest had been senior chaplain of the 135th Air Transport Group, based at Martin State Airport.
He was also dropped yesterday from the advisory board of Operation Challenge, a guard-sponsored program for high school dropouts at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Father Maskell delivered the invocation at the program's graduation ceremony two weeks ago.
Father Maskell's friends from his police and military posts describe him as a well-liked priest and a gregarious man who enjoyed competitive shooting and fishing.
Capt. James L. Scannell, a retired Baltimore County police precinct commander, called the priest "a rugged guy, very outgoing. He baptized my grandchildren. My children liked him. If he had been that weird, it would have come out. He was around police a lot, riding along, he rode with me. Police would have noticed; bells would have gone off. Nothing did."
"A priest's priest"
Baltimore City Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi of the 6th District said he has known Father Maskell for a decade and served as a lay reader and Eucharistic minister for him. "I think he's fine, nothing less than a priest's priest," the councilman said.
Mr. DiBlasi said he talked with Father Maskell after the first former student accused him of abuse in 1992, an allegation the archdiocese says was investigated but never confirmed.
"He said he had an accuser, but he said he knew nothing about it," Mr. DiBlasi said. "I know him to be genuinely wholesome, and he would do nothing to detract from his priestly duties."
The Rev. Robert G. Hawkins, pastor of St. Rita's Roman Catholic church in Dundalk, has known Father Maskell for 34 years. They attended St. Mary's Seminary together and would frequently go target shooting with pistols.
"Father Maskell is a good friend," Father Hawkins said. "He is a fine priest, intelligent and a hard worker. Any charges against him are absurd. He's a fine man."
Attilia Marasa, who worked in the Keough office during Father Maskell's tenure there, dismissed the allegations out of hand.
"I think Father Maskell's above reproach, an upstanding priest. All this crap that's coming out about priests is just to get money from the Catholic Church," she said.
"If it had happened to me it would have been reported at once, you can bet your bippy on that," she added. "I would have gone right away to the archdiocese, don't wait 25 years. The girls should have told their parents right away and gotten a lawyer and reported to the archdiocese."
However, former Keough students interviewed by The Sun, now in their 40s, tell another story, of a priest whose actions ranged from inappropriate remarks in the confessional to bizarre sexual activities, some wrapped in the sacraments of the church.
They say Father Maskell learned things about their behavior -- such as drug use or sexual activity -- that the teen-agers did not want their parents to know. Then, they said, after approaching them with offers of care and counseling, he began to make sexual demands, with threats of disclosure and humiliation as the alternative. And while attitudes have changed, they said, few adults 25 years ago would have believed such stories about a priest.
"He had an evil, manipulative power over you," said one former Keough student. "The power was that many of us experimented with drugs or were sexually active."
"He told me that nobody would believe me or my friends," the woman said. "That scared me into doing it and not breathing a word about it." Some former students said they purposely avoided him. "He was weird," said one. "He never did anything to us because me and my friends would never get near him."
A woman who knew Father Maskell from his days at Holy Cross Church in South Baltimore used the same term, calling the priest "a little weird."
"He bragged about having pistols and how he was telling people off. I didn't want no truck with him. He's a real oddball," she said.
She said her encounters with Father Maskell were never sexual but were nonetheless unsettling. "He is hung up on the military." she said. "He used to get me in his office and make me wear his helmet and tell me military stories."
After one woman approached archdiocesan officials in 1992 with her allegations, they sent Father Maskell to the Institute of Living, a $900-a-day private psychiatric hospital in Connecticut. After a six-month stay, evaluators found no evidence of sexual or serious psychological disorder, according to hospital documents.
The archdiocese also employed an investigator, but after several months' work he was unable to corroborate the woman's allegations, officials said. Father Maskell returned to Baltimore and last August became pastor of St. Augustine's.
The matter refused to die, however. Other former students approached three Towson attorneys who were gathering information on the case for a potential civil suit. The lawyers say they now have talked to at least a dozen women who say they were abused and many more who have second or third-hand knowledge of the incidents.
The Baltimore state's attorney's office is conducting a separate criminal investigation. Assistant State's Attorney Sharon A. H. May, head of the sex abuse unit, declined to comment yesterday.
A close friend of Father Maskell, who asked not to be identified, said yesterday that the final straw came last week. After "two years of continuous mental assault," the friend said, Father Maskell learned that "A Current Affair," the tabloid television show, was preparing a segment that would involve him.
He quoted the priest as saying, " 'I don't want a satellite truck in my driveway. I've had enough of this. I need some help handling the stress.' "
Last Wednesday, Father Maskell notified the archdiocese that he was entering an institution for psychological treatment. He left Friday, and archdiocesan officials told parishioners on Sunday.
The archdiocese refused to say where Father Maskell is being treated. The Rev. Richard W. Woy, the archdiocesan personnel director, said a temporary parish administrator would be named by today.
William Blaul, communications director for the archdiocese, refused to speak to The Sun yesterday and asked that all inquiries be in writing and faxed to his Baltimore office.