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Crime

Anonymous group seeks to hide court proceedings in Maryland AG investigation of Catholic abuse

A group named in a report detailing sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests is asking a Baltimore judge to seal all court proceedings in the Maryland attorney general’s efforts to make the report public.

The group, whose names and number are unknown, made the request last Thursday, according to a court filing. In the filing, attorneys for the group said that although the people are named in the attorney general’s report, they are not accused of sexual abuse.

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Attorneys for the group wrote that they would identify their clients only in a private hearing.

Completed earlier this month, the attorney general’s report details the sexual abuse of more than 600 people who were abused by at least 158 Catholic clergy assigned to the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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Relying on more than 100,000 diocesan records obtained by way of grand jury subpoena, the report also details the church’s efforts to cover up much of the abuse, along with its failure to act through the years.

The report is not publicly available because it relies largely on material obtained through grand jury proceedings, which are secret under Maryland law.

Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office, in a court filing, asked a judge to waive grand jury privilege so the report could be published, writing that its release is “vital to the public interest.”

The anonymous group’s filing does not explain why the group feels the need to keep the proceedings secret. Because the proceedings are not assigned to a criminal case and are on the grand jury docket, the Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk’s Office is not making the filings available to the public.

Attorneys Gregg Bernstein and William J. Murphy, of the Zuckerman Spaeder law firm, are representing the anonymous group. Reached by phone, Murphy declined to comment about the filing. Bernstein was Baltimore state’s attorney from 2010 to 2014.

While it’s not clear whether the archdiocese currently employs any members of the anonymous group, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori has engaged Bernstein in the past. In 2018 and 2019, he made Bernstein part of a team that conducted an investigation of sexual misconduct claims made against former Bishop Michael Bransfield of the Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, diocese.

Bernstein, in 2002, represented former Catholic priest Michael J. Spillane, who was facing claims of wrongdoing after admitting a decade earlier to sexually abusing six children in the Baltimore area.

It’s also unclear how group members know they are in the report — the only two organizations with a copy are the attorney general’s office and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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Attorney David Kinkopf represents the church, but referred a reporter to the archdiocese spokesperson, Christian Kendzierski.

Kendzierski, in a statement Tuesday, said that the archdiocese will not oppose the report’s public release.

“The decision of the Archdiocese not to oppose the release of the report does not mean legal requirements should not be observed, or individuals who may be named in a report should be denied the opportunity to participate,” Kendzierski wrote in an emailed statement.

In its own filing, the attorney general’s office wrote that it would oppose the request, and asked a judge to deny the anonymous group’s motion to seal. The attorney general’s office has until Dec. 6 to file its full response as to why the report should not be sealed.

“Baldly claiming an interest in keeping these proceedings secret is insufficient,” Assistant Attorney General Carrie Williams wrote in a court filing opposing the group’s request.

Abuse survivors who suffered at the hands of clergy have come together in recent days to demand the Baltimore archdiocese consent to the report’s release.

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David Lorenz, the Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, called the request to keep the court proceedings secret horrifying.

“If they seal the proceedings, we won’t be able to know who comes in,” Lorenz said. “If the Catholic Church comes in and says we don’t want you to disclose any of this report, we think it’s wrong, we won’t know it.”

Lorenz also objected to making the court proceedings secret because the public would be unable to know who the judge is, and whether they are Catholic themselves. Baltimore Circuit Judge Anthony Vittoria currently oversees the court’s grand jury docket and has been a member of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore since 1997, according to his online biography.

Frosh, who will retire and leave office in January, launched the investigation nearly four years ago, after the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office published its own investigation into Catholic abuse in that state.

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Baltimore Sun reporters Alex Mann and Jonathan M. Pitts contributed to this article.


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