In the months after the Netflix documentary “The Keepers” aired in 2017, some board members of the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center were so deeply concerned about how the publicity could affect the hospital’s reputation, they tried to oust one of their board colleagues — a high-ranking church official who was portrayed in the series, documents show.
The board’s chairman, former state Senator Francis X. Kelly, approached Archbishop William E. Lori for permission to ask Msgr. Richard Woy to resign from the Towson hospital’s board of directors, according to correspondence recently obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
Lori, who nominated Woy for the board position, defended the priest and Woy remains on the board today.
The exchange provides a window into how the St. Joseph board responded behind the scenes in seeking to control potential fallout from the series, which focuses on sexual abuse at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School in the 1960s and the unsolved killing of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.
Woy, now the rector of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore, is the former director of personnel for the archdiocese. In the 1990s, he handled reports of abuse by A. Joseph Maskell, once school chaplain and counselor at Keough in Southwest Baltimore. Maskell — a key figure in the series — denied the allegations before his death, but the church has paid settlements to 16 people who say he abused them.
In a letter dated Sept. 12, 2017, Kelly told Lori that the board’s executive committee had voted unanimously to request the archbishop’s permission to ask Woy to resign.
“We are very concerned that Monsignor Woy’s seat on the UM SJMC Board of Directors could expose the hospital to negative backlash,” Kelly wrote.
Kelly cited the possibility that the series “could potentially win major film industry awards.” That July, “The Keepers” was nominated for an Emmy.
“We would assume with those announcements, that there will be increased publicity and conversations regarding this terrible story. Any negative public relations issues could put UM SJMC in a very vulnerable position as we still walk a bit of a tightrope with public perception,” wrote Kelly, referring to the damage done to the Towson hospital’s reputation after a cardiologist was accused of performing hundreds of unnecessary stent procedures.
The correspondence was included in hundreds of documents The Sun obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request to Baltimore’s government while reporting on the controversy surrounding University of Maryland Medical System board members’ contracts with the hospital system. Jim Smith, who was a top aide to former Mayor Catherine Pugh and serves on the St. Joseph board, received a copy of the letters between Lori and Kelly. Smith’s city email is subject to open-records laws.
Kelly pushed for the 1984 privatization of the University of Maryland hospital system as a legislator. A longtime member of the UMMS board with deep ties to the local Catholic church, he helped engineer the medical system’s 2012 acquisition of St. Joseph from Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives after the stent scandal.
In his response to Kelly dated Sept. 20, 2017, Lori said Woy had his “unqualified support.” Lori said Woy was “known for his tough stance on child abuse and has always put the pursuit of truth and the welfare of children above all other aims.”
In the Netflix series, Woy is portrayed as insensitively handling the case of Jean Wehner, who came forward in the 1990s with abuse allegations against Maskell and others. In one episode, Wehner describes how she was devastated after asking Woy to meet with her to pray together. In response, he suggested she get a lawyer.
In an email to The Sun, Wehner said that at the time she came forward she was looking for “pastoral guidance and support.”
“Rick Woy denying me my request to pray with him for guidance, and instead encouraging me to get a lawyer, severed any connection left with my church,” she said.
Woy was traveling out of the country on a pilgrimage and couldn’t be reached for comment, but archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine defended Woy, calling him “a kind and compassionate priest.”
Kelly told The Sun that he and Smith took the letter to a meeting with the archbishop.
“We were speaking on behalf of the executive committee of the board,” he said. “ ‘The Keepers’ was very upsetting to many of us who watched it.”
But “we accepted the archbishop’s response and we agreed to let him stay on the board,” Kelly added. “He has been a good board member.”
Under an agreement between the archdiocese and the hospital system, St. Joseph has retained its Catholic identity and the archbishop can nominate people to serve on the board. If the board wants to remove a member who was recommended by the archbishop, it must get his approval, Caine said.
UMMS spokesman Michael Schwartzberg said in a statement that after the concerns were raised, the board’s executive committee and the archdiocese “conducted a thorough review … and were satisfied that all Board members were suitable and committed to serving the organization and its mission.”
Unrelated to the “Keepers” matter, Kelly is currently on leave from both the hospital’s board and the UMMS’ board amid the scrutiny of UMMS board members’ contracts with the system. His family’s business, Kelly & Associates Insurance Group, has done millions of dollars in business with the hospitals.