For decades, adult survivors of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and their advocates have been pushing Church officials in Maryland — the Baltimore region in particular — to take responsibility for the crimes committed against them, to pay a price, and, above all, to protect others from experiencing anything similar. But while the Church has acknowledged wrongdoing in certain cases through the years and paid for therapy or cash settlements in others, protecting its power, prestige and possessions often has appeared the priority over protecting its flock. The Church has at times sheltered abusers and sought to discredit accusers, and it has worked tirelessly to shield its great disgrace from the public.
Now, as the Maryland Attorney General’s Office seeks in court to make public a 450-plus page report chronicling 80 years of sexual abuse committed against 600 young people by nearly 160 priests and other Church officials — dozens more than the Church has previously acknowledged — the Archdiocese of Baltimore is again supporting silence. It is paying the legal fees for those who wish to keep the findings from the four-year investigation secret, claiming related grand jury materials must remain private, among other arguments. The move follows a pattern Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori began when he was in Connecticut two decades ago, fighting for years to prevent the public release of the history of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church there.
Still, we have full faith that the judge overseeing the case will find legal reason to side with transparency and release in the most complete form possible the document, as has been done in other states following investigations into rampant sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
And we expect meaningful consequences to follow. While criminal convictions are devastatingly doubtful, given the difficulty of prosecuting such cases after long passages of time, legislative changes expanding opportunities for survivor recourse are already being proposed and should draw serious consideration from the Maryland General Assembly. And the Church, we hope, will finally have to answer wholly and publicly for all that it has swept under the rug. Shining a light on its dark corners and closets is absolutely necessary if we’re ever to trust the institution and ensure that the atrocities of yesterday cannot happen again today or tomorrow. Archbishop Lori’s claims of a changed Church are not enough. The Catholic Church has shown that it cannot police itself.
We commend Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh for listening to the survivors and other advocates who urged him to launch the investigation in the first place and for then listening to the hundreds of people who came forward to share their stories once he did. Their bravery has brought us to this moment. There would be no report without their cooperation. They are the 2022 Marylanders of the Year — the only heroes in this heartbreaking mess.
Their voices and their stories now have the authority of the Attorney General’s Office behind them and cannot be denied. They join those of the relative handful of people who’ve previously been successful in publicly holding their abusers and the Catholic Church accountable.
Among them is Elizabeth Ann Murphy, who for decades has been the de facto designated survivor of the appalling physical and mental abuse that occurred in the 1970s at the Catholic Community Middle School in Baltimore’s Locust Point neighborhood.
Though teacher John Merzbacher was charged with more than 100 crimes involving at least 14 children, Murphy’s case, brought when she was an adult in the 1990s, is the one most people are aware of. It is the only one that went to trial. Prosecutors dropped the other cases once Merzbacher was convicted of raping a preteen Murphy — by holding a gun to her 11-year-old head and violating her small body with a pipe, among other atrocities — and sentenced to four life terms in prison, where he rots today.
Though many of those whose cases against Merzbacher were dropped have courageously spoken out as adults, as have others who never got the satisfaction of having charges filed, Murphy became the official face of the abuse with that criminal conviction. She is the one journalists call every time this recurring nightmare within the Catholic Church reappears somewhere, the one who recounts her torture before cameras so that others might be spared, the one whom many see as having the most power to push for accountability from the Church. It is a heavy burden on top of a heavy burden.
The same might be said of the half dozen adult abuse survivors who appeared in the 2017 Netflix documentary “The Keepers,” including Donna Hannon VonDenBosch, Teresa F. Lancaster and Jean Hargedon Wehner. They courageously spoke of being sexually assaulted by Father Joseph Maskell, now dead, while teenagers at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School in the 1960s and ‘70s. Lancaster and Wehner had filed a $40 million lawsuit against the Baltimore Archdiocese and Maskell in 1994, but it never went to trial because the statute of limitations on such redress had passed. We hope the legislature makes it a priority to fix that loophole this coming session.
“The Keepers” filmmaker has said he talked to another three dozen victims who never appeared on camera, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore has confirmed that it paid nearly half a million dollars to 16 former students to “settle” abuse claims. Such unnamed individuals do not carry the weight of the spotlight, but they also do not have the relief of being publicly recognized and supported.
We suspect there are many more victims whose stories we will never know. Frosh has acknowledged that only 20% to 30% of victims ever come forward, meaning there could be 2,400 more in the shadows.
Some survivors try to change the system from within, reporting their experiences only to Church officials; Murphy tried that, but was repeatedly turned away. Some can only bear to tell their closest confidants, others can never speak of their abuse at all.
Many survivors carry shame, believing they are somehow responsible for the abuse they endured. Some fear they won’t be believed, some don’t want to traumatize family members, and some can’t stand the thought of others knowing what happened to them as children. Many are reluctant to acknowledge out loud that these crimes against them were real.
Then there are those who ultimately didn’t survive their abuse, dying by suicide or drug overdose or simple neglect of their precious lives, having been taught at a tender age that they were without dignity, without autonomy, without protection, without value.
The people who’ve come forward speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Their stories deserve to be heard. This load is too heavy to carry alone, the weight should be spread on the shoulders of us all.