There are worse things than legions of sadistic sexual predators abusing Maryland’s children: like legions of sadistic sexual predators abusing Maryland’s children and getting away with it.
A recent report from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office unveiled decades of rampant sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy and others affiliated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore. But many of the perpetrators can likely sleep easy believing that no one will prosecute them, because they beat the clock and concealed their crimes well enough to avoid detection earlier, when it would have been less challenging to bring them to trial.
Every experienced prosecutor knows the difficulties in trying years-old cases, whether they’re about sexual abuse or something else: Witnesses may die or disappear, memories fade, juries question why a truthful witness would wait years to reveal allegations.
But the minimum standard to indict a suspect is merely establishing probable cause to believe that it is likely that the accused committed the crime. It is even allowed to use hearsay evidence, meaning statements made by someone other than the person testifying. In fact, most indictments are based solely on one police officer reading the contents of his investigative file to the grand jury, including the statements taken by the officer from witnesses. The grand jury is intended to have a screening function. If we let them screen, they can weed out cases in which there is no probable cause to believe that the accused committed an offense.
So here is what it really takes to get these cases tried: a prosecutor with guts, a prosecutor who is not afraid to lose a case that they believe in, a prosecutor who understands that justice sometimes requires pursuing cases that they normally would avoid. For instance, when there is organized, systemic, prolonged sadistic sexual rape, torture and sodomy of children — combined with coordinated obstruction of justice in the form of concealing evidence, destroying evidence, intimidating victims and witnesses and assisting perpetrators to flee to avoid justice — it takes the courage to ignore concerns about win-loss statistics and to set aside conservation of office resources for the sake of justice.
We now have a report from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office confirming that investigators believe the abuse and the cover-up happened. Brian Frosh, the prior attorney general under whose direction the investigation occurred, referred to some of these offenders as monsters and predators. Somehow, those monikers fall far short of describing the obscenities performed on our children, with the cruel assistance of those who enabled them in the Church, as accessories-after-the-fact.
The gravity, the immensity, the temporal enormity of these offenses beg for justice. The Attorney General’s 456-page report accomplishes important things, but a year from now, it will be a tragic tale on library shelves unless those guardians of justice hold the guilty accountable. Prosecutors, good ones, became prosecutors because justice burns in their souls. Sleep evades them when they see injustice. Their thoughts haunt them when they see it.
In my 38 years of practice fighting for justice as a prosecutor and as the voice for crime victims in Maryland, there is no similar circumstance in our lifetimes that reeks of injustice more than this scandal, which is only partially exposed in the attorney general’s report. Nothing should haunt good prosecutors more than this, until they exhaust every effort to bring the living offenders to justice, no matter how old the cases.
Many of the reasons that have been given not to prosecute do not ring true. For the most part, there is no impediment. For God’s sake, for the sake of justice, to even preserve the meaning of the word justice, would my prosecutorial colleagues please do something? Anything?
Kurt W. Wolfgang (email@example.com) was an assistant state’s attorney in Prince George’s County. Later, he was director of intergovernmental affairs for the National District Attorneys Association, the organization that represents America’s state-level prosecutors. As a law student, he was one of the original founders of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Maryland’s leading organization in establishing and defending the rights of crime victims.