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The Baltimore Sun

Maryland report on Catholic Church expected to shine light on parishes and schools with multiple child abusers

By Jonathan M. Pitts, Baltimore Sun,

2023-03-27
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St. Mark Catholic Church in Catonsville was home to multiple predator priests over a 40-year period. Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS

The sanctuary at St. Mark Catholic Church was nearly full for 11 a.m. Mass.

A white-robed priest gave a sermon on the recent Sunday morning about a Samaritan woman who met Jesus at a well. Parishioners lined up to receive Communion. And as congregants flooded to their cars afterward, a few paused to share thoughts on an issue that could soon engulf the historic parish in Catonsville.

Sometime in the next week or so, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office is expected to release its report on the sexual abuse of children and young adults by priests and brothers in the Archdiocese of Baltimore dating back 80 years. Its authors identify 158 men who abused and tortured more than 600 people between the mid-1940s and 2002, and describe the archdiocese’s efforts to protect abusers and silence victims.

A Baltimore judge indicated he wanted to release the report — at least in a redacted form — in time for lawmakers to consider it while working on child sex abuse bills during the legislative session that ends April 10. Attorney General Anthony Brown said Tuesday that his office was going through the “500-page report as expeditiously, thoroughly and accurately as possible” before its release.

A summary of the report that appeared in a court filing in November said some sites were home to multiple predator priests, sometimes several at once, and that one congregation was assigned 11 over 40 years.

Only one parish is known to have been home to anything close to that, according to a list of offender priests the archdiocese keeps on its website: St. Mark’s, with nine.

One former member of the parish who is also a victim advocate says he knows of others who worked there — and that he told investigators for the attorney general about them during the office’s four-year probe.

That independent investigator, Frank Dingle, has no doubt the parish described in the summary is St. Mark’s, and he believes the count numbered in the attorney general’s report will grow.

“It’s not going to stay at 11,” he says.

St. Mark’s is not the only institution in the nine-county Baltimore archdiocese to have housed multiple abusers over the decades. A dozen were home to at least five, by the archdiocese’s count. The list includes urban and suburban parishes, high schools and a seminary.

All but one of the instances of abuse the archdiocese has on its list occurred before 2002, when church leaders implemented a policy of removing credibly accused priests from ministry. Earlier, they moved suspected or known offenders to other parishes, something the report says the church did regularly during the 20th century.

Anger, self-blame

Founded in 1888 when Cardinal James Gibbons laid its cornerstone, St. Mark’s has been a mainstay of Catholic life in Catonsville for generations.

Longtime parishioners shared after the recent Mass how it feels to know their church was hit so hard — and that the whole matter could reemerge in all its ugliness any day now.

“I knew something was ‘off’ about some of those guys, but I didn’t get wind of what until years later,” said Paul Grochmal, 78, a community member for 55 years. “It has left a bitter taste in my mouth. It’s healthy that it’s going to be coming out soon.”

St. Mark’s is unique as a parish not just for its quantity of predators, but because its worst known times took place in the 1970s and 1980s, in memory of many parishioners. And their memories run the gamut.

Joan McMahon and her late husband, Mortimer, became members four decades ago. At the time, St. Mark’s priests celebrated seven Masses each weekend and the K-8 school had more than 500 students. The McMahons signed on as co-directors of religious education.

Now 78 and living in Florida, Joan McMahon says that though they worked with children, they saw no hint that there had been abuse by six people who worked there during the previous decade nor by three others who were there during the McMahons’ tenure.

The offenders included Monsignor Frederick Duke, pastor between 1971 and 1978; the Rev. David G. Smith, a prolific fundraiser during the 1970s; and the Rev. Edward Heilman, a priest known for his scholarly manner during his time there in the mid-1980s.

Duke, who died in 1992, confessed late in life to abusing children earlier in his career. Smith pleaded guilty in 2002 to molesting a teenage boy in the 1970s. Accusations against Heilman surfaced after his death in 1988, and the archdiocese judged them credible.

Knowing all that — and that these and five other priest offenders lived and worked at St. Mark’s at various times between 1970 and 1989, sometimes as many as three at a time — leaves McMahon angry and distressed.

“I felt like such a jerk after I found out all these men that I worked with were child abusers,” she says. “All I can say is they were specialists. They knew how to hide what they were doing. But I still can’t believe my husband and I worked with them and neither one of us had a clue.”

Dingle’s experiences were similar. His family joined the parish in 1969, loved it and stayed for 20 years. They knew many priests well enough to invite them home.

Dingle, 82, says he never doubted Duke was a holy man, and he recalls one frequent guest celebrant, the late Rev. W. Vincent Bechtel, as a brilliant orator who loved discussing books. While one of Dingle’s relatives felt strongly that there was something sinister about Bechtel, the Dingles felt otherwise and even had him baptize one of their sons.

The Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, informed the Baltimore archdiocese in 2018 that Bechtel committed abuse in the 1980s when he worked at Mount St. Joseph High School in Southwest Baltimore — a period that coincides with his time at St. Mark’s.

“For the most part, I thought these priests who ended up accused were great,” says Dingle. “What I’ve learned is that the people who do this are so good at ingratiating themselves into families and lives, they can go unnoticed for years.”

A man in his 60s who was molested at St. Mark’s as a teen spoke with The Baltimore Sun on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be attacked again by relatives and friends, as he was years ago when he notified authorities of the abuse. They told him he was “making a priest’s life difficult.” He said he also suffered at the hands of church officials who vigorously disputed his account.

He loved church and was active in youth ministries, he says, until the priest subtly began the abuse, which went on for years. He feared causing a scandal and was so ashamed that he kept the horror to himself for decades.

“What teenage boy wants to tell anyone he’s been having sex with a priest?” he says. “What happened at St. Mark’s ruined my faith.”

Making sense of ‘clusters’

Dingle, a retired professor, said victims at St. Mark’s began confiding in him in the 1990s. He was so chagrined he decided to apply his research skills toward exploring the scale of child abuse in the Maryland Catholic Church.

He set out to read every article he could find in news archives that linked any priest, brother, nun or other employee who ever worked in the state to abuse at any time and place.

His criteria differed from those of the archdiocese, which lists 151 offenders who confessed to, were convicted of, or who it believes have been credibly accused of abusing children in Central and Western Maryland.

Dingle’s list includes more than 800, including more than 250 with ties to the archdiocese. Twelve are linked to St. Mark’s.

The parish is far from the only institution repeatedly represented on the archdiocese list. Mount St. Joseph High School is known to have employed 11 abusers over its history, including nine during the 1950s. The most recent, Bechtel, worked there for the last 10 years of his career, retiring in 1989.

St. Mary’s Seminary in North Baltimore, Loyola Blakefield School in Towson and Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in South Baltimore were home to at least seven each; so were St. Patrick and St. Mary’s churches in Cumberland.

Calvert Hall High School in Towson, Loyola University Maryland (formerly called Loyola College) in North Baltimore, St. Clement Church in Halethorpe, and the now-defunct Cardinal Gibbons High School in Southwest Baltimore were home to at least six apiece.

Survivors and their advocates say certain parishes and schools were “dumping grounds.” In some cases, they suggest, church officials may have thought they could better supervise someone there. Other advocates fear a parish could have suffered such priests for different reasons, like having lower status within the archdiocese.

Church officials deny that, arguing the size of some parishes means they’re likely to end up with a greater number of abusers.

Reports of abuse spiked in Maryland after 2002, when the archdiocese published the first version of its list. Offenders on the list were spaced out more or less evenly across the decades at most of the sites with high numbers.

Christian Kendzierski, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, cited a study by the public John Jay School of Criminal Justice in 2011 that found about 4% of American Catholic priests were child abusers over a 60-year period starting in 1950. Thus, he says, it’s likely that a parish like St. Mark’s, which employed some 200 priests over the 80 years the attorney general investigated, would end up with some eight to 10 over the eight decades.

“There was no strategy that identified parishes as destinations for priests accused of abuse,” Kendzierski wrote in an email. “And the fact that abusive priests were assigned to a parish does not mean they were assigned after being accused of abuse.”

Terry McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org , which tracks and documents predator priests, cites another possibility: Priests have some say in where they’re assigned, and abusers might have sought to live together.

McKiernan notes St. Mark’s stands in a 10-square-mile portion of Southwest Baltimore and Baltimore County that includes more than 20 parishes. The archdiocese’s list names predator priests who served more than 35 assignments there between the 1960s and late 1990s.

They include the late Rev. Joseph Maskell, a teacher at the former Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore. Maskell is depicted as a serial abuser and possible murderer in the 2017 Netflix docuseries “The Keepers.”

“There are so many factors at play that it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions about what it means without further study,” McKiernan says. “We do know that these ‘clusters’ left many children vulnerable.”

It’s essential, Dingle says, to keep those people in mind when the report comes out. He says most people abused as children are still afraid to come forward, but he’s certain they’ll draw courage from seeing offenders’ names in the independent, official report.

“I believe there are victims still out there,” he says.

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