Now that Maryland’s attorney general has finished investigating clergy sex crimes and cover-ups, Maryland’s legislature has passed, and Maryland’s governor has signed a major reform of the state’s archaic, arbitrary, and predator-friendly statute of limitations, Maryland has a much more welcoming and productive place for victims of sexual violence to take legal action.
What should happen now?
One tiny but positive step has already been taken: A Baltimore school is renaming its gymnasium, which was named after an abusive nun, Sr. Francis Marie Yocum. Now, a full inventory should be taken of archdiocesan properties and scholarship funds, and parish halls to find other honorifics given to current and former clerics and lay staff who either hurt children or enabled others – either actively or passively – to hurt children.
Honoring wrongdoers is itself morally wrong. It also deepens the pain many victims still feel. And it discourages others who might report abuse but end up feeling hopeless or fearful that they won’t be believed or that authorities won’t do anything about the injustice. Beyond this symbolic step, what else should be done?
- Lawyers representing Maryland Catholic institutions should consider issuing public apologies for “the role (they) played as the archdiocese spent decades covering up and minimizing abuse,” according to one news account. The AG’s report mentions two law firms by name: Anderson Coe and Gallagher Evelius & Jones. A Maryland newspaper reports that “church lawyers also raised questions about the credibility of a 2009 (abuse) report against Fr. Francis LeFevre, who by that point had admitted to a long history of sexually abusing children and had been prohibited from engaging in ministry.” The same news outlet said a church defense lawyer wrote a victim’s family that if they declined a settlement offer, “a great deal of investigation will be made and depositions were taken’ to identify ‘any other problems the [family was] having which would be a source of young [victim’s] problems as opposed to the abuse by Fr. William Simms.” Every defendant deserves a vigorous defense, of course. But we strongly suspect that some of these defense lawyers put their client’s preferences, comfort, convenience, and financial considerations ahead of the safety of vulnerable, innocent children. If that is true, these law firms’ partners should publicly apologize for their predecessors’ complicity.
- Law enforcement officials also need to make some apologies. A county prosecutor “granted immunity to a child abuser,” according to a Maryland newspaper. “I agree not to prosecute Father (William Q.) Simms for any incidents of child abuse he discusses with [county police investigators], no matter how serious. . .” wrote a prosecutor in the Anne Arundel County DA’s office. Sadly, this wasn’t an isolated incident. According to the Maryland Attorney General’s Report on Child Sexual Abuse, “While this investigation has focused on the Archdiocese, it is also evident in the response by police and prosecutors that in many instances, they were deferential to the church and uninterested in probing what church leaders knew and when.” Any current or former government or law enforcement official who gave Catholic officials preferential treatment or excessive benefits of the doubt should publicly apologize for their complicity or the complicity of their predecessors.
- Catholics, in particular, should also push Archbishop William Lori, the highest ranking Catholic official in Maryland, to add roughly 30 proven, admitted, or credibly accused child molesting clerics to his ‘credibly accused list. The support and advocacy group SNAP (Survivors Network of those abused by priests) pointed out that these offenders are included in the Maryland AG’s abuse report but are missing from the archdiocese’s own list. These names include Fr. Louis John Affrica, Stephen Brotzman (teacher), Fr. Robert C. Callahan, Fr. Francis Ernst, Fr. Terence Evans, Fr. Alphonsus Figlewski, Deacon Joseph Firlie, Sr. Theonella (Mary Margaret) Flood, Msgr. Robert Hiltz, Fr. William Jameson, Fr. Albert Julian, Deacon John Justice, Fr. Thomas M. Kelly, Fr. Joseph W. Krach, Deacon Thomas Kuhl, Fr. David Leary, Msgr. William McCrory, Patrick McIntyre (teacher), John Merzbacher (teacher), Fr. Joseph V. Messer, Br. Eugene Morgan, Br. William Morgan, Fr. John Mountain, Fr. Alan Nagle, Deacon Leo O’Hara, Eric Price (teacher), Fr. Albert (Pete) Stallings, Fr. Cuthbert Sullivan, Br. Thomas Tomasunas, Fr. Francis Wagner, Msgr. Thomas A. Whelan, Msgr. Roger K. Wooden, Sr. Francis Marie Yocum, and Msgr. Henry Francis Zerhusen.
- Catholic church-goers should also challenge Lori on his claims that the church hierarchy has changed how it deals with abuse. Through his public remarks in recent days, the archbishop is sending a strong signal: “Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. The threat is over.” One can debate whether or not the church now deals with abuse better than it has in the past. But it’s indisputable that Lori’s recent comments encourage complacency, which is dangerous. Vigilance protects children, not complacency.
- Finally, there’s one more crucial step forward in Maryland, and it’s one that can be taken by anyone. It’s obvious that little or no more information about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups will be forthcoming from Lori and his top aides (unless, of course, more upsetting revelations happen and the archdiocesan public relations team has to do more ‘damage control’). So if parents, parishioners, police, prosecutors, or the public are to learn more about who committed or concealed abuse in the church – or who is doing so now – it will take external pressure.
The most proven and effective way to apply that pressure is through civil lawsuits.
In litigation, defendants are forced into depositions and ‘discovery’ (turning over relevant records). They are forced to disgorge long-secret documents that show who acted recklessly and callously with the well-being of kids. Therefore, those who want the full truth about the horrors perpetrated on the innocent in Catholic churches, schools, camps, hospitals, and other institutions should tell everyone they can about the new chances in Maryland for survivors to sue. Those who want religious figures to ‘come clean’ on abuse should spread the word, far and wide, about the new civil ‘window’ in Maryland. The new measure, which suspends the previously-restrictive statute of limitations, has attracted headlines in the past few days. But for decades, most Maryland adults who were molested have been told, “Sorry, you’re too late. You can’t take legal action.”
That has now changed and changed dramatically. Everyone who cares about the safety of Maryland children, the healing of Maryland adults, and the cleansing and reform of Maryland churches and other organizations can perform a valuable public service now. They can tweet, text, and talk about the new opportunities for victims to unshackle themselves from their pain and their past by suing those who so severely hurt them.
Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and other clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore in Maryland. If you need a lawyer because you were sexually abused by a priest in Maryland, contact our office today. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help. Contact us at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options today.