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Baltimore officials defend release of abusers’ names

Westminster, Md.

Church officials defended Cardinal William Keeler’s decision to release the names of more than 50 priests accused of sexual abuse at the first of nine “listening sessions” to be held this month in Baltimore parishes.

Posted on the archdiocese’s Web site and published in its weekly newspaper, the information released by the archdiocese contained summaries of accusations against the clergy, including some who are now deceased and others who deny the accusations.

The manner in which the release of names was handled provoked dismay, anger, and some support among several of the St. John’s parishioners who spoke at the Oct. 7 meeting.

“I cannot accept the publication of all those names,” Agnes Geraghty, a St. John’s parishioner for nine years, told the gathering. “At least three of the people have denied the charges [and] about five of them have never admitted them,” she continued. “If only one of those men is innocent, haven’t we gone way too far?”

Other objections raised by some of the 50 meeting attendees: The “same people” deciding to release the names are those who previously moved abusing priests from one parish to another, said a parishioner. Another asked why Keeler decided to “hang the priests out to dry” when other persons employed by the archdiocese -- teachers, youth ministers, deacons -- have had similar accusations made against them.

Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop W. Francis Malooly defended the release of names.

“The victims have taken priority here,” he said. “If there is one victim who comes forward because he or she now knows that the perpetrator did not victimize only them, I think that’s a major move forward.” Several previously unknown victims have come forward since the information was released by the archdiocese, said Malooly.

“The priority now is to ensure that no child is in danger” and to “help any adult deal with their healing.” Plus, said Malooly, full disclosure will provide a “clean slate” and “lift suspicion from the active priests presently serving.”

Malooly said the release of the names was a matter of “when,” not if. State officials, he explained, would have ultimately requested the information and it would have come out in “dribs and drabs.” Said Malooly: “For the sake of the victims we had to be proactive and show that we cared, and try to reach out to them.”

One parishioner called the release of information a “step in the right direction.”

Msgr. Richard Woy, archdiocesan chancellor, told the parishioners that the church needed a higher standard than a criminal conviction to hold its priests accountable. Woy declined to discuss specific cases, but told the St. John’s parishioners that even in the cases where a priest denied the accusation, the archdiocese has “credible evidence” indicating some “terrible truths.”

The archdiocesan officials described the process by which allegations against church employees are handled. A referral to civil authorities is made quickly, even as the church proceeds with its own investigation, said Woy. Following the investigation, an archdiocesan team -- typically consisting of Malooly, Woy, legal counsel and church personnel professionals -- determines the credibility of the accusation and makes a recommendation to Keeler, who then decides what, if any, action is warranted.

The accused is then presented with the results and is given the opportunity to respond. There have been false accusations made against members of the Baltimore clergy, Woy said.

Meanwhile, the archdiocese has increased its training related to child abuse. A church-sponsored convocation on the subject was conducted in late August. More than 1,200 people attended.

Malooly described the release of the names and the listening sessions as the “beginning of restoring trust.”

“I think we all made mistakes and now we have to do what’s right, ” he told NCR. “I ran clergy personal when I was vicar general … and all my decisions were not good. They were made with the right intentions, but through the lens of 2002, some of them were not adequate. And some were wrong.” He concluded: “Now is the time to do what is right and to bring the truth out.”

Absent from the meeting was Fr. Brian Cox, who served in different capacities at St. John’s between 1978 and 1995. Cox was arrested last May and charged with child abuse. According to the archdiocese, Cox admitted to sexual misconduct with minors from 1979 to 1985, and had his priestly faculties removed in 1995.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002