The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A Maryland judge perpetuates secrecy on clergy sex abuse

Attorneys Barbara Hart and Rob Jenner, and David Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, in December. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)
correction

A earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that a group was seeking to seal Maryland’s report on clergy sexual abuse. It is seeking to seal the proceedings around the report. The version has been updated.

Secrecy enabled clerical sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church over decades, and even now the impulse to suppress the appalling details of that abuse remains the main impediment to a full accounting of the church’s worst scandal in centuries. It’s bad enough when the church continues to obstruct the release of information relating to abuse and coverup, even after Pope Francis has taken steps to lift the shroud of confidentiality that blocked disclosure for so long. It compounds the damage when courts abet that effort.

That’s what a Maryland judge has done in hiding from public view the findings of a major investigation by the state attorney general’s office into eight decades of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Circuit Judge Anthony Vittoria sealed not only the 456-page report, completed in November, but also any future related filings by the attorney general’s office, which wants to make it public, or by an anonymous group of church-affiliated individuals named in the report that is trying to block publication. Judge Vittoria even retroactively sealed a 35-page filing by Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office that had already been made public — and remains available online — which argues persuasively for disclosure because “healing is not possible without accountability and accountability is not possible without transparency.”

The judge’s order last month is not final. On Jan. 1, he rotated to a new assignment, and another circuit court judge, Robert K. Taylor Jr., will determine whether the report can be disclosed. Nonetheless, the report’s ongoing suppression remains an injustice. It denies the public access to a sweeping, detailed history of the church’s complicity in the coverup and abuse — the product of a nearly four-year investigation into Baltimore’s sprawling archdiocese, which includes more than 150 parishes, dozens of schools, major hospitals and other facilities.

Sealing the report is also a blow to the public’s right to know how more than 600 children and young adults discussed in the report — and likely more who have not reported their torments — allegedly fell victim to 158 priests starting in the 1940s. And it is a slap at the victims themselves. Often they have no recourse to justice in court, owing to state legislation, enacted at the church’s behest, that bars future lawsuits by adults ages 38 and older seeking restitution for the abuse they suffered as children.

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Ample precedent exists for unsealing the report. Mr. Frosh’s report is the second major probe by a state attorney general; the first, by then-Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, was published in 2018. Both relied partly on grand jury testimony, which is ordinarily confidential unless a judge unseals it, as a judge did in the case of the Pennsylvania report, albeit with the names of some of the alleged 300-plus predators redacted.

The legal justification for disclosure is at least as strong for the Maryland report. Most of the abuse it details took place decades ago, and the names of most of the priests identified as abusers are already public. Of the 158 priests investigated by the attorney general’s office, just 43 have not already been prosecuted or publicly identified as credibly accused abusers by the archdiocese itself. Of those, only 13 are living, and the attorney general’s report redacts their names and other identifying information.

The Baltimore archdiocese cooperated with the investigation by releasing a massive trove of documents, and church officials say they favor releasing the report. Mixed messages are still being sent. The archdiocese itself is paying the legal bills of individuals mentioned in the report — who are not themselves accused of abuse — but have anonymously gone to court to seal the proceedings.

That is characteristic of the broader Catholic Church’s one-step-forward, one-step-back approach to clergy sex abuse. As the attorney general’s office argued in requesting the report be unsealed, “Time and again, the Archdiocese chose the abuser over the abused, the powerful over the weak, and the adult over the child.” Accountability and transparency can help provide healing to those victims, and courts should support that effort, not hinder it.

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