WASHINGTON – When charges of sex abuse by a Boston priest made headlines a few weeks ago, the Diocese of Wilmington set out to prove to its Catholic followers it would be open about the issue.
The diocese, which serves Maryland’s Eastern Shore, searched its files and discovered 15 cases of substantiated abuse going back as many as 50 years, spokesman Bob Krebs said. None of the cases occurred within the last decade, he said.
As stories of child sexual misconduct by priests have come to light again in the past month, local Catholic leaders have promised their flockks they will face the problem honestly and indignantly.
All three local bishops — in Baltimore, Washington and Wilmington — have written publicly about clerical sexual misconduct, condemning the acts and stressing that their dioceses have enacted procedures to screen employees and hand offenders over to police.
The Baltimore Archdiocese, however, has been tight-lipped about whether any complaints have been lodged against priests in the past decade, or if any of the accused has been turned over to authorities.
Spokesman Matt Lane refused to comment Tuesday on a priest who had served at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and who was arrested in December in connection with an international child pornography ring.
The Archdiocese of Washington admitted that since 1990, it has turned over the names of 12 priests suspected of sexual misconduct. Half the names came from cases church leaders discovered while combing through old files a decade ago.
Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said that recent rash of old cases grabbing headlines could stem from a 1987 that requires clergy to disclose all allegations of sex abuse to police or social service workers. The law did not force churches to go back through their records, but it did prevent them from covering up what they found, she said.
The Washington and Baltimore archdioceses wrote the law into their sex abuse policies in 1993. The only exception to reporting is for incidents learned during confession to a priest.
“A lot of the cases in the news now are old cases, and the fact that we do have fewer cases to me suggests that the diocesan policies in place over the last decade are working,” Gibbs said.
Krebs said the fact that no incidents were discovered in the Wilmington Diocese in the past decade could indicate that recent changes to toughen church policy may have altered behavior.
While the diocese found no recent incidents, it also stumbled upon old allegations shrouded in short, scribbled notes — a reminder of the church’s history of concealing misconduct, he said.
Krebs said that while old incidents may not have been handled in line with current standards, all of those named in the reports have been removed from the ministry or have died. He said that the disclosure was not meant to dredge up painful memories but to show parishioners that the church is shedding its veil of secrecy.
“I think what we wanted to make sure — we wanted to be able to tell our parishioners — was that we have done everything in our power to address these problems and to reassure that there are not priests in the Diocese of Wilmington on active duty . . . that have any of these substantiated allegations against them,” Krebs said.
Dioceses also took steps aimed at preventing, as well as uncovering, abuse.
The Washington diocese, for instance, started doing FBI background checks of all priests, lay workers and volunteers. It also checks on veteran priests who are transferred to Washington as well as those who want to minister here while visiting.
“You can’t even have your friend come here and say Mass with you unless we know he’s cleared,” Gibbs said.
In Washington and Wilmington, if allegations of misconduct are substantiated, the accused is immediately removed from his job and must undergo a psychological evaluation.
Besides informing parishioners of their procedures in recent weeks, the dioceses also have fielded calls from parishioners and community members. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has gotten more phone calls about sex abuse since a former Boston priest was sent to prison in late February for molesting more than 100 boys, Lane said.
“The Boston situation obviously has affected us,” he said. “We are being as cooperative as we can with the parishioners because we know this is an issue they want to talk about and one that is very important right now.”
In Bowie, Gibbs said, vandals painted profanities and “priests lie” on the ground at Sacred Heart Church and drew a picture of “the lower male anatomy.” Besides the vandalism, however, Gibbs said parishioners have been relatively quiet and split on the issue.
“I haven’t gotten too many phone calls or letters about it,” she said. “I’ve gotten a few e-mails that say, `What can we do to support the priests?’ And then I’ve gotten a few that say, `This is a shame and this is wrong and you should condemn it.'” — CNS reporter Laura A. Said contributed to this report.