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'Charm city' lessons for Lori and the USCCB

Maryland’s attorney general released Wednesday a detailed report on the history of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. 

The report, some four years in the making, details how, when, and where clerical sexual abuse of minors occurred, and how Church authorities responded. Like similar reports issued in other states, the reading is sobering. 

Archbishop William Lori. Credit: Archdiocese of Baltimore/YouTube.

The Baltimore report was released four-and-a-half years after a similar text was published by a Pennsylvania grand jury. While that report formed part of the whirlwind of ecclesial scandals unfolding in 2018, the Baltimore report is likely to make fewer waves across the country.

But the Baltimore report, the archdiocesan response, and the context in which it was released all give a clear snapshot of the state of the Church’s reform efforts on clerical sexual abuse — and the reason why progress on Church reform over child abuse is an often unheard story.


“The incontrovertible history uncovered by this investigation is one of pervasive and persistent abuse by priests and other Archdiocese personnel,” the Maryland AG’s report explained.

“It is also a history of repeated dismissal or cover up of that abuse by the Catholic Church hierarchy. While every victim’s story is unique, together they reveal themes and behaviors typical of adults who sexually abuse children, and of those who enable abuse by concealing it. What was consistent throughout was the absolute authority and power these abusive priests and church leadership held over victims, their families, and their communities.”

Indeed, the report documents allegations of more than 600 victims of abuse in the archdiocese over the course of decades, allegedly harmed by some 150 clerics and religious. It also details mishandling and cover-up that has become well-documented in other places — moving clerics to new assignments after allegations, relying on psychological assessments rather than state and canonical criminal proceedings. 

The report explains that abusers often spiritualized their sexual abuse, and targeted children who were especially faithful, or “who were especially isolated or vulnerable because of shyness, lack of confidence, or problems at home.”

Abusers “presented themselves as protectors and friends of the children and their families.”

The report argued that “until recent decades, church officials who received complaints of abuse behaved no better” than abusers themselves did. 

“Time and again, bishops and other leaders in the church displayed empathy for the abusers that far outweighed any compassion shown to the children who were abused. These leaders repeatedly accepted the word of abusers over that of victims and their families. They conflated pedophilia with alcoholism and other substance use disorders, and they exhibited a misplaced reliance on ‘treatment.’” 

“When ‘investigations’ were conducted, they were done by clergy who were neither trained as investigators nor independent of the church. These ‘investigators’ typically questioned only the victim and abuser and made little or no attempt to seek corroboration or evidence of additional victims. They afforded the abuser’s denial equal or greater weight than the victim’s allegations.”

“In many cases, the abuser was transferred—often multiple times—to another parish without warning to parishioners of the prior abuse,” the report explained.

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Of course, everything alleged and detailed in the Baltimore report would be shocking, if practicing American Catholics still had the capacity to be shocked. But most don’t. 

Many practicing American Catholics say they experienced in 2018 a period of outrage over historical injustice, and are by 2023 more likely to find themselves discouraged, or deeply demoralized over the Church’s failures to adequately address clerical sexual abuse and misconduct.

But the Baltimore report itself acknowledged a point that is worth considering: By 2023, “most of the abusers and those who concealed their wrongdoing are dead and no longer subject to prosecution.”

The archdiocesan response has focused on that point. 

Responses from Archbishop William Lori emphasized a point that has been central to the bishops’ messaging on the subject of abuse: “The cultural changes, child protection policies and accountability measures the Archdiocese began implementing more than a generation ago have proven successful.”

Indeed, the numbers on child abuse indicate that Lori is correct. 

There are grave and heinous exceptions, and children still face abuse in the Catholic Church.

But the data bears out Lori's claim — the Catholic Church in the United States has become a much safer place for children than it once was — and safer than many other institutions which have not undergone the same reckoning as the Church. 

Safe environment policies have transformed culture and mindsets in the Church, and the relevant particular law — the “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons” — has seen the Church more frequently address allegations of abuse according to a prescribed canonical process.

Of course, the Church’s reform with regard to child abuse is not perfect — priests, for example, often say that “Dallas Charter” processes are procedurally unjust, and the Church’s policies have often failed to catch up to the problems posed by the ubiquity of social media. And there remains controversy about whether and how to disclose the names of clerics accused of abuse — and about the inconsistent meaning of terms like “credible” or “substantiated” claims of abuse, which are used frequently by dioceses, often with a great deal of ambiguity. 

But the archdiocese pointed out that according to the attorney general’s report, “cases of abuse peaked during the 1960s and 1970s. Instances fell every year and every decade since then, alongside the development of canon and criminal law and Archdiocesan accountability standards and policies designed to protect children. “

Credit: Archdiocese of Baltimore

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, like countless other dioceses, has argued that in the big picture, the Church is a success story — an organization which grappled with a broken institutional culture, one that enabled horrific kinds of abuse, and which actually righted the ship.

But however much Lori extolls the progress made by the Archdiocese of Baltimore — and promises still more “transformative change” in the archdiocese — his response is unlikely to inspire extraordinary confidence among many Catholics. 

Lori’s challenge is that for most Catholics, the Church’s response to child abuse is not the only issue on the table. And for many, success on child abuse is tainted by the Church’s ongoing crisis of credibility on other abuse-related fronts.

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It was, as it happens, Archbishop Lori himself, then the Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who explained to the U.S. bishops’ conference in 2002 that its own signature reform efforts — the “Essential Norms” and the “Charter for the Protection of Young People” — would not apply directly to the ministry of bishops.

As the bishops discussed amendments to the document, Archbishop Elden Curtiss, then-Archbishop of Omaha, asked why a revision to the text replaced the term “clerics” with the phrase “priests and deacons.”

“Bishops are also clerics,” Curtiss pointed out.

Lori, speaking for the drafting committee, said that the bishops “decided we would limit it to priests and deacons, as the disciplining of bishops is beyond the purview of this document. 'Cleric' would cover all three, so we decided not to use the word ‘cleric.’”

That decision would come to haunt the bishops in 2018, when the scandal of Theodore McCarrick led to a broad crisis of credibility for bishops — as questions were raised about the prospect of bishops committing acts of abuse, and about them failing to handle allegations raised against others.

The 2023 Baltimore report comes while the fallout from that scandal continues.

While the Church can point to progress on creating safe environments for children, she can not yet give evidence of having righted the ship on the reform efforts bishops pledged in 2018 — namely, mechanisms of accountability for bishops themselves, and reform on the troubling phenomena of the spiritual and sexual abuse of adults.

In the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal, bishops pledged in 2019 that their eyes had been opened to the need for serious mechanisms of reform and accountability on those fronts. 

They promised transparency, and said they understood that child abuse is not the only kind of malfeasance for which they must take responsibility. Adults who had been abused stood up to share their stories, and Church leaders pledged that they had heard their pain.

But nearly five years later, the papal commission charged with oversight of safeguarding policies is in crisis — criticized as lacking transparency and accountability. The pope’s signature reform effort, Vos estis lux mundi, promised serious oversight of bishops, but to date has been plagued by opaque and unacknowledged investigations, stark criticism from experts and Vatican officials, and almost no evidence that the process has boosted public confidence in diocesan bishops.

Research from the Catholic University of America says that priests in the U.S. have declining levels of trust in their bishops — and interviews with those priests say the response to recent clerical abuse scandals is a primary reason.

Of course, Lori, and U.S. bishops like him, are not actually responsible for many of the most visible challenges to their credibility — they do not oversee the cases of Fr. Marko Rupnik, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, or Bishop Carlos Belo.

They’re not even directly responsible for the handling of cases like Bishop Rick Stika’s, or the investigation into retired Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.

But neither did they cry foul when Cardinal Timothy Dolan, DiMarzio’s good friend, was appointed to investigate him, or when priests in Knoxville, Tennessee asked the apostolic nuncio for “merciful relief” from Stika’s leadership.

When a well-known abuse expert — the Vatican’s point man on abuse — agreed last month that Vos estis is applied inconsistently and unfairly, no U.S. bishop spoke out to call for change. When Bishop Franz Josef Bode said he would not resign after he was implicated in cover-ups, none spoke for the victims.

When the Vatican’s McCarrick report waived away the former cardinal’s financial largesse, and when U.S. archdioceses refuse to release pertinent financial information, few U.S. bishops, if any, have joined the call for transparency.

At least not since the acute furor of 2018 has died down.

For many Catholics, the bishops’ silence on those matters has made their “promise to protect” and “pledge to heal” difficult to take seriously.

That’s why even genuine efforts to assist victims often go unheralded, and earnest promises to accompany victims have seemed to go unheard. 

While Lori promised this week to “journey” with abuse survivors on a “path toward healing,” — and is likely sincere — many Catholics remain skeptical. 

By many accounts, the Church has done better on addressing child abuse than any other public institution in America. But the Church isn’t measured against public institutions — she’s measured against her own doctrinal claims. And, for many Catholics, failures of reform in other areas have impugned the bishops’ integrity, even after they’ve made substantial progress on creating safe environments for children.


Lori, however, is in a unique position to make changes to that narrative.

The archbishop is vice-president of the bishops’ conference, and, because of his age, will not be eligible to be elected president. That puts him in a unique position for a Churchman — he can say what he thinks, and it's unlikely to impact his future assignments.

If Lori is sincere in his pledges to victims, he has a chance to call the bishops’ conference to continue the reform efforts promised in 2018. 

As the “Dallas Charter” undergoes revision, he is able to invite survivors into the discussion. As Vos estis investigations continue, he has a platform to urge that both investigations and their results be made public.

As he touts the progress made by his archdiocese, the archbishop can also call for more serious, transparent, and direct efforts to reform episcopal accountability, and address the abuse of adults. 

Taking up that mantle would not likely win Lori friends in Rome, or among bishops who have decided that 2018 is in the rearview mirror. 

But if the archbishop, and other bishops, aim to tout the real success story of a cultural shift in the Church, they likely need to be more clear, and more direct, about the places where the culture has not yet changed — and about what’s needed to make the “promise to protect” more easily believed.

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