How Baltimore law firms helped the Catholic church manage sexual abuse claims

Baltimore Catholic Archbishop William Lori greets parishioners after delivering Sunday Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in July 2019, in Randallstown, Md.

By Madeleine O’Neill

In 1987, a lawyer for the Archdiocese of Baltimore contacted a prosecutor with a question: was the church obligated to report a priest who had recently been accused of attempting to rape a teenage girl a decade earlier?

The answer was no, according to last week’s extensive report into sexual abuse and coverups in the archdiocese. But the priest could be charged with assault, battery or attempted rape, the assistant state’s attorney said.

Neither the lawyer nor the archdiocesan official who spoke to the prosecutor provided the name of the priest, Father Thomas J. Bauernfeind, or officially reported that a woman had named Bauernfeind as her abuser and that Bauernfeind had admitted to abusing the woman when she was a teenager.

Bauernfeind was not prosecuted, and there is no sign the archdiocese investigated further.

The lawyer who reached out to the assistant state’s attorney was from Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP, the church’s longtime law firm in Baltimore.

Few lawyers are named in the attorney general’s 463-page report into the archdiocese’s handling of sexual abuse since the 1940s, and the investigation does not specifically allege wrongdoing or ethical breaches by church attorneys. But the report sheds light on the role that lawyers played as the archdiocese spent decades covering up and minimizing abuse.

“Philosophically, you get into, ‘How could they do this?’” said Robert Rubinson, a law professor and professional ethics expert at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “But on the other hand, … this is what lawyers do. They represent clients. That’s a cornerstone of our administration of justice.”

Gallagher Evelius managing partner Thomas C. Dame acknowledged in an email to the firm’s employees last week that the attorney general’s report would mention the firm several times.

In the email, which the firm provided to The Daily Record in response to questions, Dame said the firm had “helped deliver transparency and cooperation on behalf of our client during the attorney general’s four-year investigation.”

He also pointed to the firm’s work in strengthening the archdiocese’s child protection policies in recent decades.

“I believe it is important for you to know that our attorneys have helped the archdiocese establish what outside groups consider one of the most thorough and accountable child protection programs in America,” Dame wrote.

“Further, the attorney general’s report made no recommendations to improve reporting, screening, training, investigations or the operation of the Archdiocese’s Independent Review Board,” which reviews sexual misconduct allegations against church employees, Dame said.

In Bauernfeind’s case, the archdiocese would not remove the priest from ministry until 2002, according to the report, despite his earlier admission to sexually abusing a 16-year-old. The victim, who came forward in 1987, said that Bauernfeind repeatedly fondled, kissed and “attempted sexual relations” with her a decade earlier when she was working in the rectory at St. Anthony of Padua in Baltimore. Bauernfeind at that time held the office of chancellor of the archdiocese, an administrative role that included advising the archbishop.

On one occasion, the woman said, Bauernfeind locked her in his room and attempted to rape her. She tried to report the abuse to other priests or archdiocesan officials twice before coming forward in 1987, she said, and was not taken seriously.

In 2002, when Bauernfeind was added to the archdiocese’s list of credibly accused priests, another woman came forward and said Bauernfeind had abused her in 1974, when she was 17 years old. The woman said Bauernfeind attempted to rape her while providing her with pre-marital counseling; she managed to escape, and a deacon saw her running away with her pants down, according to the report. She also tried to report the abuse several times.

“The Archdiocese made the mandated reports regarding this abuse in 2002,” according to the attorney general’s report. Bauernfeind died in 2003.

In the mid-1980s, archdiocese officials began receiving a growing number of reports about another priest, Father William Q. Simms, who was working at a parish in Anne Arundel County.

A pair of lawsuits alleged that Simms forced two boys to wear “sexually provocative” outfits and molested them while the children served as altar boys. According to one lawsuit, Simms “forced the child to act out sexual and sadistic fantasies, telling him that Christ had been similarly tortured and then put to death.”

Simms agreed to enter long-term therapy as the abuse reports came out. A few months later, a lawyer from Gallagher Evelius secured a broad immunity deal for Simms with an Anne Arundel County assistant state’s attorney, according to the report. Under the deal, the prosecutor agreed not to prosecute Simms for any child abuse he told law enforcement about, purportedly to encourage Simms’s cooperation.

“In the following decades, counsel to the archdiocese, when reporting new allegations of abuse by Simms to state law enforcement authorities, would remind prosecutors of the immunity from prosecution granted by Anne Arundel County in 1985,” investigators wrote in the attorney general’s report.

The report also explains how church lawyers tried to discourage victims’ families from suing.

In 1986, a lawyer from the firm Anderson, Coe & King, LLP, wrote to a lawyer for one of the victims’ families on behalf of the archdiocese. The letter claimed that Simms’s conduct “amounted to ‘a hug and perhaps a kiss as a reward following various church services,’ that there would be ‘no evidence … of any other molestation,’ and that litigation would not be ‘as harmful to the Church’ would be ‘detrimental to the young [] boy and the [boy’s] family.’”

Three years later, the same attorney wrote that if the family declined a settlement offer, “‘a great deal of investigation will be made and depositions taken’ to identify ‘any other problems the [family was] having which would be a source of young [victim’s] problems as opposed to the encounterance [sic] with Father Simms.’”

In a 2002 article, The Baltimore Sun reported that the archdiocese’s lawyers “routinely sought to have alleged victims who brought abuse allegations against the church publicly identified in court records,” as opposed to allowing the use of a pseudonym. That’s what happened in the two lawsuits involving Simms, the Sun reported.

In an email, Anderson Coe managing partner Greg VanGeison said that no attorney at the firm “has any recollection of the case involving Father William Simms, nor does the firm have any records regarding that case.”

“Therefore the firm cannot comment on the accuracy of the attorney general’s characterization of communications referenced in the report nor does the firm know who authored the communications referenced,” VanGeison said.

Church lawyers also raised questions about the credibility of a 2009 report against Father 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 victim in that case reported being abused when he was 11 or 12 years old, when he answered phones at St. Ursula in Baltimore County. He reported being orally raped and fondled, including on car trips to Avalon, New Jersey, with other altar boys in the vehicle, according to the report.

The allegations were consistent with other abuse reports the archdiocese had received about LeFevre, according to the attorney general’s report.

Even so, “an attorney for the Archdiocese with the firm Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP wrote a letter to the victim’s attorney indicating they investigated the allegations and have strong concerns about it being credible,” investigators wrote.

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