— While the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal erupted decades ago, details in official investigative reports are incredibly powerful for survivors
Since the 1990s, when Jean Wehner started to remember the “sexual torture” she endured as a Catholic high school student, she has sued the Baltimore Archdiocese, written a memoir and appeared in a Netflix documentary about her abuse. But the release last week of a Maryland attorney general’s report citing decades worth of internal church records about her abuser — it all brought a kind of bitter validation, Wehner says, to that terrified little girl.
“I’m my own worst detective as an adult. I was taught by my faith system to be a good girl, not to lie, not to believe something that isn’t true. I’m always still doubting myself and dissecting everything and challenging myself,” said Wehner, 69, now a wellness practitioner in Elkridge. “This puts the detective to rest. The adult me, who has been trying to integrate with this child, can now say: ‘Oh hell yes, I will 100 percent stand up for you.’”
The report released Wednesday into Catholic clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore is added to at least 20 others that have been done in Catholic dioceses by government officials around the country. While the topic of clergy abuse has been a steady drumbeat in the news for more than two decades, the impact of these reports — these official words on official documents — is incredibly powerful for survivors, even those who are now-greying.
Survivors in Maryland and other parts of the country where reports have happened said these are extremely intense documents that can collapse the decades, in both healing and terrifying ways.
For people whose abuse was denied in the past by officials, seeing their suffering affirmed in print brings both relief and anger. Some learn that specific, intimate details of their abuse were repeated with other youth, and that they share a horrible secret with other wounded strangers. Some believe the stamp of societal institutions like the attorney general and the Catholic Church will awaken a numb populace to the fact that sexual abuse’s damage can be lifelong. Some will never even read a document thick, for them, with trauma.
Teresa Lancaster decades ago sued the Archdiocese of Baltimore for alleged mishandling of Father Joseph Maskell, who had abused her in the late 1960s when he was her counselor at Archbishop Keough High School. While the archdiocese says in its statements that it learned only in the 1990s that Maskell had “abused,” the new report shows multiple instances starting in the mid-1960s when top figures in the archdiocese were told that Maskell would interview Boy Scouts about their sexual fantasies and practices and was alone with young girls in the rectory for hours under “suspicious” circumstances.
“There were a lot of reports on him. If they had stopped him, [I and other victims of Maskell] would never have been abused. When we needed to be believed, we weren’t,” said Lancaster, now an attorney.< She has only read a slim slice of the graphic, 463-page report so far, saying it’s “overwhelming." Overwhelming but essential, she said. “When people see it in print they realize the extent of the torture. When you say: ‘I was abused,’ they don’t realize the neatly planned coverups by higher-ups that enabled it to spread like wildfire. The details are important. It’s different to picture yourself 16 years old, naked on a priest’s lap. How would you like your son or daughter to be in that position?” Mary McHale said it felt empowering in 2018 when then-Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro released and read at a news conference parts of a grand jury report that included the Rev. James Gaffney, who abused her when she was a Catholic high school student in Reading in the 1980s. At the time she was coming to terms with being a lesbian and he used the secret as a basis for the abuse, she says. She told her parents and others at the time, but asked them not to report it because she was terrified her sexuality would become public. Multiple priests and survivors from her childhood community were in the report, she said, and it “felt good seeing it in print. Over the years I was sick of people minimizing” abuse in the Catholic Church, said McHale, 51, a physical therapist and trainer.
But McHale’s initial expectations after the report came out weren’t met, she says. “I thought it would have this huge impact here, in a Catholic culture, everyone you live around, work with — you’re all Catholic. To stand up and speak against it, a lot of people aren’t too pleased with that even now. As time marches on, people move on. People who are practicing tell themselves ‘It’s just a few bad eggs.’ But it’s not. It’s systemic coverup.”
Survivor and longtime prominent advocate David Clohessy said the government investigations, of which there are at least 20, “are a very mixed bag.” While they can have a healing affect, many are very superficial and skim the surface, he said. He praised reports in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
“These reports are welcome but are a very poor substitute for real justice, criminal prosecution and harsh punishments which are most effective at deterring future coverups, inside and outside the church. And none of the attorneys general have really done the kind of aggressive outreach to victims, witnesses and whistleblowers that will really help more people who saw, suspected or suffered abuse to speak up,” he said
According to Bishop Accountability, an archive and advocacy group for abuse survivors, the new Maryland report includes the names of 33 clergy members who were not previously identified as abusers by the archdiocese.
In a detailed FAQ published last week about the report, the Archdiocese of Baltimore said it “does appreciate some aspects of the report” and that “acknowledging the painful reality of child sexual abuse in the Church is a significant source of support for victims and a moment of transparency that helps in the effort to protect children.” However, it criticized the report as giving an unfair picture of the modern-day archdiocese. It “does not acknowledge the full scope of the Archdiocese’s efforts to protect children in recent decades” and doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the number of new allegations dropped dramatically, the church said.
Survivors interviewed for this story describe the new anger generated by reports — like Maryland’s — that have agreed to redact for now some names of alleged abusers or those who facilitated a coverup, or church leaders framing abuse as a historic issue. Part of their suffering, some say, happens when Catholic officials fight to keep the lawsuit windows very small, or to file for bankruptcy when faced with costly mandates to pay survivors, or to go along with redactions.
“They didn’t give those [internal church records] over until they were subpoenaed. When they speak to the past, I’m not hearing them speak to the survivor in front of them who still carries that wounded child,” said Wehner, whose brother had to read and then summarize for her the parts of the Maryland report that pertained to her.
“There are people who couldn’t go out that front door” the day the report was released, “who couldn’t go to that meeting” [Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown held with survivors that day], who haven’t told their families because of that fear.” To her, when church leaders characterize abuse as a problem in the past, that fear is triggered.
Lara Fortney-McKeever and four of her nine sisters were sexually assaulted by a priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., in the 1980s. They believed they were forbidden from talking about it for more than two decades, McKeever said, until the grand jury probe started around 2016. In the report they learned that several high-ranking clergy — including then-Harrisburg Bishop William Keeler, who went on to become the archbishop in Baltimore — received a complaint about the priest, the Rev. Augustine Giella, but failed to remove him.
Reading the report “was bittersweet. It validated what we felt we knew, but then we saw five years could have been saved.” Her younger sisters’ assaults could have been prevented, they learned. She’s still searching for how she feels about what she learned in the report.
“I was able to hide in a happy place for years, and it made me face a reality that I may not have been ready to face. But in hindsight, it did end up becoming healing for me because it’s helped me reach so many that were afraid to come forward,” she said. “Sunlight is disinfectant for evil.”
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