April 18, 2012

Ten years after bishops respond to the child sex abuse scandal, the Archdiocese of Baltimore strives for child safety.


By Maria Wiering



When Mike MacDonald was 16, he was allowed into his drama coach’s inner circle – a coveted spot for students at Arundel High School in Gambrills, where MacDonald was a junior and the instructor was a former Teacher of the Year.

But then the teacher started to instant-message MacDonald in the evening, asking him inappropriate, sexual questions. Despite feeling uncomfortable, MacDonald responded to the messages, because he felt he had to – he didn’t want to get kicked out of the coach’s cadre.

MacDonald eventually told his parents, who met with the principal the next morning. That night, the teacher was arrested, and he was later charged for sexually abusing a different 16-year-old male student.

That was the fall of 2002, less than a year after the Boston Globe exposed the Archdiocese of Boston’s cover-up of allegations of child sexual abuse by priests, and for continuing to put abusive priests in positions where they had access to children.

A wave of similar allegations swept across U.S. dioceses. The U.S. bishops responded by revising existing diocesan policies and forming new ones, and by creating training programs to educate all priests, church employees, teachers and volunteers in abuse recognition, reporting and prevention.

Joni MacDonald, Mike’s mom, cried when she took the video-based training developed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, she said. She immediately recognized the teacher’s behavior in the descriptions victims gave of their abusers. She made a copy of the tape and gave it to Arundel High School administrators. If the school had trained its employees to recognize potential abusers, she told them, the drama coach may have been stopped sooner.

Today, Mike MacDonald is a youth minister at Our Lady of the Fields in Millersville, where he works across the hall from his mother, an administrative assistant. As parish employees, both are responsible for making sure youths in their care are safe, both in their physical environment and in the access that people have to them, Mike said.

The archdiocese has trained more than 90,000 people with its Stand program since its 2003 implementation. Both the training and criminal background checks are part of the archdiocese’s requirements for all teachers, employees and clergy, as well as volunteers who work with children and vulnerable adults.

The training is also part of the archdiocese’s compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which the U.S. bishops codified in Dallas in 2002 and revised in 2011.

The charter calls for pastoral outreach to victims, reporting allegations to public authorities, zero tolerance of Catholic clergy or other adults credibly accused of abuse, and diocesan policies for protecting children and vulnerable adults. In the decade since the child sex abuse scandal came to light, U.S. dioceses have worked to implement these and other policies and to monitor their compliance.

“It takes a community to protect children,” said Alison D’Alessandro, a mantra she has emphasized repeatedly in her position as director of the archdiocesan Office for Child and Youth Protection, which was formed in 2002.

As many as one in four girls are abused before age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For boys, it’s one in six. The Baltimore Child Abuse Center is on pace to see 1,000 children this year who may be sexual abuse victims, said its executive director, Adam Rosenberg, a former sex crimes prosecutor for Baltimore City.

Adults cannot expect children to shoulder the burden of protecting themselves and establishing boundaries, D’Alessandro said. “Their safety really depends on being surrounded by adults who know how to prevent abuse.”

Her office oversees the archdiocese’s implementation of safe environment policies and handles sexual abuse allegations. In addition to Stand training, it has instituted a curriculum to teach children about healthy sexuality and human dignity, and it encourages sexual abuse victims to come forward and begin the healing process.


Preventing abuse


Since implementing the archdiocesan policies, schools such as St. Joan of Arc in Aberdeen have replaced solid doors with ones with windows and added cameras to monitor entrances, said its principal, Jane Towery. Teachers have emergency plans in place for all sorts of situations. The morning she spoke to the Catholic Review, her school had contacted the local police to report a suspicious person sitting in a car across from the school.

The Office of Child and Youth Protection’s policies and training heighten adults’ vigilance for abusive behavior, said Barbara McGraw Edmondson, who was the founding principal of School of the Incarnation in Gambrills before becoming the archdiocesan Catholic schools superintendent in 2011.

“Things we may have overlooked in the past we now see in a different light,” she said. “It’s making sure that things don’t get overlooked or put on a back burner or disregarded, especially in situations when we know the people.”

Today, Incarnation School’s safe environment plan includes Raptorware, a web-based technology that instantly reads a visitor’s driver’s license to search the national sex offender registry. If a visitor’s record clears, a machine prints a sticker with the visitor’s name, photo and destination. If there’s a match, the system notifies the receptionist and school authorities immediately via the Internet, text message and other programmed alerts.

All of Incarnation’s visitors have cleared so far, but Anne Arundel County Public Schools have caught about 30 sexual offenders with the technology since installing it in 2004, according to a spokesperson.

Christine Cox, an Incarnation first-grade instructional aide and parent of two students at the school, calls the technology an answer to her prayer. As a retired Prince George’s County police officer, she said she gets peace of mind from knowing everybody in the school has had up-to-date screening.

Still, the school strives to be vigilant at all times in looking for odd or inappropriate behavior between adults and students, said Incarnation principal Lisa Shipley.

The background checks are important, but more than 90 percent of child sex abuse victims know and trust their abusers, according to ChildHelp, a national organization for child abuse treatment and prevention. It is adults with current access to young people who need the closest watch, D’Alessandro maintains. Today one of the office’s main concerns is education on appropriate boundaries between young people and adults.

“Adults around young people need to observe the kinds of relationships that develop between children and adults,” D’Alessandro said. “Many healthy relationships develop in our schools and parishes, but it is important to recognize how relationships between adults and children have the power to do great good, and the power to cause great harm.”

Seminarians are also under more rigorous scrutiny, said vocations director Father T. Austin Murphy, who is responsible for ensuring archdiocesan seminarians are properly screened and develop into happy, healthy priests.

The archdiocese’s safe environment training advises adults to watch for red flags such as an adult who spends large amounts of time with a particular student, tries to be alone with children or talks online with young people without their parents’ knowledge or permission.

That kind of vigilance decades ago might have prevented the actions of John Merzbacher, a former South Baltimore Catholic School teacher who was convicted in 1995 of six counts of child rape and sexual abuse. The abuse took place in the 1970s, but his case is making headlines again because an alleged legal oversight at the time of the trial may make him eligible for a reduced prison sentence instead of the four concurrent life terms he is currently serving.

Last year, a federal judge agreed that Merzbacher was not informed of a plea offer during trial that would have required him to serve 10 years in prison. Merzbacher, who has already served more than 16 years, said he would have taken the plea if he had known about it. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month may have bolstered his case when it decided that the right to effective counsel includes plea bargains.

According to accounts, Merzbacher would take students to bars, including strip clubs, and on joyrides. This behavior “groomed” his victims for accepting progressively more compromising situations. It was a way of gaining their trust, and working his way into their world.

The archdiocese is continuing to support Merzbacher’s victims today. Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien expressed “concern and anxiety” over the former teacher’s possible release, and has pledged to continue to see that Merzbacher can never hurt anyone again.

The archdiocese also has policies in place to ensure that priests from other dioceses who are visiting or temporarily ministering in the archdiocese do not have records of abuse. Catholic Charities of Baltimore has its own safe environment polices, as do religious orders and their schools in the archdiocese.


 A history of transparency

Even before 2002, the Archdiocese of Baltimore was a leader among U.S. dioceses in responding to sexual abuse allegations, said Monsignor Richard Woy, vicar general and moderator of the curia. Required background checks and removing credibly accused priests from ministry date to the 1980s, under Archbishop William D. Borders’ guidance.

“We had a history of being public with our cases, to reach out to anyone being harmed,” Monsignor Woy said.

In 1989, Cardinal William H. Keeler took the helm, strengthening archdiocesan protocols for reporting abuse to civil authorities. He also formed an independent review board in 1993 to oversee archdiocesan policies, including the archdiocese’s compliance with the Dallas Charter after its creation.

In the wake of the 2002 scandal, Cardinal Keeler strove for transparency, as the charter required. He released the names of 57 priests and male religious credibly accused of abuse, all with connections to the archdiocese – a move that received criticism from some church authorities at the time.

The archdiocese continues to demonstrate transparency, said Monsignor Jay O’Connor, who directs the archdiocesan office of clergy personnel. It has published the name of every living priest credibly accused of child sexual abuse who has served in the archdiocese from the 1950s to the present.

Cardinal O’Brien has also championed safe environment efforts, said Ellen Heller, a retired Baltimore City circuit court judge. Heller sits on the archdiocese’s Independent Review Board, where she and 14 others review the archdiocese’s response to sexual abuse allegations and safe environment policies.

She has never suspected the archdiocese of hiding an aspect of a case from the board, she said.


Responding to allegations

Such is not true for all U.S. dioceses, as recent cases in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph have exposed.

In Philadelphia, Monsignor William Lynn, who served as the archdiocese’s secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, is on trial for charges that he protected priests who were known abusers by not reporting them to civil authorities and keeping them in ministry where they had access to children. In Missouri, Bishop Robert W. Finn was charged for not reporting abuse allegations against one of his priests to authorities, and trial is set for September.

“I think leadership comes from the top, and I think both cardinals (of Baltimore) have been intensely focused at getting to the truth,” said Brian Rogers, the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Independent Review Board chairman and T. Rowe Price executive, who calls the board the “truth squad.”

“The review board is only as good as the information it receives from the archdiocese, and I don’t think we’ve ever felt as though we have been misled or something has been covered up or that we haven’t had access to all the information needed to make a sound recommendation,” he said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops conducts annual independent audits of U.S. dioceses’ safe environment policies, and the archdiocese conducts periodic internal audits of archdiocesan parishes and schools. The U.S. bishops’ 2011 report, released earlier this month, found nearly all dioceses compliant with the Dallas Charter.

Four percent of the allegations made last year – a total of 23 – included victims who were minors in 2010 or 2011. Sixty-eight percent of allegations were for abuse that happened between 1960 and 1984.

Three-quarters of alleged offenders accused in 2011 are either dead or are no longer in priestly ministry. The number of reported allegations is up from 2010, but lower than the numbers reported between 2004 and 2008, according to the report.


Outreach to victims

The archdiocese immediately notifies civil authorities when abuse allegations are made. It does not begin an internal investigation until given the go-ahead from those authorities. Cardinals Keeler and O’Brien have met with victims, which has been, for some, part of the healing process, D’Alessandro said. The archdiocese also pays for victims and their family members to receive counseling from counselors of their choice.

“We try to be very respectful of the victim and where they are in their healing,” D’Alessandro said. “Often they’re very angry at the church and God. We respect that. We want to do what we can to help them on their journey toward healing. Many want to come back to the church again, have a relationship with the church again, trust the church again.

“All the faithful of the church must show victims of sexual abuse mercy and compassion,” she added.

The archdiocese needs to hear from victim groups, said Monsignor James Hannon, who until recently was pastor of several parishes in western Maryland, and is now assistant director of clergy personnel for the archdiocese. “They are operating from their own hurt, and we need to hear that hurt. They have a unique perspective because of that hurt.”

A Baltimore City psychotherapist said that in her experience, child sex abuse victims whose abusers were priests or church authorities struggle to find a relationship with God through the church, even though they often were from devout families and were deeply spiritual themselves.

“There’s been this sort of rip in their soul,” she said.

The victims she sees, who range in age from 40 to their mid-80s, still long to be part of the church, she said. Yet, many feel there is no place for them, even if they still attend Mass. This is heightened when they hear other Catholics question victims’ motives for coming forward, she said.

Catholics “are not going to know by looking at someone if they have been a victim,” said the psychotherapist, whose named is withheld to protect her clients’ privacy. “That person standing next to you at Mass may have been abused. The shame that goes along with abuse is what makes them feel trapped. If someone says that those people just want money or just want attention, that shame is re-engaged when someone doubts. There’s this common feeling of ‘they should just get over it.’ ... It’s not something one gets over. It’s something one learns to cope with.”

Since 2002, the archdiocese has removed six priests and one deacon for abuse. In that time, it has paid $2.5 million in settlements to victims and $2.2 million in counseling assistance for victims.

Erin Neil, director of safe environment efforts in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., is convinced Archbishop William E. Lori will make child protection a priority when he takes leadership of the Baltimore archdiocese in May. Archbishop Lori was instrumental in creating the Dallas Charter after implementing safe environment policies in Washington, D.C., and Bridgeport.

In Bridgeport, Archbishop Lori has shown a commitment to reporting child sexual abuse allegations as well as a deep compassion for victims, Neil said. He meets with victims and makes sure every person who comes forward receives the help they’re seeking, she said.

Looking ahead

Today, the U.S. church is providing a model for safe environment efforts for other dioceses and eparchies around the world, said Deacon Bernie Nojadera, who heads the USCCB’s Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection.

Other churches and organizations look to the archdiocese for guidance, including the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, which consulted with the archdiocese while developing its own safe-environment policies. D’Alessandro sits on the State Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, and she represents the archdiocese in the Maryland Partnership to End Sexual Abuse and its affiliated Enough Abuse Campaign, which First Lady Katie O’Malley launched in January.

The archdiocese is expecting to complete an update of all of its policies, including social media policies, by the end of the summer. The archdiocese currently has guidelines for social media, but it is important that they are clear and current with emerging media trends, said Mike MacDonald, the Millersville youth minister.

Adults working with youths in his parish aren’t allowed to “friend” them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter. MacDonald hopes that by modeling appropriate boundaries online and off, that kids will recognize if another adult, such as a neighbor or a parent’s friend, crosses the line.

The same rule applies at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, said assistant principal Chuck Stembler. It may seem like common sense, but for many young teachers, social media has been an integral part of daily communication, and they might not question “friending” a student were it not for school policy, he said.

Going forward, there will always be a need to hold people accountable for creating safe environments and dealing with inappropriate behavior, Monsignor Woy said.

“We need to make sure we continue to foster and create a culture of accountability and transparency and healthy ministry, and that’s an unending process,” he said. “We must always be vigilant, and we must always be diligent. We must continue to do the same things we’re doing right now, and even find out and learn ways to do them better.”

Monsignor Woy said that a minister of the church “represent[s] the church and the Lord and master she serves, and we have to make sure that the environment is safe, and the interactions are appropriate and really articulate our values as a Catholic community.”

A decade after the arrest of MacDonald’s teacher, Maryland’s public schools still lack statewide training for teachers and employees. The Maryland Catholic Conference is working to change that, along with the Baltimore Child Abuse Center. Representatives from both organizations testified before the General Assembly last month to support a bill requiring the State Board of Education to create a model program before the end of 2012. The measure failed to pass in the 2012 session.

Sometimes, safe environment requirements pose inconveniences for parishes and schools, and not all parishioners fully understand why parishes go to the lengths they do.

At Our Lady of the Fields, the archdiocese recently removed its pastor, Father Eugene Nickol, not for abuse allegations, but in part for not enforcing safe environment policies, which a regular audit revealed shortly after MacDonald started his job there. That kind of enforcement convinces MacDonald the archdiocese is taking its responsibility seriously.

“I honestly believe the Catholic Church is the safest place for children now,” MacDonald said.