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Keeler Letter Reveals Abuse

Sep 25, 2002 | The Baltimore Sun

Calling the sexual abuse of children by clergy "the spiritual equivalent of murder," Cardinal William H. Keeler has disclosed that more than 80 priests have been accused of molesting minors in the Baltimore archdiocese over the past seven decades.

In a letter sent today to the 180,000 Catholic households in the archdiocese, Keeler said that since the 1930s, 41 diocesan priests and 42 men in religious orders and priests from other dioceses have been accused of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese Of Baltimore. None of the men is now in ministry, and all the cases have been reported to civil authorities, Keeler said. Twenty- six of the priests died before their accusers came forward.

The cardinal also said that the archdiocese has reached settlements with eight victims totaling $4.1 million over the past 20 years, nearly all of it covered by insurance.

Keeler will release details about the accused priests during a meeting today with clergy, and then will release the information, including the names of the priests, to the public. The information will be posted on the archdiocesan Web site this afternoon at www.archbalt.org.

In the letter, Keeler offered his most detailed and personal apology for his failings in the sexual abuse scandal that has shaken the American Catholic Church for most of the past year.

"My fellow bishops and I must respond to the violence already visited on our children by saying we are sorry," Keeler wrote. "At times, we have let our fears of scandal override the need for the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse. In the past, we sometimes have responded to victims and their families as adversaries, not as suffering members of the Church. I am deeply sorry for the harm done to children entrusted to our care."

Later in the letter, Keeler spoke more personally: "I humbly ask forgiveness for my mistakes. Please pray for me so that I may better serve."

The disclosures by the archdiocese come more than eight months after the scandal first broke when the Boston Globe reported efforts to protect pedophile priests in the Archdiocese of Boston. Since then, many other dioceses have looked back into their files and disclosed past incidents of sexual abuse.

In February, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which has about 1,100 priests as compared with Baltimore's 600, said it had found 35 cases in which it determined there was credible evidence of sexual abuse dating back 50 years, but would not release the names. The diocese of Wilmington, Del., which has 200 priests and includes parishes on Maryland's Eastern Shore, said it had identified 15 credible cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests over the same period. Figures from Philadelphia and Wilmington did not include any cases involving members of religious orders, who operate independently from local dioceses.

The Archdiocese Of Baltimore, when asked by The Sun in March for an accounting of accused priests, refused to provide the information and would provide no details of financial settlements, although it acknowledged that it had settled two cases in the past decade. In recent years, however, it had been church policy to release information on accused priests after parishioners had been informed. Twenty-eight cases had been publicly disclosed.

The archdiocese has not paid out the huge sums that have nearly bankrupted churches in other cities. Santa Fe, N.M., for example, paid $50 million to settle 50 cases in the early 1990s, while Dallas settled a case involving several altar boys for $30 million. The Boston archdiocese has agreed to pay $25 million to victims of John Geoghan, who was shuttled from one parish to another with the knowledge of church officials, and will likely have to pay millions more in other cases.

Baltimore has paid $4.1 million for all its settlements, and $419,186 over the past 15 years for psychological counseling for victims. In addition, Keeler noted, the archdiocese spent $112,520 for legal expenses for accused priests, $616,201 to cover the living expenses of suspended priests and $387,019 for psychiatric treatment and ordinary medical expenses for suspended priests.

Yesterday, Keeler said the zero-tolerance sexual abuse policy adopted by the U.S. bishops in June, and questions from his parishioners, convinced him to authorize the accounting.

"We didn't contemplate [doing a review]," he said. "But when I came back after Dallas, and also when I saw the questions that people out in the parishes were putting to us at the listening sessions, that's when it became very clear to me that we should do our homework and that we should release information."

The review of files then took some time for his staff to complete, he said. "This was a lot of work," Keeler said.

Mark Serrano, a board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Baltimore was tardy in its review. "Dioceses around the country have completed reviews like this months ago," said Serrano, himself a victim of sexual abuse by a priest. "So I'd have to say the Archdiocese Of Baltimore is deficient in their review."

But he welcomed Keeler's strong language in saying sexual abuse is the "spiritual equivalent of murder," a phrase the cardinal borrowed from St. Frances de Sales, a 17th-century bishop and theologian. "I would hope that the inclination to protect and preserve the priesthood, which we have seen from bishops all across America, does not obscure the cardinal's stated commitment to victims," Serrano said.

Keeler said that reaching out to victims, as well as enforcing strict new guidelines that require criminal background checks for all church employees who come in contact with children, will be at the center of his efforts toward "rebuilding trust and achieving reconciliation."

The cardinal said he has met with about 20 victims from across the country, including several from Baltimore, in the past several months. He said his empathy for sexual abuse victims deepened when he learned in the past year that a member of his family had been sexually victimized by a relative.

"When I talk to victims about [sexual abuse], I can say 'I understand how you feel,'" he said.


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