When Baltimore church officials released the long, detailed list last month, naming 56 priests accused of molesting children, the toll appeared greatest for a century-old parish in Catonsville that has been a bedrock in the region’s Catholic community.
Of the priests named by the Baltimore Archdiocese, six had served at St. Mark Church, the greatest number with ties to a single parish.
The list of the accused brought the church scandal that erupted in Boston more than eight months ago uncomfortably close for a community so close-knit and so enduring that some church members refer to their home not as Catonsville, but as St. Mark’s parish.
“I think everyone was really surprised, shocked, that it came so close to home,” said Bill Garman, a father of five who has been a member of the church since 1989 and who supports the new candor about the past.
“The church has to be honest and has to be upfront,” Garman, 46, a Defense Department manager says. “That’s what the church is about.”
It is not clear how many abuse victims once were St. Mark’s parishioners, because the archdiocese has declined to provide that information. One current pastor acknowledged from the pulpit that he was dismayed to learn about the record of his predecessors.
A former St. Mark priest described as a “miracle worker” abused a 16-year-old in the church rectory; he pleaded guilty Friday. Another priest who had served at St. Mark’s parish in the 1970s admitted abusing many young people decades earlier. One former associate pastor was accused of beginning an eight-year relationship with a teen-age boy while at the church.
Some parishioners, like Garman, have welcomed the church’s openness about the issue. But there are many more in the traditional, middle-class congregation who do not want to confront the painful topic now, years after the alleged abuse occurred.
They defend the priests who are among the accused or quickly say that those six men do not reflect the parish they know one that is widely respected for its high-achieving grade school and its many hardworking priests who have presided over countless weddings, christenings and funerals.
“Everybody seems like they’re jumping on the bandwagon,” said Cindy Keenan, an accountant from Catonsville who has been a member of St. Mark for 20 years. “And you know what? I don’t think we should judge.”
One of the accused priests, David G. Smith, is remembered more than 20 years after he left St. Mark as an untiring advocate who helped get a recreation center built on the church’s campus, which stretches across two quiet city blocks and includes a school and a worship center built in the late 1960s alongside the 19th-century chapel.
On Friday, Smith pleaded guilty to perverted practice after a Mount Washington man, Brian P. Hannon, now 45, accused Smith of giving him beer and molesting him in St. Mark’s rectory between 1973 and 1976. According to Hannon, who said he was 15 or 16 when the abuse began, Smith “took my faith” and he has not set foot in a Catholic church as an adult.
At St. Mark, many struggle to reconcile that image of Smith with the man they knew.
“Everyone is very much in shock about it, because the whole concept was he was a miracle worker,” Keenan said. “One day there wasn’t a gym, and the next day there was.”
Across the country, American Catholics in the past year have wrestled with conflicting reactions and emotions to the revelations of clergy sexual abuse. In Baltimore, the issue was brought home when Cardinal William H. Keeler last month publicly named the priests who have faced abuse allegations over the past seven decades.
Keeler disclosed that more than 80 priests in the Baltimore Archdiocese have been accused of molesting minors since the 1930s. Church officials identified more than 50 withholding only the names of priests who died before they could respond to the allegations.
The cardinal’s decision angered some clergy, who argued that the reputations of priests who denied the allegations were ruined. But the list has also prompted calls from 23 people who have come forward with new allegations of abuse, Stephen J. Kearney, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said last week.
He said none of the claims involves priests still serving in the ministry. In most instances, the allegations involved priests named on the list; in some instances, the newly accused priests were dead, Kearney said.
Church officials have released no details about the alleged victims of the men who once led Catholic churches across the region. In addition to Smith, though, two other priests are accused of abusing minors during the time they were assigned to St. Mark.
James Dowdy, accused in 1993 of sexual abuse, admitted to misconduct with two minors. The abuse occurred while Dowdy was associate pastor of St. Mark from 1975 to 1980 and pastor of St. Jerome’s Church in Southwest Baltimore in the early 1980s.
Thomas Bauernfeind was accused in 1987 of sexual abuse in the mid-1970s. Bauernfeind retired in the late 1990s, and in April his faculties to perform ministry were removed. He had served at the Catholic Center from 1968 to 1978 and at St. Mark from 1978 to 1979.
Three other priests accused of abusing minors also were assigned at one point to St. Mark.
Frederick Duke was accused of sexual abuse in 1988, when he was retired and in poor health. Duke admitted to sexually abusing minors, the number is thought to be more than 15 between 1949 and 1961. He served at St. Mark from 1971 to 1978.
Ross LaPorta was accused in 1999, while retired and living out of state, of sexual abuse during the 1960s. He denied the allegations. LaPorta had served at St. Mark from 1991 until 1998.
Charles Rouse disclosed in 1995 that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with minors in the 1970s. He had served at St. Mark from 1981 to 1983.
Church leaders say the number of accused priests with ties to St. Mark reflects only coincidence. Kearney said that St. Mark has been one of the largest parishes in the archdiocese, which means that many more priests have served there than in most churches.
The church’s population has shrunk since the 1970s, when it was considered the third or fourth-largest parish in the archdiocese. But it still is among the top 10 percent in membership for the archdiocese’s 160 parishes, with more than 2,000 families and a staff of four parish priests, including two weekend assistants.
“The sad reality is that some parishes will be more affected than others by the harm done by abusers – physical harm and also the betrayal people feel,” Kearney said. “The truth is the truth. We hope that by putting out what we know, we will help victims find the strength to come forward, so we can apologize and offer help.”
One of Keeler’s most trusted advisers, Baltimore lawyer Richard O. Berndt, was married at St. Mark, the same parish where he was raised. Berndt said the church, which dates to 1888 and sits just off busy Frederick Avenue in downtown Catonsville, always has been known for having “strong, good priests and a huge Catholic community.”
“It really was one of the model churches in the archdiocese,” Berndt said. As he has helped advise the archdiocese on its handling of sexual abuse issues, Berndt said he has been guided by his memories of St. Mark. “All I want to reproduce is the well-being of that parish,” he said.
Some longtime members at St. Mark have been quick to defend the priests named on the list of accused priests. Marion Rupertus, 78, of Catonsville, recalled that LaPorta had once accompanied her to the Kennedy Center in Washington and on other day trips organized as part of the Roamin’ Catholics, a group that plans excursions for parishioners.
Like many others, Rupertus said she never heard any allegations against the priests until their names appeared on the archdiocese list.
“He was a good pastor,” she said of LaPorta. “We all commit sins, and we all hope God will forgive us.”
Church leaders are hearing similar comments at a series of “listening sessions” being held across the archdiocese this month. Parishioners want their church to address the problem of clergy sexual abuse and move past it, but many also are reluctant to admit it could have happened in their own parish.
At a listening session Tuesday evening at St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park, Mark Serrano, a board member of the national group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the list offered by the archdiocese in Baltimore did not go far enough and suggested it should also have detailed for each priest named where he is living and how much money, if any, the church had spent on his treatment and legal defense.
Although it did not list the amounts by individual case, the archdiocese disclosed last month that since 1987 it had spent $112,500 in legal expenses for accused priests, $616,201 in living expenses for suspended priests and $317,019 in medical treatment for suspended priests.
But Serrano said naming the accused priests was a bold first step that should help adults feel more certain “that our children, our grandchildren, are safe when we take them to church each week.”
“Exposing the truth is the only way for our church to be truly healed,” Serrano said.
At St. Mark, that is a painful truth in its own right. Among the priests now serving at the parish, the response to naming the accused priests has been varied.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Christopher J. Whatley, has declined to comment on his reaction to the number of accused priests who served at St. Mark.
But in the first Sunday Mass after the list was made public, one of the church’s assistant pastors addressed the issue in his sermon, urging parishioners to “make one” with victims and with the accused, saying that the church members should not be “looking for guilt but looking for ways to make up for the wrongs.”
“I must admit I was quite surprised when I saw the list, people I had worked with, people I had taught, people I had not heard anything untoward about,” the Rev. William Dawson told about 200 parishioners who filled the pews of the old chapel.
“It is a difficult time, but it is a time when we will try to make ourselves one with the Lord,” Dawson said. “We have to face that problem and see what we can work out with ourselves and the Lord.”