‘Soul murder’: Clergy abuse survivors testify about torment Baltimore archdiocese bankruptcy case

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As a young girl, Eva Dittrich sought forgiveness during confession at her Catholic church in Baltimore County because her grandfather was molesting her at home.

Her priest, Father Joseph Maskell, responded by telling her she was “a whore,” but that he would “try to cleanse me of my sins in private counseling sessions,” Dittrich said in court Monday.

“These sessions were actually sexual abuse,” she testified.

Maskell later invited her into his car and on boat rides, where he “violently raped” her, Dittrich recalled. “I tried to jump out of the boat. I would rather drown,” she said, adding that she attributed a lifetime of nightmares, tumultuous relationships and decades of intensive psychotherapy to the torment she endured decades ago.

Dittrich, 68, was the first of six survivors of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore to speak as part of the church’s bankruptcy case Monday. In a move that was unique but not unprecedented in bankruptcy proceedings, federal judge Michelle M. Harner allowed the survivors to shed light on the human toll of the systemic sexual abuse that underlies the case.

The leader of the archdiocese, Archbishop William Lori, sat in a swivel chair not far from the survivors who spoke Monday, listening intently as they told of the suffering they endured in his diocese, which covers most of Maryland.

“This is a day of liberation for me,” Dittrich said. “In this moment, in this courtroom, I was a victim. I was not a whore.”

When she finished speaking, tears in her eyes, Dittrich embraced Lori and the Most. Rev. Adam J. Parker, the archdiocese’s auxiliary bishop.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, America’s oldest, declared bankruptcy Sept. 29. The strategic decision, designed to protect the church’s assets, came just days before Maryland’s Child Victims Act took effect. The landmark law lifted time limits for people who were sexually abused as children to sue the perpetrators and institutions that enabled their torment.

Survivors and their advocates, who had long fought to lift the statute of limitations for child sex abuse lawsuits, credited a report on clergy sex abuse by Maryland’s attorney general with pushing the legislature to pass the child victims law.

Released last April, the expansive report documented abuse of more than 600 children and young adults by 156 clergy and other officials in the Baltimore diocese dating to the 1940s. The result of a four-year investigation, it also detailed the church’s efforts to cover up abuse.

A deluge of lawsuits flooded Maryland court dockets once the Child Victims Act took effect Oct. 1, with complaints targeting schools, churches and correctional facilities for abuse allegedly committed by teachers, priests and guards. The archdiocese’s bankruptcy filing, however, meant any lawsuits against the church had to be filed as claims in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Baltimore.

Teresa Lancaster, an attorney who survived abuse in the Baltimore diocese and now advocates for other victims, called Monday’s testimony “momentous” after court.

“We’ve all been living for our day in court,” Lancaster told reporters after testifying about the torment she endured. “And we all would have had our day if we had been able to sue in civil court. When the church filed for bankruptcy, they just pulled the rug out.”

A committee of seven survivors, tasked with representing the rest in the interests of all victims in the bankruptcy process, last month raised the prospect of having survivors give statements in court.

Lawyers for the committee said such testimony would add humanity to the technical and otherwise money-oriented proceedings. The request earned the blessing of archdiocese attorneys, who promised Lori would attend. Harner eventually approved, scheduling two hearings exclusively for survivor statements. The next is May 20.

In court Monday, Committee Chair Paul Jan Zdunek thanked Harner for giving survivors the opportunity to speak before addressing Lori.

“Archbishop Lori, our worlds have come together in this moment because of a disregard — by many — of the precious lives of children. Children who once had carefree lives filled with the joy of innocence,” Zdunek said. “Today, however, those same innocents continue to be burdened with a demon that has been gnawing away at their core ever since they fell victim to the sexual perversions of their predators — predators who were at one time their Caretakers in Christ.”

“A number of those innocents are here today,” he continued, “to share their stories, so that we may all fully understand and never, ever forget the real reason of why we find ourselves in court navigating this case.”

Another abuse survivor who did not identify herself in court said it took her decades to be able to realize that she was innocent.

The woman said she attended a Catholic school in Baltimore. One gym teacher at the school would walk the students to a playground in Fells Point, she recalled.

“That’s when he attacked,” the woman said.

Because she came from a family of devout Catholics, she said, “I buried it. I buried it so deep.”

She said the abuse led her to “promiscuous behavior.” She gave birth to a son when she was 13. When he approached her years later to tell her that he had been molested, she told him to remain quiet, because that’s what she had done when she was a child, the woman recalled.

The woman said much of her family doesn’t know what she experienced. Overcoming initial reservations, she decided to speak publicly, saying she no longer wanted to suffer silently.

“That’s what today is about, for me to start my true healing,” she said.

Lori looked on somberly during the testimony, at times appearing moved. He seemed to maintain eye contact with the speakers for most of the time they testified.

The archbishop said he decided to attend — a choice that few Catholic leaders have made during bankruptcy proceedings in other dioceses — because he learned long ago that listening to those who have been abused plays a significant role in their recovery.

At the end of the hearing Lori, who said he has met many abuse survivors privately over the years, conceded that listening to Monday’s testimony was not easy.

“It’s always devastating to hear the stories,” he said. “Not as devastating as what the victims have undergone, but it is very, very saddening. It just resonates into my soul.”

Thomas Michael Carney, 74, said he has no friends, “only acquaintances,” because the abuse he suffered as a child robbed him of his ability to trust, making close relationships difficult.

“I placed my trust in them. And then the pastor put his arm on my shoulder,” said Carney, describing how the abuse began.

Carney said he still suffers from nightmares stemming from his abuse by a priest at his family’s church and a religious teacher at his high school. One of his recurring dreams goes like this: He is a young boy at the church again. Something startles him and he approaches the altar to see the priest. The pastor begins throwing fireballs as he turns into Satan.

“This is about loss,” Carney said. “What was lost that day was my life.”

During her testimony Monday, Lancaster spoke about the torment she suffered decades ago at the former Seton Keough High School in Southwest Baltimore.

Maskell would call her to his office over the public announcement speaker system, she recalled. Within five minutes of their first “meeting,” Lancaster testified, Maskell was abusing her and justifying his actions by saying they were “godly.”

She told the court she believes the archdiocese — and then-Cardinal William Keeler in particular — knew that Maskell had been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse before assigning him to his post at the school. The archdiocese has denied this charge.

Maskell, whose conduct was central to the 2017 Netflix docuseries The Keepers, is probably the most notorious of the many priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. At least 39 people have reported that they or someone they know suffered abuse at his hands during his 30-year career in the Maryland church. Many, including Lancaster, have alleged that he plied them with alcohol, raped them, carried a gun and threatened to shoot victims if they told. They’ve also said he “shared” them with other men, including priests and Baltimore police officers.

Maskell, who always maintained his innocence, was removed from the ministry in 1994 and died in 2001.

Lancaster said her grades dropped following her abuse. She ended up marrying young and having children, temporarily giving up on previous childhood dreams. After decades of tumult, she earned a law degree at age 50. She said she blames the abuse for disrupting her life course.

“Child sexual abuse is soul murder,” Lancaster said.