Years into attorney general investigation of Maryland’s Catholic Church, abuse survivors wonder where it stands

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BALTIMORE — Three years after it became public that Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh was investigating child sexual abuse in the Catholic church, abuse survivors are wondering: Is he building a case, or has the probe stalled?

In September 2018, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori told clergy the archdiocese was under investigation by the state. A few months later, church officials confirmed they had given the attorney general more than 50,000 pages of internal documents dating to 1965.

But to this day, Frosh has not provided details on the investigation, which members of his office say is ongoing.

“Honestly, I’m shocked that it would take this long to charge anybody or find anything,” said Liz Murphy, who was interviewed twice in 2018 by an investigator with the attorney general’s office about the abuse she suffered at a Catholic school in South Baltimore in the 1970s.

The lack of a conclusion to the investigation stands in contrast to a two-year examination in Pennsylvania that resulted in an explosive grand jury report in 2018. It said more than 300 priests abused over 1,000 children in that state and named church leaders who protected them and helped cover up accusations.

State legislators changed laws related to abuse investigations and how long victims have to file lawsuits. As a result of the report, about 150 lawsuits have been filed against Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses.

Three Catholic dioceses operate in Maryland. A spokesman for the Diocese of Wilmington, which includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore, said it was notified of Frosh’s investigation and is cooperating. The Archdiocese of Washington, which includes the District of Columbia suburbs and Southern Maryland, did not respond to a request for comment.

Frosh, a Democrat, did not announce the review; it took Lori’s statements to make it public. Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Frosh, told The Baltimore Sun this month that the probe is “an ongoing criminal investigation.”

Coombs said the office has conducted hundreds of interviews as part of the investigation, which is being overseen by Elizabeth Embry, a special assistant to Frosh. But Coombs said she cannot provide details because it remains open.

Christian Kendzierski, a spokesman for the Baltimore archdiocese, said church leaders “continue to cooperate with any request from the attorney general’s office or any request from a law enforcement agency.”

He didn’t answer specific questions about whether the church has turned over more documents in the past few years nor whether state investigators have interviewed archdiocese personnel.

Murphy and others who have participated in the investigation hoped it would mean some degree of accountability for the nation’s oldest diocese.

In 1995, former Catholic Community middle school teacher John Merzbacher was convicted of raping Murphy when she was a child in one of Baltimore’s most high-profile abuse cases. Murphy considers the conviction only “half justice,” saying people in the archdiocese who enabled the teacher at the Locust Point school have never faced charges.

Multiple abuse survivors told The Sun they were interviewed for Maryland’s investigation by Rich Wolf, a former FBI agent who now works in Frosh’s office.

“Everybody I’ve talked to has said he’s very good, he’s very professional, he’s very thorough,” said David Lorenz, the Maryland director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Several survivors say they, too, have been told the investigation is “ongoing” when they’ve asked. But with no substantial updates, people are getting frustrated, Lorenz said.

They include Linda Malat Tiburzi, who, like Murphy, said she was sexually abused by Merzbacher in the 1970s. Prosecutors dropped charges involving Tiburzi and a dozen others after Merzbacher was given four life sentences for Murphy’s case; he remains in prison on the Eastern Shore.

She said her feelings about the current investigation are complicated.

“As more time passes, frustration grows, yet also I remain hopeful,” said Tiburzi, who was interviewed as part of the state investigation. “If this investigation does not produce viable evidence, how can survivors believe in our justice system and have courage to come forward?”

Murphy said with all the evidence already aired in the Merzbacher case, it’s hard for her to understand why the attorney general investigation is taking so long. A Baltimore Sun investigation in 2012 found that court documents indicated Catholic officials knew about Merzbacher’s abuse in the 1970s, but didn’t report it at the time.

“They have evidence,” Murphy said.

The Sun typically does not name people who say they’re victims of sexual crimes, but those interviewed for this story agreed to be identified.

Many victims fear that no one believes them, Lorenz said. So, “when the Pennsylvania grand jury report came out there, there were a lot of people who felt like someone was finally on their side and hearing their story.”

“When somebody of authority like an attorney general stands up in front of a press conference and says, ‘I believe these people,’ that’s an amazing, healing thing,” Lorenz said.

The Maryland attorney general’s staff has periodically posted notices on social media, most recently in June, encouraging victims and witnesses of abuse associated with “a school or place of worship” to report information Frosh’s office. The notices don’t specify the Catholic church. The office has received about 300 tips through a hotline and email, Coombs said.

Nationwide, more than 20 state attorneys general have launched investigations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in recent years, according to CHILD USA, a Philadelphia-based think tank focused protecting children from abuse and neglect.

CHILD USA legal director Alice Bohn said these investigations offer the public a window into what went wrong. The more people know “about how abuse happens, the more prepared we all are to prevent it,” not just in the Catholic church, but in all institutions that interact with children.

“The ultimate hope is for prevention,” Bohn said.

In some states, attorneys general have said they don’t have authority to investigate under their local laws, Bohn said.

In other places, criminal charges have resulted. For instance, the Michigan attorney general’s office has charged 11 people connected to the Catholic Church since launching an investigation in 2018. Four have been convicted so far.

It is encouraging to many survivors that authorities are conducting the reviews, said Mike McDonnell, spokesman for SNAP.

“We see more evidence produced because of them. We see more individuals named as predators,” McDonnell said. “And most importantly, we are seeing more healing happen for survivors because their stories are being vetted.”

The investigations nationwide have exposed the extent of abuse in the church and helped bolster advocates’ push to change state laws to extend the court deadlines for victims to sue their abusers and pursue criminal charges against them. This year alone, 14 states have enacted legislation to reform statute of limitation laws, according to CHILD USA.

Maryland has no criminal statute of limitations for felonies, including sexual crimes against children, but limits when someone can sue. Kurt Rupprecht, who has testified in favor of reforming Maryland’s abuse laws, said he hoped the attorney general’s investigation would lead to broader changes for survivors, such as lifting the civil statute of limitations.

Rupprecht said he was sexually abused at age 9 in 1979 by a priest in Salisbury and violently attacked when he resisted. He repressed the memories for decades, but struggled with “manic rage,” suicidal thoughts and self-harm, he said, affecting his family and career.

In 2017, he reported the abuse allegations to the sheriff’s office in Wicomico County. The next year, when the attorney general’s investigation became public, he contacted Frosh’s office and detailed his experience in an interview with Wolf.

“As this has gone well into 2021, I’m concerned that maybe this isn’t going to happen,” Rupprecht said. Still, “I’m hoping for a report — a full report. I hope all the facts come out.”

In being interviewed for a law enforcement investigation, “you are sharing things that are always difficult to share,” said Jean Wehner, who was featured in the 2017 Netflix documentary series “The Keepers.” It examined abuse at Archbishop Keough High School and the unsolved death of Sister Cathy Cesnik.

Wehner said she wanted to participate in the attorney general’s investigation to help other survivors and corroborate their stories, but now feels like she’s been left hanging.

Teresa Lancaster, whose story was also featured in “The Keepers,” said survivors “deserve to know” where the investigation stands.

“How long do we have to wait?” she said.

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