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Another child sex abuse crisis rocks the Catholic Church

A new report identifies more than 150 clergy members in Maryland who abused at least 600 victims over six decades.

The Catholic pope, seated and wearing a white robe and cap, speaks with a bishop, standing and leaning in, wearing a white robe and red cap.
Pope Francis and Cardinal Angelo Comastri during the Chrism Mass in St. Peters Basilica, Vatican City, April 6, 2023.
Grzegorz Galazka/Archivio Grzegorz Galazka/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The Catholic Church is again at the center of a decades-long child sex abuse scandal, this time in Maryland.

The church has been embroiled in child sex abuse scandals for more than two decades that encompass hundreds of thousands of victims and that span the globe, from Australia to Chile. The Maryland investigation is one of several major US investigations in recent years showing that such abuse and church officials’ cover-ups were widespread, making the case that the clergy is incapable of bringing perpetrators among their own ranks to account.

A 463-page report released by the Maryland Attorney General’s office Wednesday alleges that clergy sexually abused more than 600 children between the 1940s and 2002. The report also asserts that, rather than seeking to protect children from further harm and bring abusers to account, the church tried to cover it up. It lists 156 bishops, priests, deacons, nuns, and other ministers and employees of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, most by name, as abusers, including some who are still alive and had not previously been publicly identified.

“While every victim’s story is unique, together they reveal themes and behaviors typical of adults who sexually abuse children, and of those who enable abuse by concealing it,” the report says. “What was consistent throughout was the absolute authority and power these abusive priests and church leadership held over victims, their families, and their communities.”

The report is the result of a four-year investigation based on interviews with hundreds of victims and witnesses as well as reviews of hundreds of thousands of documents, including treatment reports, personnel records, transfer reports, policies, and procedures.

According to the report, perpetrators often targeted children who were “especially isolated or vulnerable because of shyness, lack of confidence, or problems at home” and who were “most devoted to the church,” including altar servers, choir members, and youth group members. They typically sought to befriend the children, offering presents and individualized attention, and presented themselves as “protectors.”

In many cases, church officials invoked religion to silence their victims and force them into submission. They said the survivors’ words were nothing against that of a priest, that the victims would go to hell if they didn’t keep the abuse a secret, that the abuse was “God’s will,” and would minimizing assault as mere “rough housing,” according to the report.

The report also accuses church officials of looking the other way and denying the allegations or, when that became impossible, quietly transferring clergy to other positions where they continued to have access to children. Maryland’s investigation found church leaders did not conduct sufficient investigations of complaints of abuse and did not try to identify other victims.

“The costs and consequences of avoiding scandal were borne by the victimized children,” the report says.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori did not contest the allegations in the report, saying in a statement Wednesday that it served as a “sad and painful reminder of the tremendous harm caused to innocent children and young people by some ministers of the Church.”

“The detailed accounts of abuse are shocking and soul searing,” he said. “It is difficult for most to imagine that such evil acts could have actually occurred. For victim-survivors everywhere, they know the hard truth: These evil acts did occur.”

The broader reckoning in the Catholic Church on sex abuse

The Boston Globe’s seminal 2002 investigation of five local priests who were later convicted and sentenced to prison for sexually abusing children sparked an international reckoning on the church’s history of protecting predators in the clergy. In the decades since, there have been further investigations into the national scope of the abuse, but often seem to only scratch the surface.

In 2018, then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan wrote a report finding the Catholic Church in Illinois had withheld the names of at least 500 priests accused of sexually abusing children. The church had only reported cases to law enforcement that it believed to be credible, but Madigan contended that it should have come forth with every accusation.

That year, a Pennsylvania grand jury also named 300 priests who had sexually abused more than 1,000 children over 70 years. Their report indicated that there were likely thousands more victims whose records had been lost over the years or who feared coming forward.

More than a dozen other states have since opened broad investigations of clergy accused of sexual abuse.

In one of the most high-profile such scandals of recent years, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was defrocked after being accused of sexually abusing children as well as young priests and seminarians. He is the highest-ranking Catholic Church official to date to resign over sex abuse allegations.

The Maryland investigation comes on the heels of a decision by Pope Francis last month to update and expand a 2019 church law that lays out procedures to investigate senior religious leaders. He confirmed that adults can also be victims of abuse and that lay church leaders, not just those who are ordained, can also be investigated under the church law.

But given that he has admitted that he is “part of the problem” because he initially dismissed a particularly shocking sex abuse scandal in Chile that eventually prompted every bishop in the country to resign, it’s hard to see how the church can effectively self-police.

And that has led to continuing efforts by law enforcement to uncover the extent of the church’s abuse. The Maryland attorney general’s investigation has yet to conclude, his office told the Washington Post — it now includes nearby dioceses in Delaware and Washington, DC.