Huffington Post digs up a solid story on abuse in Baltimore archdiocese

Well now. I recently chanced on a Huffington Post story that came out in mid May but which was so gripping, it thought that it deserves comment even six weeks later. Consider this a kind of a GetReligion "file of guilt" post.

If the headline: "Buried in Baltimore: The Mysterious Murder of a Nun Who Knew Too Much" doesn’t get you reading the nearly 7,500-word story, nothing can.

Yes, it’s about clergy sex abuse and no, we shouldn’t ever be tired of reading about these stories. Because in this case, a nun found out  about the abuse and paid for it with her life. Start here:

On a frigid day in November 1969, Father Joseph Maskell, the chaplain of Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, called a student into his office and suggested they go for a drive. When the final bell rang at 2:40 p.m., Jean Hargadon Wehner, a 16-year-old junior at the all-girls Catholic school, followed the priest to the parking lot and climbed into the passenger seat of his light blue Buick Roadmaster.
It was not unusual for Maskell to give students rides home or take them to doctor's appointments during the school day. The burly, charismatic priest, then 30 years old, had been the chief spiritual and psychological counselor at Keough for two years and was well-known in the community...This time, though, Maskell didn't bring Wehner home. He navigated his car past the Catholic hospital and industrial buildings that surrounded Keough’s campus and drove toward the outskirts of the city. Eventually, he stopped at a garbage dump, far from any homes or businesses. Maskell stepped out of the car, and the blonde, freckled teenager followed him across a vast expanse of dirt toward a dark green dumpster.
It was then that she saw the body crumpled on the ground.

The body was that of a nun who had found out that Maskell was raping and abusing teenaged girls at the school.

The story goes on to talk about a Baltimore police detective who suspected the killer was a priest but that the archdiocese put pressure on his department to let the case go.

In Baltimore in 1969, (the detective) said, it was very difficult, if not impossible, to investigate a Catholic priest for any crime. The Archdiocese of Baltimore is the oldest in the United States, and the church considers it to be the premier Catholic jurisdiction in the country. More than half the city’s residents identify as Catholic. According to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Baltimore City prosecutors have charged only three of the 37 Baltimore priests who have been accused of sexual abuse since 1980. Just two of those priests were convicted, and one of those convictions was overturned in 2005.

Decades passed and the nun’s murderer was never found.

Meanwhile, Wehner, the girl at the start of this article, filed suit against the archdiocese and the priest in 1992 on sex abuse allegations. She also went to police for the first time to tell about the priest showing her the corpse of the murdered nun when she was a 16-year-old, a story picked up by the Baltimore Sun. Wehner’s attorneys found about 30 girls who had been abused or knew of it during the late 1960s but the priest was never convicted.

Why? Maryland had an extremely short window in which a sex abuse victim can file a civil lawsuit. It has to be three years from the time it happened or the time when they discovered it and back in the 1990s, the victim had to have filed such a suit by the time they were 21. Maryland upped that age limit to 25 in 2003 but most abuse victims don’t gather the mental fortitude or stamina to report abuse until at least their 30s.

An aside here: Maryland’s refusal to raise the age limit for civil claims is partly due to pressure from the Catholic Church. I personally encountered this while reporting on a sex-abuse victim who wanted to sue the Washington archdiocese, which is just down the road from Baltimore. By the time he had come to terms with his trauma, he was well past 25 and powerless to go after his abuser. I began to hear about the archdiocese personally lobbying state delegates in Annapolis to go soft on the church. Some Maryland politicians have been trying to change the age limit for years but the church fights that to this day. Even the jaw-dropping testimony this past spring by a Maryland state delegate telling of the rapes and beatings he endured as a child failed to get the state legislature to change its mind. A major reason? The opposition of the Maryland Catholic Conference, which includes both archdioceses.

Back to the story of the nun’s murder: The mystery was reignited in 2013 when some of the women who attended Keough teamed up with a retired Baltimore Sun reporter to see if they could get to the bottom of it all. The story says the investigation now has its own private Facebook page (which I could not locate any sign of) and this Huffington Post piece was the latest salvo at trying to get some justice for the slain nun and the abused girls. The article does give the archdiocese room to respond and adds that one of the victims was paid $40,000 as part of an abuse settlement and got an apology from the archdiocese.

Having done similar reporting in the past in the same geographical area, I’m impressed by the amount of people the reporter got to go on the record. One may or may not agree with other work HuffPo has done on the sex abuse crisis, but this one was a winner.

The story threads a clear narrative through a confusing thicket of events stretching back more than 40 years. In stories like these, the reporter always knows a lot more than what gets into print. There were probably names she could have used, things she could have written, but she may have lacked that extra piece of proof to withstand a libel claim.

What the reporter did get in shows a stunning amount of work with a group of people notorious for being afraid to talk with the media. I don't think most readers have a clue as to the personal toll these stories take on a reporter and the determination many journalists feel in wanting to see justice done. I remember looking into a similar story several years ago about a high official in the Catholic Church whose crimes never made it into print.

Several journalists knew about him and, like me, tried to get his victims to talk. They would not, fearing they would end up like the slain nun. When I expressed my frustration to some Catholic friends, “What difference does it make?” they asked. “So many years have passed and you will destroy all the good this man has done.”

This Huffington Post story illustrates that it does make a difference to bring wrong to light, no matter how long the passage of time. It brings closure to the victims or their children so they do not go to their graves thinking the abuse was their fault.

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