Strange abuse case in Maryland

Sadly, it isn't unusual to open up a copy of The Baltimore Sun and find a story about clergy sexual abuse. Our town isn't that far from Philadelphia, after all. Nevertheless, the short story inside the newspaper that landed in my yard this morning was different -- at least in terms of the denominational hook. However, when I finished reading it I had some questions, including one about a detail that made it into the headline:

Episcopal priest pleads guilty in child sex abuse cases

Officials say victims not tied to pastoral duties

What, the careful reader would ask, does that second line mean? Here is the crucial information from the top of the story.

A retired Episcopal priest, whose last assignment was as the vicar at a church in northern Harford County, pleaded guilty last week to sexually abusing two young girls in Cecil County.

The Rev. Donald W. Belcher, 82, entered an Alford plea on two counts of sexual abuse of minors in Cecil County Circuit Court. An Alford plea allows a defendant to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that the state has enough evidence to convict him.

Belcher was released on $100,000 bond and is awaiting a June 28 sentencing, in which he could receive 25 years on each count, to be served consecutively, said Kevin Urick, assistant state's attorney for Cecil County. Belcher was indicted by a grand jury on charges of molesting a 15-year-old girl in 2006 and an 8-year-old girl in September of last year in the Cecil town of North East. As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped two other sex offense charges, officials said.

The abuse was not related to Belcher's pastoral duties, investigators and church officials said. No information was available on the victims.

Now, what is the precise meaning of "pastoral duties"? I would assume that the authorities are saying that this abuse did not occur during church events, either liturgical, social or educational. However, the key question here is whether the girls and their families were part of his parish. For those who are interested, Cecil County adjoins Hartford County, northeast of Baltimore. An early story on this case provides this information:

Belcher served as vicar of the Church of the Holy Cross in Street from 2001 to 2007. He also has connections to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Havre de Grace and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Abingdon.

“His connection with St. John’s in Havre de Grace seems to be the occasional service here and there,” Sharon Tillman, director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. ... Tillman said Belcher has no formal connection to St. John’s.

Belcher served as associate of pastoral care at St. Mary’s between June and December 2008, Tillman said.

Of course, it is so possible is that these Episcopal parishes are so small that providing that information about the context of the crimes would all but identify the victims. It also seems that this priest's final years of ministry were rather complicated. The new story, however, simply notes:

Belcher served as vicar at Holy Cross Church in Street for six years until 2007, when he retired and moved to northwestern Montana, where he owns a bar. He was arrested in Yaak, Mont., in December and extradited to Maryland in January.

So he retired in 2007 as a vicar -- not the rector -- of a small church that has returned to mission status, meaning that it is being operated by the diocese (which could be a crucial fact in a lawsuit). The current Sun story says he moved back to Montana in 2007, but the earlier report said he was still doing adjunct pastoral duties in a nearby Maryland parish in 2008. And the abuse of the 8-year-old girl, we are told, took place in September, 2010.

Readers should note one other detail. If these stories are accurate, Belcher was already 72 when he first arrived in Maryland, back in 2001.

In the end, I am left with all kinds of journalistic questions. Where to begin?

Is there a shortage of Episcopal priests in Maryland? Is it hard to find priests to serve as diocesan vicars in some historic parishes that have now faded to the status of missions? By the way, is there a reason that the word "pedophilia" is not used in this story, in light of the age of the victims? If so, it would be rare for a pedophile to have committed isolated crimes so late in life. Is the investigation ongoing? How about in his Montana parishes? And who, in terms of the Episcopal hierarchy, made the connections that brought this retired priest to Maryland? What was the personal link? I mean, Maryland is a long way from Montana.

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