Victims, Clergy Testify on Abuse-Reporting Bills in Md

By Jo Becker
Washington Post
February 26, 2003

John M. Mollish told Maryland lawmakers yesterday that he left the priesthood 23 years ago because of abuse he suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest while in the seminary. More than five years ago, Mollish's brother told the Archdiocese of Washington that he, too, had been abused by a priest.

In his own case, Mollish told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that the church did nothing to act on his complaint and that the priest died. In his brother's case, Mollish said, it took the archdiocese until last July to remove the priest from active ministry.

"Had we not been vigilant in reporting this abuse to the police, and had I not been persistent over a five-year period looking for other victims of this priest, I am convinced that the archdiocese would not have removed my brother's abuser," the Olney man testified. "In brief, we were dismissed as not credible by the church."

Child abuse prevention advocates and victims packed the hearing to testify in support of two bills under consideration by the General Assembly. The legislation is aimed at tightening the state's child abuse reporting requirements for clergy members and increasing the amount of time victims have to seek financial damages against their abusers.

Their testimony was met with stiff resistance from Catholic Church representatives, who talked about the steps they have taken to prevent abuse. One bill would force priests to violate the sacred confidentiality of confession, church officials argued, while the other could open the church to expensive litigation that would hinder its ability to provide social services.

State lawmakers across the country are considering similar measures in the wake of the church's child sexual abuse scandal, which came to light early last year in Boston when the media disclosed that church officials there had covered up child abuse by several priests and reassigned them to other parishes. The scandal spread across the country, and more than 300 priests have been removed from the ministry.

Maryland lawmakers were inundated with phone calls over the weekend after Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, took the unusual step of writing a column in the Catholic Standard to decry a bill that would require priests to report any information about child abuse obtained in the confessional unless it was a direct admission from the perpetrator. McCarrick wrote that he would instruct priests to ignore the law.

Two of the 33 states that require clergy to report child sexual abuse explicitly include information obtained in confession. Victims' advocates and church officials disagreed yesterday over the bill's constitutionality, with proponents citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that they said suggests the clergy need not be exempt from reporting requirements if "prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of a law."

The Rev. Daniel Mindling, dean of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, said that while priests can and do counsel people to turn over information to authorities, maintaining the seal of confession "is an essential component of the way Catholics worship God."

The bill could face an uphill battle. Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), said yesterday that the governor is concerned about any bill that would infringe on clerical confidences. Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who chairs the Senate committee, said he is worried that the bill would prevent parishioners from seeking advice and consolation from members of the clergy.

"How many more times are we going to protect children if we leave open that line of communication?" he asked.

Church officials found themselves questioned more sharply over their opposition to a bill that would give the victims of child abuse until at least their 33rd birthday to file a civil suit. Current law gives victims only until their 21st birthday and has shielded the church from liability.

Church officials argued that the statute of limitations is there for a reason: As cases age, witnesses die, or their memories fade, and it becomes harder to defend oneself.

The church was backed by defense lawyers, but supporters have mounted a broad alliance that includes the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Maryland Jewish Alliance, as well as victims and Catholic lay groups.

Guilt and shame often keep victims from coming forward sooner, said David Forwengler, 46, who now lives in Charlotte. He said he was sexually abused at the age of 11 by a Catholic priest while serving as an altar boy at his Oxon Hill church but wasn't able to come forward until last year.

Also testifying was Joanne L. Suder, a Baltimore lawyer who represented victims who alleged they were abused by John J. Merzbacher, a teacher at a South Baltimore Catholic school. Merzbacher was convicted of rape and sentenced in 1995 to four concurrent life terms, but the state's high court dismissed the civil cases because they were filed too late.

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