An African-American permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Washington has been accused of child sex abuse dating to the 1990s. The allegation is part of a civil lawsuit against the archdiocese under Maryland’s new lookback window, which vacates the state's statute of limitations.
Dcn Lawrence Bell of St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, has been accused of abusing an unnamed man born in 1985, who is said to have filed suit in Prince George’s County Circuit Court on Monday.
The lawsuit alleges that the archdiocese “concealed and facilitated that abuse, choosing to act with care and solicitude toward the perpetrators rather than to protect and heal [victims],” according to The Washington Times.
The Archdiocese of Washington acknowledged the lawsuit the same day and removed both Bell and Fr Michael Mellone from active ministry pending a review of the allegations. Law enforcement was also notified, according to a report in The Catholic Standard.
Bell and Mellone were both assigned to St. Martin of Tours at the time of the alleged incidents of abuse, which are said to have occurred separately and on church-owned property.
“This was the first time we have learned of any such allegation against Msgr. Mellone or Deacon Bell,” wrote Fr Anthony Lickteig, the archdiocese’s vicar for clergy, in letters to parishioners of St. Martin of Tours and the Church of the Annunciation in Washington, where Mellone is currently assigned.
“We felt it was important that you be informed of this information… bearing in mind that the allegations have been presented in the form of an anonymous claim in a contested lawsuit.”
According to The Washington Times, the lawsuit against the archdiocese currently involves three anonymous co-defendants represented by two law firms; the allegations concern Bell, Mellone, the defrocked priest Robert J. Petrella, and an unnamed priest. The defendants seek to classify the case as a class action, which would allow others to join the suit. A final compensation amount would be determined at trial.
Maryland is one of several jurisdictions in which new lawsuits alleging child sex abuse are allowed under an exception to the normal statute of limitations, which in Maryland is typically three years. Other states that have recently enacted similar lookback windows include New York, California, and Louisiana. At least one Catholic diocese in each of those states has recently filed for bankruptcy, including the Archdiocese of Baltimore on September 29.
The Archdiocese of Washington is not among them, but the new Maryland’s Child Victims Act of 2023—which went into effect on October 1—allows for damages up to $1.5 million per claim. The archdiocese’s territory includes both the District of Columbia as well as portions of Southern Maryland.
Ahead of the opening of the new window, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington issued a pastoral letter on September 29 lamenting the scourge of child sex abuse perpetrated by local clergy. Gregory has long been a proponent of increased protections for vulnerable populations in the Church and, during his time as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spearheaded its landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
“I anticipate that our Archdiocese of Washington will receive claims involving past allegations of abuse by members of its clergy,” Gregory wrote.
“Of course, I cannot speculate on how many cases may be filed. What I can and must do is express again how profoundly sorry I am for past acts of abuse that occurred within our cherished Church.”
As of Thursday morning, Bell is still listed on the staff page of the website of St. Martin of Tours.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.
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