Detroit Catholic Bishop Says He Was Molested by Priest
Gumbleton Says Incidents Occurred When He Was a Naive Teen at Sacred Heart Seminary High School
By Patricia Montemurri and David Crumm
Detroit Free Press
January 11, 2006
Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton said today he was sexually molested as a young teenager, becoming the first Catholic bishop to admit being abused as he also lobbied Ohio legislators to pass a law to allow long-ago abuse victims to sue predatory priests and Catholic dioceses.
"I feel that I have something that is perhaps unique among the bishops. ... I understand why victims of sexual abuse need this new window of opportunity. ... I know how difficult it is for me to speak about what happened," Gumbleton said.
Gumbleton, 75, said he was sexually molested by a priest when he was a teenager attending Detroit Sacred Heart Seminary's onetime high school for boys Gumbleton said there were three reasons he came to Ohio to lobby legislators, first among them to expose any priests who may currently be abusing young people.
"This will help to prevent other victims," said Gumbleton.
Secondly, Gumbleton said, new legislation to allow victims to confront the negligence of church officials in the past is necessary.
"We're not willing --- priests and bishops - to hold ourselves accountable," said Gumbleton.
The third reason, Gumbleton said, was for the good of the Catholic Church.
"The only way we're going to have our credibility as moral leaders....is if we truly put this whole situation behind us," said Gumbleton. "We have not dealt with it adequately."
Gumbleton traveled to the Ohio state capitol to lobby legislators to pass a law to allow long-ago abuse victims to sue predatory priests and Catholic dioceses.
"I regret that we need this kind of legislation, but I insist that we do need it," said Gumbleton. Similar legislation in Michigan has been unsuccessful and opposed strongly by the Archdiocese of Detroit and the Michigan Catholic Conference.
With his revelation, Gumbleton, 75, became the first Catholic bishop in the United States to acknowledge such abuse. He also broke ranks with the nation's Catholic leadership by calling for new laws that would allow victims' lawyers and investigators to dig into past cases, now largely left off limits because too many years have passed.
Gumbleton said he kept quiet for 60 years about the molestation, but came forward now because "I could make a difference for the victims at this point."
Cardinal Adam Maida, archbishop of Detroit, said in a statement, that he was "especially saddened" by Gumbleton's revelation, but noted that he and the archdiocese had never been made aware of it.
. Msgr. Ricardo Bass, who handles abuse complaints for the archdiocese, encouraged abuse victims to register their experiences with the archdiocese.
. "Bishop Gumbleton's experience is indeed regrettable," Bass said in a statement, "and, no doubt, it frames his personal opinion on this matter. Bass said Michigan's statute of limitations on bringing lawsuits "has served our society well in protecting the rights of everyone, especially after a long passage of time."
In interviews during the day, Gumbleton said he was a high school freshman or sophomore at Detroit's Sacred Heart Seminary High School in the mid-1940s when a priest took him and another teenager away to a cottage.
"I would start wrestling with him, and he would put his hand in my pants," Gumbleton told the Free Press Wednesday morning, as he prepared to leave a Grand Rapids hotel to travel to Columbus. "It was very minor, but it was also something that was very inappropriate."
Gumbleton said the abuse may have occurred on two or three occasions.
The priest was a faculty member at Sacred Heart Seminary High School in 1945-46 where Gumbleton boarded and attended school.
"It wasn't something that traumatized me. Mainly, I didn't realize what was happening. I was very naive at the time," said Gumbleton. "It didn't psychologically damage me in anyway," he said, compared to the systemic, violent abuse that others have experienced from Catholic clergy.
Gumbleton said he felt compelled to speak out now, as victims' advocates are pressing state legislatures to enact bills to abolish statutes of limitations, which prevent civil lawsuits seeking monetary damages against priests and dioceses for abuse that happened decades ago.
"The only reason I did it was because I was trying to help victims who suffer so much. People don't believe them and don't understand why it takes so long to come forward," said Gumbleton.
But Gumbleton's admission also underscores the history and complexities of how Catholic officials and society, in general, often sought to suppress dealing openly with issues of sexual abuse.
Victims advocates have pressed dioceses to make known the names of all priests, both living and deceased, who've been accused of abuse, so as to encourage an open dialogue and bring forth other possible victims who may hesitate to reveal the names of their alleged abusers.
But Gumbleton Wednesday would not reveal the name of the priest who molested him. He said the man taught at the seminary, went on to parish work and died 10 or 15 years ago. Gumbleton said he believed what happened to him may have been an isolated incident by the priest.
"I realize mostly how badly that priest needed some help," he said.
In a prepared statement for today's demonstration in Ohio, Gumbleton further explained why he was speaking out.
"There is still the strong likelihood that some perpetrators have not yet been brought to account. ... I do believe that the abusers need to be exposed. I also believe that this can only be assured if the possibility exists to bring these matters into a civil court of law."
In 1968 at age 38, Gumbleton became one of the youngest men ever ordained as a Catholic bishop. For many years, he was part of the leadership in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Acknowledging decades of failure by Catholic leadership, Gumbleton offered a personal apology to all victims of sexual abuse as well as "the parents, spouses, siblings and other family members and friends of the victims. I know you, too, have suffered.
"I am so sorry for what each of you has endured," he said. "I know that there is no way to repair shattered innocence or to restore stolen childhoods. But I do offer my sincere apologies to all of you for what you have suffered."
In Michigan, victims of long-ago sex abuse by priests have found themselves blocked from suing for damages because of the state's statute of limitations on bringing such lawsuits. In several cases, Michigan Court of Appeals panels have ruled against victims' attempts to reopen older cases.
In November 2005, for example, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against Timothy Hassett's claim for damages against the Rev. Richard Kelly, who was removed as a pastor in Canton Township in early 2004. The court found that the alleged abuse had occurred too many years ago.
In December 2004, the Michigan Court of Appeals also ruled that a man who claimed being abused by a priest in the 1970s could not sue for damages because he waited too long. Lawyers for the man argued that the statute of limitation should be waived because victims didn't know until recently that Catholic leaders routinely concealed priests' offenses and transferred problem priests from parish to parish.
In November, an appeals court panel also ruled against Patrick Antos, who filed a claim for damages against former priest Jason Sigler, who is serving a 7-year prison sentence in Michigan for abuse dating back to the 1960s and 1970s.
Antos' lawsuit said church officials in Lansing, Detroit and New Mexico knew about Sigler's abuse of boys, and shuffled him between parishes At the time of his lawsuit, Antos was in prison in Utah and said Sigler molested him in a Flushing parish in the mid-1970s.
Antos' lawsuit also named Gumbleton as a defendant, saying there was a letter that suggested Gumbleton, as an auxiliary bishop in the Detroit archdiocese in the late 1960s, conspired to conceal Sigler's predatory behavior. Gumbleton Wednesday said he did not handle dealings with Sigler.
Sigler was one of the few priests or former priests convicted for long-ago abuse, in cases in both Wayne and Genesee County. That's because of a legal loophole, allowing prosecution of people who move out of Michigan before the statute of limitations expired.
Compared with many dioceses, including Boston and parts of California, the Detroit archdiocese has paid out relatively little settlement money to abuse victims. An accounting in 2002 put the figure in metro Detroit at about $1.4 million.
In California, where the legislature suspended the statute of limitations temporarily in 2002, the diocese in Orange County agreed to pay a reported $100 million to 87 victims. In 2003, Boston archdiocesan officials agreed to pay $85 million to victims, and the diocese is negotiating another multimillion-dollar settlement with a new group of victims.
In some parts of the United States, including Boston and
Philadelphia, thousands of pages of internal church documents, including detailed accounts of past abuse, were released through court orders and grand jury proceedings.
The Archdiocese of Detroit avoided that kind of extensive inquiry in part because of differences in each state's legal system and, in part, because of the decision of local prosecutors not to fully investigate cases in which the statute of limitations had expired on criminal prosecution.
Contact PATRICIA MONTEMURRI at 313-223-4538 or firstname.lastname@example.org or DAVID CRUMM at 313-223-4526 or email@example.com.
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