Teens testify Catholic priest sexually assaulted them
By Cole Waterman
March 20, 2019
|Catholic priest the Rev. Robert DeLand Jr. faces criminal charges The Rev. Robert J. DeLand Jr. looks to attorney Alan Crawford during a preliminary examination for DeLand before Saginaw County District Judge David D. Hoffman on April 25, 2018. DeLand faces several criminal sexual misconduct charges.|
With a jury looking on Wednesday, two teens testified that a Roman Catholic priest had sexually assaulted them.
Testimony in the first of three trials for Robert J. “Father Bob” DeLand began the afternoon of Wednesday, March 20, before Saginaw County Circuit Judge Darnell Jackson. DeLand, 72, is a longtime priest who worked in the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw.
After Saginaw County Assistant Prosecutor Melissa Hoover and defense attorney Alan A. Crawford gave their respective theories on the case via opening statements, Hoover called a now-19-year-old man to the stand.
The teen said he had known DeLand as a greeter at Freeland High School. In that capacity, he said DeLand would often make him uncomfortable.
“He would shake my hand sometimes,” he said. “He would do it very tight, wouldn’t let go. He’d hug me really, really tight and breathe in my ear every now and then. Very uncomfortable.”
On May 14, 2017, the teen said he and his father attended a memorial service at St. Agnes Church for a classmate of his who had died by suicide earlier that day. The service was organized by DeLand.
As his father mingled with other attendees, the teen was called out to by DeLand, who asked him how he was doing with the recent death. The priest then called him into a coatroom where they were alone, he said.
After briefly making small talk, DeLand made an untoward gesture, the teen said.
“He went in for his normal handshake, but it was very low,” he said. “Much lower than I would have expected it to be. He reached forward towards my penis and I caught his hand very close to it and shook his hand and he held it very close and wouldn’t let go.”
“Is it possible he was reaching for something else and you were mistaken?” Hoover asked.
“There’s no way,” the teen stated emphatically.
He then demonstrated how he said DeLand had reached toward him, with his palm up and arm ascending.
The teen testified he quickly left the room once DeLand let go of his hand. He found his dad and urgently told him they had to leave. He refused to tell his dad why he wanted to leave until they reached their car. Hoover asked him why he waited.
“Because I didn’t want him to do anything that he would regret,” he said, adding that once he told him, his dad wanted to go back inside and confront DeLand.
The teen said he didn’t report the incident to police or to the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, adding his father was employed by the church and didn’t want him to suffer fallout.
Hoover asked him what he had felt at the time.
“Betrayed,” he replied. “I had known him almost four years. And very terrible. I didn’t understand why he would do that. I just didn’t understand why. It didn’t make sense.”
Hoover then asked if the incident continued to affect him.
“I’ve had two or three dreams about fending him off,” he said. “Like struggling and trying to get away from him.”
“Do you still have these dreams?”
“My most recent one was, I think, about a month ago.”
Under cross-examination by Crawford, the witness said he didn’t speak with police until after DeLand’s was arrested in February 2018. Crawford then asked the teen about the attendance the memorial service. He said it was packed and the mood was somber.
“When you got out in the hallway with these 500 people you didn’t say, ‘Father Bob just tried to touch me’?” Crawford asked.
“I told my dad and we left,” he replied. “In the moment it was shocking, but I didn’t think much of it and kind of just wanted to forget about it.”
Crawford also asked if the witness had hired a civil attorney before or after speaking to police. Hoover objected; the judge sustained.
The teen said he felt that if he had contacted police, the church would have fired his dad, something he didn’t want to see happen.
“What’s the difference now?” Crawford asked him.
“I guess now I would just rather see (DeLand) in prison.”
During breaks in the day’s proceedings, DeLand approached people in the courtroom gallery and thanked them for their presence. He is free on bond.
‘Something wasn’t right’
For the prosecution’s second witness, Hoover called the first witness’s father. He recalled on the day of the May 2017 memorial service, he saw his son approaching him quickly, saying, “We have to leave now, now, now.”
He asked what was wrong, but his refused to say until they got to the car.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” he said, getting emotional and tearing up.
“When he told you what had happened, what was your initial thought?” Hoover asked.
“To make it a very bad day on Father DeLand,” he replied. He said his son kept him from going back in as he was afraid he’d do something that would land him in prison.
He said he later addressed the issue with a nun.
“Sir, is there a reason you did not go to police immediately?” Hoover asked.
“Yes, there is, because I work at the diocese and I just had a feeling,” he said.
After news broke of DeLand’s arrest, the dad spoke with same nun again. When she wasn’t at work, he called police, he said.
Under cross-examination, Crawford asked the man if his son finished the school year after the coatroom incident. The man said his son finished up the last few weeks of the school year.
“You sent your son back into an environment where he would come face-to-face with his alleged abuser?” Crawford asked.
The man said his son avoided DeLand and his wife took him to school late every day to help accomplish this.
Speaking in soft, barely audible voice and wearing a gold cross around his neck, a now-18-year-old man took the stand as the prosecution’s third witness. He said that in 2017 he had attended Freeland High School and on May 14, he had been at friend’s house consuming alcohol when his friend fatally shot himself.
Thereafter, he was charged with and pleaded guilty to minor in possession. He was court-ordered to perform 25 hours of community service under DeLand’s supervision.
He said he knew DeLand from him being a hallway monitor at his school. He said DeLand would make him uncomfortable, grab his hand, step on his feet, and call him upwards of 20 times per day.
On Nov. 16, 2017, DeLand pulled the teen out of class, took him to an unoccupied room, and gave him $20. As they walked out of the room, the priest put his arm around the teen’s shoulder, slid his hand down his back, and touched his left buttock, the teen said.
Hoover asked how the deed made him feel.
“Very uncomfortable and very angry. I wanted to hit him," the teen testified.
Crawford asked the teen if he and his parents had visited with Tittabawassee Township Police Detective Brian J. Berg in November 2017 before DeLand touched his buttock. The teen replied he had and that he’d agreed to work in an undercover capacity for the police.
He further admitted that he had attendance issues in school, but said he began skipping his first couple classes of the day because of DeLand.
“Why did you agree to help police?” Hoover asked.
“Multiple reasons,” the teen said. “For one, I had a very bad feeling about him. I wasn’t sure if that could have been correlated with my friend’s death, the reason why he killed himself. Also, if he had done that to other people I wanted to make sure he didn’t do it to other people.”
Hoover’s last witness of the trial was former Detective Berg, the lead detective in the DeLand case who lost his job with the township for unspecified reasons in October 2018. Berg currently works as a part-time patrol officer with St. Charles police, operates a private investigator firm, and does investigations for prominent Southfield attorney Geoffrey N. Fieger.
While still employed as a detective in Tittabawassee Township, Berg said the second teen and his parents had made a complaint to him against DeLand on Nov. 2, 2017.
“They had concerns he was grooming their son,” he said. “They used that word and then they gave me several examples of what they thought was grooming.”
Berg said he had not been involved in prior investigations of the Catholic church, nor had he ever met DeLand.
He opened an investigation into the family’s claims and started researching DeLand.
“Father DeLand was very well-liked by township staff, most of the citizens,” Berg said. “I wanted to find out the facts.”
He told the alleged victim to stay in contact with him and to report any additional incidents, but that his safety was paramount.
During the alleged Nov. 16 incident, the teen was not equipped with recording equipment. Berg said the teen had texted him after what had allegedly transpired. Berg then contacted the Bay Area Narcotics Enforcement Team (BAYANET) and requested their assistance with recording devices. Thereafter, either Berg or Michigan State Police detectives were nearby monitoring the teen when he had interactions with DeLand, Berg said.
“Detective, I’m just going to come right out and ask: Did you have some sort of agenda to destroy the defendant?” Hoover asked.
“No, absolutely not,” he replied. “I was actually hoping we would not find evidence on him, that I’d be able to clear him.”
Hoover then asked Berg if his employment with Tittabawassee Township police was later terminated. Berg said it was.
“I am a Christian and I will not have my integrity compromised,” he said. “Sometimes, that rubs employers the wrong way. I was officially told I did not pass the probationary period.”
Crawford asked Berg if he had written in a police report that it appeared the Catholic church had a systemic habit of abuse and coverup.
“Based on my research, yes,” Berg replied. He added he previously had been Catholic but ceased being so when he married a Methodist.
“Did you investigate these sexual assaults because you wanted to take down the Catholic church?” Hoover asked.
After Berg stepped down at about 4 p.m., Hoover rested the prosecution’s case. Judge Jackson ordered the jury to return at 10 a.m. Thursday.
'A man of God’
Jury selection began Tuesday morning with a pool of 72 potential jurors. A jury of 10 women and four men was seated about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.
In his opening statement Wednesday, Crawford asserted DeLand stood before the jury “as a man of God, who has dedicated his life to helping others.”
He told the jurors they would “clearly see this isn’t about a search for justice. This about an agenda, an agenda to destroy Father Robert DeLand. This was a desperate and deliberate attempt to destroy Father Robert DeLand.”
DeLand is charged with five felonies and one misdemeanor involving two male teens and one young man. The cases are proceeding in three separate trials, with the first trial involving two alleged victims.
In the first trial, DeLand faces charges of second-degree criminal sexual conduct causing personal injury and attempted second-degree criminal sexual conduct.
DeLand in September 2018 pleaded no contest to all charges against him. About a month later, he withdrew his plea because he did not want to accept the potential sentence he faced, said Saginaw County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mark Gaertner.