For Many Abused by Priests, No Window for Justice
By Ken Kolker
April 25, 2019
A Barry County man said he was looking for justice when he recently called Target 8, along with the church and the Michigan Attorney General, to report a Roman Catholic priest had molested him when he was 12.
He thought his case was recent enough, just 20 years ago, that he could send his molester to jail or make him and the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids pay by suing them.
But while a growing number of states have passed laws allowing survivors in years-old cases to file civil lawsuits, there's nothing he can legally do in Michigan.
"I was pretty crushed," the man, now 31, said. "I was pretty upset because pretty much my whole life, all I wanted was a court of law to say that this guy was guilty, that what happened to me happened and that they're going to hold this guy accountable for what he's done. And after hearing that they couldn't because they were tied by the law, it took a lot out of me."
Michigan's statute of limitations in child sexual abuse civil cases, considered by some experts as one of the most prohibitive in the country, is blocking him.
Some state lawmakers tried to change that last year, but say the Catholic Church and others lobbied against it and won.
Target 8 is not naming the Barry County man, who said he was 12 years old in 1999 when Father David LeBlanc molested him at Holy Family Church in Caledonia, six years after the Grand Rapids diocese learned LeBlanc had molested another boy in another church in 1971.
The Barry County man was in the sixth grade when he was sent to the priest for causing trouble in school.
"After the fact, a lot of it I thought was almost like punishment for what I had done," he said of the sexual abuse.
He said he first called Target 8 in February in response to "After the Fall," an investigation that identified 14 priests in the Grand Rapids diocese who had molested 33 kids over the decades. The list of priests included LeBlanc.
He said he didn't know where else to turn. He said he later called the diocese and the Michigan Attorney General, which is investigating priest sexual abuse across the state.
WINDOW FOR JUSTICE SLAMS SHUT
"I was told that because of what happened to me classifies as criminal sexual conduct second degree, that there's a 10-year statute of limitation," he said.
His window for justice had slammed shut, without him knowing it, a decade ago.
Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian helped expose widespread priest abuse in Boston in 2002. He was a key character in the movie "Spotlight." He said he has worked on abuse cases in the Detroit area.
"Michigan's statute of limitations is woefully inadequate," he told Target 8. "It's what's known as a drop-dead state."
While a growing number of states including California, New York and Minnesota have opened windows for victims of decades-old child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits, Michigan has not.
"Where does a person go who's been sexually abused for five or six years who's now 40 years old in Michigan?" Garabedian said. "Where do they go to get justice?"
In Michigan, it appeared lawmakers might crack open the window last year.
The Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal at Michigan State University prompted a package of bills to protect children.
They included Senate Bill 872, giving all victims of child sexual abuse a chance to file lawsuits for crimes dating back to Dec. 31, 1996.
The window would have been just wide enough for the Barry County man, though not for many others.
"We've got to start thinking about the victims, the survivors of this horrible, horrible crime and stop worrying about who's going to have to pay," said former state Sen. Rick Jones, a co-sponsor of the bill who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee.
LOBBYING BY MSU, CATHOLIC CHURCH
Jones told Target 8 he heard complaints from two lobbyists from Michigan State and the Catholic Church.
The Michigan Catholic Conference lobbyist met him in his office, he said.
"(The church) just felt that it went too far, too far back," Jones said. "The farther you go back, the more it's going to cost. That wasn't said specifically, but logically, that's the reason."
Despite the pressure, the Senate passed the bills, unchanged, but the state House later shut the window for everybody but the victims of Nassar.
In The Detroit News, a Democratic lawmaker accused then-State Rep. Klint Kesto, a Detroit-area Republican whose committee changed the bills, of caving to the Catholic Church, creating a so-called "pedophile priest loophole."
In a phone interview with Target 8, Kesto denied caving to the church.
"I don't remember that," he said of the criticism. "But it's not true."
Kesto said the bills, later signed into law, appropriately focused on the Nassar survivors.
"There was a unique circumstance of abused individuals not knowing it was sexual abuse because it was under the guise of medical treatment," he said of the Nassar survivors.
Marci Hamilton, CEO of Pennsylvania-based Child USA, closely followed the proposed changes in Michigan and even testified before the House.
"I'm going to be honest with you, I was disgusted," she said of the legislation. "The last thing that victims need in this country is the model of a window that is so narrowly constructed to the headlines. Instead of helping all the children in the state and instead of helping all the victims in the state, this was a very political move to tamp down one scandal involving a major university."
WINDOWS OPEN IN NY, NJ AND OTHER STATES
Child USA monitors similar statute of limitations law changes across the country. Hamilton said 38 states are working on them.
New York's governor just signed a bill with a one-year window for child sexual assault victims to sue no matter how long ago it happened. New Jersey just passed legislation giving them two years.
"It is absolutely remarkable this year. The flood gates have broken and finally the victims are making some headway," Hamilton said. "Michigan has been a tough nut to crack."
In every state, not just Michigan, she said, the Catholic Church has led the fight against it.
"I've worked on these bills in every state where there's been major progress and the Catholic bishops always fight window legislation, and they always fight all of the victims," Hamilton said. "They don't want any more of their secrets out in public than they can possibly let out."
In California, according to published reports, 800 of the 1,000 claims filed during a one-year window in 2003 were against the Catholic Church. It led to a record $660 million settlement between the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and more than 500 victims of clergy abuse.
Last year, shortly after Minnesota's three-year window closed, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis settled 400 claims by survivors going back decades for a total of $210 million.
According to published reports, more than 90 abusive priests were identified after Minnesota's window opened.
The archbishop praised survivors for their persistence and courage, even after the archdiocese filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Since 2004, 18 Catholic dioceses or religious orders have filed for bankruptcy, four of those last year, in the wake of the sex abuse scandal, according to Bishopaccountability.org, which tracks priest abuse.
The Michigan Catholic Conference wouldn't sit down for an interview for this report.
In a letter to lawmakers while the bills were pending, it wrote: "Civil retroactivity would put institutions and employers in the impossible position of defending claims that are decades old. Civil retroactivity would hold the people and taxpayers who support today's churches, schools, civic organizations and local and state government financially accountable for allegations from decades past."
Catholic Conference spokesman David M. Maluchnik said others also opposed opening the window in Michigan, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, former state Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan, who is a graduate of a Catholic college, and retired Kent County Circuit Judge Donald Johnston.
"Permitting stale claims to languish for years — or, as proposed, for decades — would ill-serve Michigan's citizens and their judicial system," Corrigan wrote.
"Minnesota learned the hard way when it retroactively extended its statute of limitations for sexual assaults for just three years," she wrote.
She said the change, along with removing the state's governmental immunity, could have cost the state billions, and hurt businesses and charities.
Opponents argued it could be impossible for some of the accused to defend against old cases. Memories fade. Witnesses die.
On the other hand, said the Boston attorney, survivors often hold their secrets, down to the smallest detail, for years, if they tell it at all.
"The argument that the cases were too long ago and it's hard to prove and the defendant can't defend themselves is specious because it works fine in murder cases," Garabedian told Target 8.
Murder cases have no statute of limitations.
Even victims of PFAS contamination in northern Kent County are allowed to sue over dumping of the likely carcinogen that ended in the 1970s.
"The institutions who state that we haven't had our day in court and these allegations should not be public are the very institutions who oppose having their day in court, who oppose amending statutes of limitations," Garabedian said.
Changing the statute of limitations law in Michigan could mean justice for survivors like Chris Burri, who said he was 12 when Father Dennis Wagner raped him in 1985; or a 73-year-old woman who said she was raped in the 1950s by Father John Sullivan in Grand Haven.
>>After the Fall: The legacies of Grand Rapids' two most notorious priests
"You're going to see an incredible amount of victims come forward," if the law is changed, Garabedian said. "It's just going to be incredible because they've been suppressed for so many years, they've been thwarted for so many years. They can't come forward."
SURVIVOR: IT WAS TIME TO TELL
The Barry County man finally came forward, first to his wife, after they finished watching "Spotlight," the movie featuring attorney Garabedian and the work of The Boston Globe.
"I felt like it was probably time to tell some people about it," he said, tearing up.
That was last June.
He was 12, he told his wife, had gotten in trouble in school, leading to a meeting with Father LeBlanc in 1999 at the rectory at Holy Family in Caledonia.
"I told Father LeBlanc what I did," he said.
As he sat there in the rectory, he had no idea that LeBlanc had molested a 12-year-old boy three decades earlier in Muskegon, that LeBlanc had admitted it and that the diocese had known it for six years, since 1993, but had kept it secret.
Grand Rapids Bishop Robert Rose had quietly moved LeBlanc to Holy Family.
The man recalls the priest leading him in prayer and asking God to forgive him, he said.
The priest, he said, then asked if he had a girlfriend, or if he ever thought about his classmates sexually.
"He then asked me if I had ever masturbated before to the thought of my classmates or anything," he said. "I didn't even know what that was then."
Suddenly, he said, the priest, in his black shirt and white collar, was standing in front of him, with his own pants down, demonstrating.
"At one point, took my hand and placed it on his genitals and had me begin simulating masturbation on him," he said.
"Shortly after that he leaned over while I was doing that and he unzipped my pants and put his hand inside of my pants and began playing with my genitals, began doing the same thing I was doing to him essentially.
"After it, he said that it was good that I didn't get an erection because it meant that I had a pure heart and a good soul and that I was a good kid."
He said he became an angry teen with few close friends, isolated, considered suicide.
"I didn't tell anybody, I didn't feel like I could. He told me that I shouldn't, that what we talked about was between us and the only witness was God and what a priest and his people talked about stayed between the two of them."
And so it did, he said, for 18 years — until the law could no longer help him.
"When they're finally ready to come forward, they are told that it's too late for them, they didn't come forward in time," said Hamilton, the CEO of Child USA. "The state doesn't think their claims are important enough for them to bring into court."
"When victims come forward, there's a great empowerment for the victim, but they also empower other victims to come forward, and they make the world a safer place for children," Garabedian said.
|A file photo of Rev. David LeBlanc, who now lives in Byron Center.|
Target 8 tried to talk to LeBlanc, who was removed from active priesthood in 2007. He is getting a church pension and living in a nursing home, but an administrator said he wouldn't comment.
Target 8 also tried to reach Bishop Rose, who allowed LeBlanc to keep working as a priest for years after he was first accused. He didn't return messages.
Anyone who has been victimized by a member of the Catholic church can confidentially report it to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office online or by calling 844.324.3374 during regular business hours. The state also has a hotline for all victims of sexual assault that offers support and resources: 1.855.VOICES4 (864.2374).