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  Unfit Priest Removed
Accused of Molesting Boys, He Was Disciplined before

By Patricia Montemurri and Alexa Capeloto
Detroit Free Press
March 21, 2002

The Rev. Gerald Shirilla, deemed unfit to be a priest by the Archdiocese of Detroit nearly 10 years ago because of credible allegations that he had sexually molested teenage boys, was removed Wednesday as pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Alpena.

In a case emblematic of others around the country in which Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse have continued practicing with the knowledge of superiors, the Detroit Archdiocese terminated an effort to negotiate Shirilla's official transfer to the Diocese of Gaylord, where the Alpena parish is located.

The move came three weeks after a March 2 report in the Free Press told how Shirilla was placed on administrative leave in 1993 by the archdiocese and prohibited from public ministry, including saying mass and performing marriages.

Because the archdiocese never lifted its prohibition, Shirilla's removal from the Gaylord Diocese means he remains barred from exercising his priestly ministry, including performing sacraments, according to Ned McGrath, a spokesman for the Detroit Archdiocese. Regarding Shirilla's Alpena assignment, McGrath said, Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida "obviously disagreed with it, was distressed by it, and worked through the procedures that were open to us to take action."

Shirilla could not be reached for comment.

The archdiocese's sanction of Shirilla in 1993 was related to a civil lawsuit filed that year by Declan DeMeyer, who alleged that Shirilla had molested him as a boy in the 1970s. Shirilla, now 63, admitted massaging boys' chests while he or they were in their underwear, but denied any improper sexual contact. The case was dismissed because it exceeded the statute of limitations.

Eight years later and without the approval of Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida,who had removed him from ministry, Shirilla accepted an assignment in August 2001 to lead the Alpena parish, which is under the supervision of Bishop Patrick Cooney of the Gaylord Diocese.

Cooney, who could not be reached Wednesday, repeatedly declined to speak with the Free Press this month. But on March 6, he issued a statement saying he believed Shirilla "posed no threat to the well-being of our children" and that Shirilla's alleged misconduct involved "errors in judgment."

Maida knew for months that Shirilla was leading the Alpena parish and did not act to remove the priest until after the Free Press disclosed his whereabouts and the nature of the allegations against him.

"It's your pressure that made them do something, because otherwise they wouldn't have," Declan DeMeyer said Wednesday. "This will save some more little ones and shed some light on what's going on."

When told of Shirilla's dismissal, Jeffrey Feldman, an attorney for DeMeyer, said the priest should have been prevented from serving the Alpena parish in the first place.

"I'm appalled that he surfaced as a priest anywhere in the world," Feldman said. "It never should have happened."

The Detroit Archdiocese learned of Shirilla's Alpena assignment shortly after the priest arrived at St. Mary, McGrath said.

"We've known he was in Gaylord since last fall," he said. "He accepted it without our approval or permission."

McGrath said that as a diocesan priest, Shirilla should have sought permission from Maida before deciding to serve in the Gaylord Diocese.

Asked whether Cooney consulted Maida before appointing Shirilla, or what Maida told Cooney, McGrath said: "Let's just say there was a difference of opinion."

Before filing suit, DeMeyer's family told archdiocesan officials about Shirilla's behavior. It was because of DeMeyer's complaints that the archdiocese removed Shirilla as its director of worship in January 1993.

"It was on that information that the cardinal acted in 1993. The information was sufficient for him to put the prohibition on Shirilla into place," McGrath said.

McGrath said he believed Shirilla has drawn a priest's average annual salary since he was placed on administrative leave in January 1993. McGrath could not pinpoint an exact figure.

"Even though he was under an administrative leave and told all the restrictions and prohibitions were on him, another bishop could and did give him" permission to serve in Alpena, McGrath said.

St. Mary's parishioners said Wednesday they were unaware of Shirilla's removal.

"I think the members should have been informed" of the allegations against Shirilla, said one woman who didn't want her name used because of the turmoil surrounding the issue. "Bishop Cooney agreed to bring him here and that didn't seem fair at all. If we had been told, we could have made a choice, and we didn't get a chance."

In previous interviews, parishioners described Shirilla as a personable, highly intelligent man who likes people and loves to laugh. DeMeyer painted a similar portrait of the man who befriended his family and frequently stayed at their home in the 1970s.

Shirilla first met DeMeyer's older brother Daniel DeMeyer when Daniel entered Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit in the early 1970s. Daniel brought Shirilla home to meet his family, and they developed a close friendship with the priest in the ensuing months, Declan Demeyer said.

He said it wasn't long before Shirilla was bringing him toys, including a large Styrofoam glider, and the priest's furtive embraces turned into improper caresses and sexual violations.

Declan DeMeyer said he began recalling the alleged abuse after he was arrested in 1992 after a violent altercation with his former wife. He told his parents that year, he said.

His parents, who had retired to a community in the Gaylord Diocese, shared the allegations with Cooney. It was Cooney who first alerted the Detroit Archdiocese to Shirilla's alleged misconduct.

Eight years after coming forward with his allegations, Declan DeMeyer said he feels sympathy and forgiveness when he thinks of Shirilla, though the alleged abuse has emotionally harmed him and created inhibitions he didn't have before.

"I'm forgiving. I feel bad for him because of the bondage he's in," he told the Free Press. "He's bound by sin and he's bound by his religion."

 
 

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