Metro Priest Accused of Misconduct
Detroit Pastor Steps down after Complaint to Archdiocese
By John Bebow
March 27, 2002
Detroit -- A Catholic priest agreed to immediately leave his two Detroit parishes Tuesday while the Archdiocese of Detroit reviews a complaint of misconduct called in to its sexual-abuse telephone line.
The Rev. Dennis D. Duggan, pastor at St. Suzanne and administrator of Our Lady Gate of Heaven parishes on the city's west side, "was informed of the allegation and has agreed to leave both parishes immediately," the archdiocese said in a brief statement issued Tuesday.
The archdiocese refused to detail the exact nature of Tuesday's allegation against Duggan, 54, except to say it came in at 11:30 a.m. By mid-afternoon, church officials had conferred with Duggan and he agreed to leave, said Richard Laskos, a spokesman for the archdiocese.
The swift action came as the Roman Catholic Church faces nationwide upheaval because of widespread allegations of sexual abuse of young parishioners by priests. The move comes less than a week after the Archdiocese of Detroit removed an Alpena priest once accused of inappropriate behavior in a lawsuit. Duggan stepped aside hours after an interview with The Detroit News in which he denied any inappropriate sexual conduct in his 22 years as a Michigan priest. The News contacted Duggan after receiving a complaint of misconduct involving the priest.
Duggan could not be reached after the archdiocese's statement. Asked before the statement if he had ever had sexual contact with boys, Duggan simply said: "No."
The priest said the allegations detailed by The News were "terrifying."
"The church that I serve (the Catholic Church as a whole) is going through a lot of pain right now," he said.
Asked what he would do if any former parishioners formally came forward against him, Duggan said: "I guess I'd try to understand where they're coming from and why... I don't understand, and I can't make any sense of it. If there were allegations, I'm sure I would be contacted (by the archdiocese.)" A short while later, Duggan was contacted and he agreed to leave immediately, Laskos said.
The archdiocese refused to explain whether the allegation against Duggan came from a parishioner, the law-enforcement community or elsewhere.
Laskos said it is unclear what would happen next for Duggan.
Tuesday's actions were "in accord with stated archdiocesan policy," Laskos said, and came after the archdiocese on March 20 removed the Rev. Gerald Shirilla from St. Mary Catholic Church in Alpena.
Shirilla accepted the assignment last August, eight years after the archdiocese placed him on administrative leave and prohibited him from public ministry, including saying mass and performing marriages. The 1993 church actions were related to a civil lawsuit filed by a former student. Declan DeMeyer said Shirilla sexually abused him in the 1970s while DeMeyer was at the seminary. Shirilla, now 63, admitted in a deposition that he massaged DeMeyer's chest and stomach while in the youth's bedroom in 1978.
The Archdiocese of Detroit was among the first in the nation to publish a guide of policies for handling sexual misconduct by priests in 1988. Allegations are investigated by a team. If the accusation is determined to be well founded, the offender is removed from ministerial duties and the church complies with the law in reporting the incident. Under Michigan law, however, clergy members are not required to report suspected child abuse or neglect.
Laskos declined to say how many calls the archdiocese has received on the phone line for sexual abuse complaints. But he said he did not know of any other priests who had left their posts under circumstances like Duggan's.
By Tuesday evening, several parishioners at St. Suzanne said they had been told today's mass was cancelled.
Parishioner Frank Sarbinowski, who lives down the street from St. Suzanne, said he was shocked to learn Duggan was leaving the parish after 14 years. Duggan said 565 families belong to the two parishes he oversaw.
"Oh God, Oh God," Sarbinowski said when he was told Duggan had stepped down. "He was just at one of our masses this morning."
The parishes will be covered by Father Kevin O'Brien, a senior priest, the archdiocese said in its statement.
Career of caring Duggan said he previously worked at National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak and St. Patrick Catholic Church in Union Lake. He described a religious career filled with deep caring for parishioners amid some personal challenges.
"Clearly, children are not an object to me," he said.
Duggan said the only time he has in any way threatened the health or safety of youngsters was in his early days of his priesthood before he received treatment for alcohol abuse.
"One thing that occurred to me is how I endangered young people driving while intoxicated," the priest said. "I don't ever want to be part of something that endangers kids."
Duggan also volunteered that he was contacted by the Michigan Family Independence Agency (FIA) about five years ago about an harassment complaint from a foster care home. Duggan did not recall the name of the FIA employee who contacted him.
The priest said he hired a boy from the neighborhood to water flowers, paid him $35 and bought him a $60 pair of tennis shoes. The boy was considering converting to Catholicism as other neighborhood youths had done and the money allowed the boy to "go to a movie and go roller skating," Duggan said.
The boy ended up in foster care because of "a neglectful family situation," Duggan said.
One day, Duggan said, he tried to contact the boy to reaffirm the boy's interest in joining the church. He called the foster home and didn't get an answer, so he used an auto-dialer on his phone to call the foster home every eight minutes, Duggan said.
The operator of the foster home had caller identification and was troubled by the repeated calls from the priest, as well as the money and shoes given to the boy, Duggan said.
The home operator complained to the FIA, and a worker with the agency then contacted the priest, Duggan said.
"They asked about the thirty-five dollars and then turned to him (the boy)," Duggan said. "I never heard from them (the FIA) again" The foster home operators "called it harassment," Duggan said. "I think in that foster home there was a dislike for Catholics."
He declined to name the foster home or the boy involved.
FIA spokeswoman Karen Smith declined to discuss individual foster-care cases and characterized Duggan's description of the situation as unusual.
"If the referral came to us, we would have called the police," Smith said. "That's the way it would normally work."
A hugger in earlier days Duggan also said that "early in my days as a priest, I found out maybe I'm too much of a hugger. I'll hug anybody and everybody."
Duggan said he has had "a caution on my mind" since the mid-1980s after a parishioner questioned the wisdom of hugging fellow parishioners and the church discouraged physical contact between priests and parishioners.
No any civil or criminal court records concerning Duggan could be found Tuesday.
Parishioner Gregory Olszewski, who has gone to the church for 52 years, praised Duggan for working hard to integrate the church with its mostly African-American neighbors. Duggan attracted new members to the church by inviting neighborhood children to play basketball in the parish gym, Olszewski said.
Last Easter, Duggan was instrumental in bringing nearly 60 members of a closed Protestant congregation nearby into St. Suzanne as converts to Catholicism.
"He's been very sensitive to parishioners' needs, very innovative in restructuring the interior of the church to bring parishioners closer to the Mass," Olszewski said. "He's done great work under some difficult circumstances.
"We'll be praying for him, and praying for all the kids."
How to report misconduct To report sexual misconduct complaints by priests or others in the Archdiocese of Detroit, contact: The Archbishop's Policy Delegate, 1234 Washington Blvd., C-1, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or by phone at (313) 237-5848.
The archdiocese statement The Archdiocese of Detroit issued the following statement Tuesday about the Rev. Dennis Duggan: "An accusation of misconduct was brought against Father Dennis Duggan, pastor of St. Suzanne and administrator of Our Lady Gate of Heaven parishes in Detroit. Father Duggan was informed of the allegation and has agreed to leave both parishes immediately. This is in accord with stated archdiocesan policy. The parishes will be covered by Father Kevin O'Brien, a senior priest in the archdiocese."
Department of Communications
Archdiocese of Detroit
March 26, 2002
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