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  4 Accused Priests Still Serve
Prosecutors Say Archdiocese Not Completely Forthright

By David Crumm, Jim Schaefer and Alexa Capeloto
Detroit Free Press
May 7, 2002

Even as they proclaimed a new era of openness in dealing with sexual abuse by priests, Catholic officials in Detroit declined Monday to identify at least four priests who still are working despite accusations turned over to prosecutors last week.

Also Monday, new details emerged about two priests removed a day earlier, including confirmation that the pastor of St. Alfred Church in Taylor was allowed to continue serving for years after a 1997 settlement with an alleged victim of sexual abuse.

Church officials cautioned that some of the accumulated accusations against 51 priests, two deacons and a brother are likely to prove unfounded.

The Rev. Walter Hurley, the church's liaison with prosecutors, said the four priests named in the files who remain on active duty pose no risk. "It's very important for us to recognize that . . . accusation is not the same as guilt," Hurley said.

That sparked a sharp response from Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga, who said the four men should be removed from active duty, pending a full investigation. "I would just hope that the archdiocese would err on the side of caution and would find an appropriate retreat for these priests until all the investigations have concluded. I am so struck by the amount of damage that a person in this position can do."

Later Monday, archdiocesan spokesman Ned McGrath said church investigations already have determined that claims against the four men are not credible. "And there are none of these priests who are acting in Macomb County, so it shouldn't be a concern to the Macomb County prosecutor," McGrath said.

David Clohessy of Missouri, the head of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, agreed with Marlinga and said that his group urges church officials to place on leave any priest accused of abuse until police investigate.

"Anything less puts kids at risk," Clohessy said. "This is what we do when there's an allegation of misuse of force by a police officer. We take them off active duty, pending investigation."

On Monday, Hurley declined to identify most of the 51 priests in the files sent to prosecutors.

Nevertheless, Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca and Marlinga have discussed releasing names of some accused priests who would be charged if the statute of limitations had not expired.

Such a disclosure would appear to violate a written agreement with the archdiocese, whose officials had asked that no names of priests be released unless charges are filed.

Among the priests Hurley declined to identify were 15 who have died over the years, arguing that it is unfair to name anyone who cannot respond to charges.

Even that policy was challenged by Clohessy. The names of these deceased priests should be aired, because that publicity often "can be extraordinarily healing to victims who remain alive right now and still are hurting."

Despite such criticism, Hurley and McGrath insisted in a Monday news conference that the safety of children is the church's goal.

"The priority here has been and always will be . . . the safety of children," McGrath said.

Also Monday, in response to a previous query from the Free Press, McGrath said for the first time that the Rev. Harry Benjamin was removed as an associate pastor of St. Paul parish in Grosse Pointe Farms in 1989 following a credible allegation of sexual misconduct. Benjamin left the priesthood in 1991. Archdiocesan officials previously did not mention Benjamin when asked for a list of priests disciplined under a 1988 sexual misconduct policy.

Last week, Catholic officials worked for several days on arranging the departures of the Rev. Tony (A.J.) Conti from All Saints Catholic Church in Memphis and the Rev. Dennis Laesch from St. Alfred Catholic Church in Taylor. The priests were accused of sexually abusing teenage boys and the charges against them seemed serious enough to warrant placing them on leave, Hurley said.

Neither Conti nor Laesch could be reached Monday for comment.

In removing the two priests, archdiocesan officials made a distinction between them.

Laesch was ordained in 1996. In June 1997, he was accused of abusing a 17-year-old boy, Gorcyca said. At the time, the archdiocese signed a secret settlement to resolve the claim. On Monday, however, Hurley said church officials were not convinced the claim was true, so Laesch was allowed to continue working.

His removal from Taylor may only be temporary, McGrath said.

"It's certainly in the best interest of the father, the parish and the archdiocese that he's not there as the pastor while all of this is swirling around," McGrath said.

In contrast, McGrath said, church officials believe the accusations against Conti, so he was forced to resign.

"We've got two different situations here," McGrath said.

The accusation against Conti, who was born Anthony Helinski and changed his surname to Conti in 1989, came to the archdiocese only in the last month, McGrath said. The incident involving a boy under age 18 allegedly occurred more than 20 years ago.

All Saints parishioners said they were stunned. "He was a very friendly, very dedicated priest," said Norm Kollinger, a member of the parish council. "He was very well-liked."

Marlinga said Laesch worked as an assistant prosecutor in Macomb County in the mid-1980s.

"I hired him, and there came a time when I suggested that he should leave," Marlinga said. "He just wasn't working out as a lawyer and as a prosecutor."

Marlinga and Gorcyca, whose offices each received allegations against 11 priests, said Monday they needed more time to investigate before any decisions are made on possible charges. Marlinga said he hoped to have a ruling in the next few weeks. Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan, whose office received complaints against at least 19 priests, has said he will not comment until his review is complete.

Marlinga said out of 10 cases he briefly reviewed, seven are past the statute of limitations, meaning there can be no charges filed even if the allegations are true. The 11th case involves the Rev. Lawrence Nawrocki, the former pastor of St. Isidore Church in Macomb Township, who was convicted and spent several years in prison in the early 1990s for molesting boys.

Marlinga said there are three cases that may still be prosecutable. One involves a priest who allegedly molested a boy in Munich, Germany. Marlinga said he will contact German officials with the information to see if they want to pursue the case. Also, prosecutors will look to see if there is any illegal activity in Macomb County involving that priest that was not reported to authorities.

 
 

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