GR Priest Went on to Abuse in Arizona, Papers Say
Newly Obtained Documents Show the Subject of a Settlement Here Pleaded No Contest to a 1979 Allegation
Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
June 22, 2002
Twenty years after leaving Grand Rapids under suspicious circumstances, a priest who preyed on girls here didn't stop when assigned to a parish in Arizona, The Press has learned.
The Rev. John Thomas Sullivan was accused of molesting a number of children in 1980 in a small town near the Nevada border, but was prosecuted in just one case involving a 13-year-old girl. He was ordered to pay fines and undergo counseling.
The findings add new detail to the emerging picture of the priest as a cross-country predator who moved from diocese to diocese over the course of decades.
One West Michigan victim was not surprised to learn scandal followed Sullivan from Grand Rapids.
"I think he was a sociopath," said Fran Heinemann, 57, of Douglas. "Think of the lives he destroyed."
Sullivan served in Grand Rapids from 1958 to 1960, and died in 1999 at age 82 in San Diego. But fallout from his brief period here is just now becoming known as the Catholic Church's nationwide sex-abuse scandal pushes the case and victims out of the shadows.
Heinemann and her two sisters were paid $500,000 by the Grand Rapids diocese after they came forward in 1993, detailing abuse by Sullivan as girls and teens at Holy Spirit Catholic Church.
The diocese acknowledged the payment in April, after The Press obtained settlement documents. In recent months, six more individuals have contacted the diocese with claims of abuse by Sullivan, a spokeswoman said Friday.
The sisters' settlement was so large, officials said in April, because the bishop at the time knew of previous allegations against Sullivan. Sullivan was transferred from the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., after fathering a child and attempting suicide.
But long before Heinemann and her sisters came forward, there were signs of trouble in Grand Rapids, diocesan officials also acknowledged.
When Sullivan left in 1960 after just two years, Bishop Allen Babcock wrote "there were indications of danger in his conduct with children." Babcock died in 1969, and current officials say records do not detail Babcock's concerns.
Newly obtained documents, however, show Sullivan's abuse did not end in Grand Rapids.
In 1979, a 13-year-old girl told authorities she had been molested by Sullivan, then a 62-year-old priest at St. Margaret Mary's Catholic Church in Bullhead City, Ariz. The town -- at that time with about 11,000 people -- is along the Colorado River, just across from the gambling city of Laughlin, Nev.
Court records show Sullivan pleaded to attempted sexual abuse of a person younger than 15.
"It's funny, there are some cases you just don't forget -- and that's one of them," said Robin Holmes, a retired detective who was with the Mohave County Sheriff's Department at the time.
"(Sullivan) denied it," Holmes said. "There was more than enough probable cause to prosecute."
According to court records, Sullivan was allowed to plead no contest, which is not an admission of guilt but is treated as such by the courts. He paid $550 in fees and was required to do 100 hours of community service.
The plea agreement also called for Sullivan to be assigned duties that do not involve young people. He was also to receive counseling.
After the case became public through news reports, Holmes said police "got a lot of heat for arresting a priest. There were a lot of letters to the editor saying, 'How can you believe this girl? He's a man of God.'"
But the retired detective said other people also came forward, alleging they had been victimized by Sullivan.
Holmes said those cases were not prosecuted, either because the alleged victims balked or the Phoenix Diocese promised to protect youths from Sullivan.
Mohave County Superior Court Judge Steven Conn, then a deputy county attorney who prosecuted the Arizona case, said he should have handled it differently.
"This case should have been prosecuted more aggressively," Conn said, adding a similar arrangement would be highly unlikely today. "Maybe we should have been prosecuting him on a higher crime."
Current church officials in Phoenix said they know nothing about the case. The Rev. Michael Diskin, the diocese's assistant chancellor, could not explain why there were no records.
Records do show Sullivan and other priests were "inherited" by the diocese when it was created in 1969 from the Gallup, N.M., diocese, Diskin said.
Diskin said background checks were not performed because the priests were all classified "in good standing" by the Gallup Diocese. Sullivan did not include Grand Rapids on a form detailing where he had served, Diskin said.
Spotty records the diocese has since compiled show Sullivan started in New Hampshire, then transferred for a short time to Winslow, Ariz. He came to Grand Rapids in 1958 and served at Holy Spirit parish on the West Side, St. Jude's on the Northeast Side, and St. Patrick's in Grand Haven.
Sullivan transferred to San Diego in 1960. In the 1970s, he worked at various Arizona locations, then went to Bullhead City.
Records show Sullivan retired in 1988, but then show him on "special assignment" to a veterans' facility in Prescott, Ariz., in 1993.
Sullivan ended up in a retirement home in San Diego where he died Sept. 19, 1999, of natural causes, according to his death certificate.
The Rev. Peter Dobrowski, the current pastor at the Bullhead City parish, said he was shocked to learn of Sullivan's past.
"I didn't even know about Father Sullivan's problems until very recently," Dobrowski said. "I knew there was a cloud over him but I had no idea how dark and real it was."
Officials in the Grand Rapids diocese also say they were unaware of the Arizona case. "It happened at another diocese, so we would have no record of it," spokeswoman Mary Haarman said.
In West Michigan, Haarman said the six people who have called since the Sullivan settlement became public locally have been referred to a victim assistance coordinator.
Meanwhile, attorney James Wernstrom -- who represented Grand Rapids victim Fran Heinemann -- says he is in negotiations with the diocese to get reparations for another Sullivan victim.
Heinemann said she confronted Sullivan about the abuse of herself and her sisters when she left a note in his prayer book while he was visiting her parents' home, saying she would tell if he didn't stop. He did stop, so the sisters did not pursue charges prior to the lawsuit.
"He came down the stairs after reading the note and he looked at me with just a murderous look in his eyes," she said. "I'm 57 now, but I still remember that look. But he never came back to our house.
"He was a bad, bad man."
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