Four Priests Charged with Sex Crimes in Detroit Dating Back Decades

By Alexandra R. Moses
Associated Press [Detroit]
August 27, 2002

Taking advantage of a provision in Michigan's statute of limitations, authorities charged four Roman Catholic priests who once worked in the Detroit Archdiocese with sex abuse in cases dating back decades.

None of the priests is still active, and all live in other states - which is the main reason prosecutors were able to charge them Tuesday, Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan said.

Prosecutors used an exception in the old statute of limitations law that allows charges to be brought if the suspect left the state before the six-year statute ran out.

The charged priests are: Robert Burkholder, 82, who lives on the island of Oahu, Hawaii; Jason E. Sigler, 64, of New Mexico; Harry Benjamin, 60, of Vienna, Va.; and Edward Olszewski, 67, of Key Largo, Fla. Each man is accused of criminal sexual conduct involving a boy 14 and younger. "The magnitude of this is astonishing," Duggan said. "If they have one skill, it's manipulation."

Cardinal Adam Maida said the charges were "serious and sobering news for the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Detroit."

At least 300 priests have been suspended or resigned since the abuse crisis erupted in January with the case of a former Boston priest who was shuffled between parishes despite evidence he molested children.

Prosecutors nationwide have been reviewing diocesan personnel records to see if criminal charges should be brought against priests accused of sexually abusing minors. But civil authorities have so far found only a few that fall within the statute of limitations.

American bishops agreed at a meeting in June to remove all errant priests from public ministry and to turn more information over to prosecutors.

In Detroit, the archdiocese released internal records in May about abuse allegations made against priests over the last 15 years. Church officials then gave Duggan's office files with accusations that went back further.

Duggan said 15 of those priests would have been charged if not for the statute of limitations.

He also said Burkholder admitted in a 1993 letter to the archdiocese that he had molested 23 boys, going as far back as the 1940s - though he is charged in a case dating from the 1980s.

"Father Burkholder's means of seduction was to tell these young boys, many of whom were altar boys, that their bodies were gifts from God and therefore were to be shared" with the priest, Duggan said.

Church spokesman Monsignor Walter Hurley said the archdiocese first became aware of the allegations against Burkholder in the 1960s. Burkholder was banned from wearing a Roman collar and presenting himself as a priest in 1993.

Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Burkholder said he admitted to the misconduct in the 1940s and 1950s and went through a treatment program. He said he wasn't aware of the accusations from the 1980s.

To bring back the misconduct from more than 50 years ago is "cruel" and a "bunch of nonsense," he said. "It's been atoned for."

Benjamin was removed from the priesthood in 1992, the archdiocese said.

Olszewski was serving in a parish in Key Largo, Fla. He also faced several allegations of sexual abuse while serving in the Archdiocese of Miami, which removed him from the ministry this spring, according to the Detroit Archdiocese. He has denied any wrongdoing. A spokesman for the Miami Archdiocese did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Duggan said efforts to extradite the priests would begin immediately.

Meanwhile in Cambridge, Mass., a Roman Catholic priest was indicted Tuesday for the alleged sexual assault of a boy in the 1980s. The Rev. Robert Gale, 61, was arrested in New Hampshire after a Middlesex County grand jury returned indictments on four counts of rape of a child.

Authorities allege Gale raped the boy in the rectory of St. Jude's Parish in Waltham, where Gale was assigned between 1980 and 1984. Prosecutors said the boy was between the ages of 10 and 14.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Morrissey would only say that church officials are cooperating with authorities.

After his indictment, Gale was released on personal recognizance by a New Hampshire bail commissioner on the condition that he appear in Middlesex Superior Court for arraignment Wednesday. It wasn't immediately clear if he had an attorney.


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