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  4 Face Charges in Clergy Sex Scandal
Ex-Metro Priest, 83, Says It's 'Ancient History'

By Patricia Montemurri, Jim Schaefer and Alexa Capeloto
Detroit Free Press
August 28, 2002

Branded as "one of the worst pedophiles we have ever had in this state," the Rev. Robert Burkholder reacted with defiance.

"Ancient history," the Catholic priest and Detroit native said Tuesday by telephone from his home in Hawaii.

"Wickedness," he said.

But then there was this: "What I did was wrong. But it was a sickness, and I was treated for months and years and now all these years later . . ."

said Burkholder. "This is ridiculous."

This is justice, said Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan, as he announced criminal charges against Burkholder and three other current or former priests who allegedly molested children in metro Detroit.

Burkholder, 83, is among the worst molestation suspects Michigan ever had, Duggan said, citing a 1993 letter the priest allegedly sent to the Archdiocese of Detroit admitting the sexual abuse of 23 boys dating to 1949.

Duggan, who was raised Catholic, said he learned during a 4-month investigation that some of his former schoolmates at St. Michael in Livonia were molested by Burkholder in the mid-1960s.

"It's just horrifying to me that fellow students in my school were being raped in the rectory," Duggan said.

The family of one of Burkholder's alleged victims welcomed the news of the criminal charges, but said they were still angry that church leaders forgave the priest's behavior and returned him to the ministry after they first complained in the 1960s.

"They're about forgiveness? Well, you forgave the guy 23 times," said Larry Mason, referring to the number of alleged victims. Mason's son, Michael, said he was molested as a boy in 1968.

In announcing charges against Burkholder and the others, Duggan made one of the most aggressive moves by law enforcement anywhere in the unraveling clergy sex-abuse scandal.

"There are at least 12 grand juries around the country that are looking at priests, but I don't know of any that have charged four on one day," said David Clohessy, cofounder of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

In addition to Burkholder, the others facing charges are the Rev. Edward Olszewski, 67; Harry Benjamin, 60, and Jason Sigler, 64. Benjamin and Sigler are no longer priests. Only Burkholder could be reached for comment.

The charges follow a review of allegations made against priests in the Detroit archdiocese during the last 15 years. In May, church leaders agreed to turn over the records after years of secret internal investigations, which led to some priests being shifted to unsuspecting parishes. Confidential financial settlements totaling about $1 million were made over the years with at least six victims, church leaders have said.

Curiously, the allegations that resulted in criminal charges are some of the oldest reviewed by prosecutors, with complaints dating from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. Exploiting a quirk in the law, prosecutors say they are able to charge the four men because they moved out of Michigan before the statute of limitations expired, stopping the clock from ticking as the years passed.

At the time of the alleged crimes, Michigan law required charges to be brought within six years of any offense.

Duggan said he could have charged 15 more priests had the statutes not expired on those who stayed in the state. His office reviewed complaints against 27 living priests.

"The magnitude of this is astonishing," Duggan said. "With the exception of Burkholder, the scary thing is these aren't the worst of them."

Of the 15 not being charged, all but one have been removed from ministry. Duggan said he expects the 15th to be removed soon. Church officials would not identify him Tuesday, saying they needed time to investigate a complaint made in May or June.

Cardinal Adam Maida said in a statement: "This is serious and sobering news for the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Detroit. . . . I pledge my prayers to all involved."

Duggan said he has nearly exhausted his investigations of complaints but suspects there is more to uncover. He made a plea to reluctant victims to come forward, saying he believes there are men and women in their 20s and 30s still grappling with their experiences, which could lead to additional charges.

Human costs The victims of clergy sexual abuse "are people who've gone a lifetime without being believed," said Tim Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney who represents Albert Green, a former Detroiter who accused Olszewski of abusing him at St. Cecilia in Detroit and elsewhere.

Green, in his early 40s, has battled addiction and homelessness and had run-ins with the law. He was hospitalized for severe depression recently as he went public in Florida with his accusations, Kosnoff said.

Olszewski, who was ordained in Detroit in 1960, was forced to retire from his Florida parish in April after Green accused him of sexual abuse that allegedly began when Olszewski was posted at St. Cecilia and later at St. Alphonsus in Dearborn.

Green was 11 and a foster son of the priest. The priest has denied the allegation to church officials, Duggan said.

On March 27, Green wrote a letter about the alleged abuse.

"It started in Detroit when my mother had to go in to the hospital for surgery and me and my brothers were put in to foster care," Green wrote in the letter, which was provided to the Free Press.

Green said the priest "did all kinds of perverted sexual acts on me," including oral and anal sex.

Olszewski left Michigan in the mid-1970s for Florida parishes.

Green, who traveled to Detroit last week to meet with prosecutors, is determined to testify, his lawyer said.

"A public prosecutor has said, 'I believe you and I'm willing to go forward based on your testimony, even though you haven't lived a perfect life.' That's a sea change," said Kosnoff.

Gag order Burkholder used to tell young boys he molested that their bodies "were gifts from God" and should be shared, Duggan said.

The archdiocese knew about Burkholder's self-described "weakness" as far back as 1968. In an unsuccessful 1994 lawsuit brought by Michael Mason, the one-time student at St. Hugh in Southgate claimed Burkholder molested him when he was 12 at a lakeside cottage.

The church won a court ruling that Mason failed to sue before the statute of limitations expired.

Larry Mason, Michael's father, testified in a deposition that an archdiocesan bishop admitted shortly after the abuse that Burkholder had abused Michael, and said, "the church would appreciate it if you would not create a scandal."

Larry Mason said he accepted the bishop's offer: a 2-week trip to Miami, paid in part by Burkholder. Mason said he still feels guilty about accepting about $1,000 for plane tickets, but thought he was acting in everyone's best interest.

Burkholder was sued again in 1995 by a former altar boy from St. Michael in Livonia, who said the priest abused him from 1964 to 1970.

The priest ingratiated himself with the boy's parents, the suit alleges. On trips to the priest's cottage, Burkholder would kiss and fondle the boy, and kept a diary of penis measurements, the suit said.

Burkholder would "set it up so you can't tell, you can't tell . . . and then he would turn it around that if you tell, he'd tell other boys what you did," the man said in an interview this month. He asked not to be named, saying he is afraid of the stigma.

The archdiocese made a six-figure settlement with the former altar boy in 1996, church officials have said. Burkholder admitted the abuse, the man said.

In Hawaii, the retired priest said he remembers the former altar boy and is sorry for harming him. Burkholder talked with the Free Press on Monday and again on Tuesday after Duggan's announcement.

Asked whether he sexually abused the man, Burkholder replied: "Of course, it happened. I took advantage of him. We never even thought about things like that in those days . . . I had a weakness and that's what happened. . . ."

The criminal case announced Tuesday involves a different boy. Duggan said thatvictim was 13 in 1986 when the priest took him on a 6-week vacation to Hawaii. The boy was a parishioner at St. Robert Bellarmine in Redford Township.

On Tuesday, Burkholder said he didn't recall the trip.

Pattern of abuse Benjamin, who served in the Detroit Archdiocese from 1968 to 1989, left the priesthood in 1992 after being confronted with accusations of abuse. He last served at St. Paul in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Benjamin is charged with assaulting a 14-year-old boy in the mid-1980s who belonged to St. Thomas a'Becket parish in Canton.

Duggan said Benjamin took the youth and other boys on overnight trips to St. Jude rectory in Detroit where Benjamin was living. Duggan said he gave the boys pizza and beer and then made sleeping assignments, placing a chosen boy in bed with him. Benjamin has admitted guilt to the archdiocese, Duggan said.

Benjamin agreed to leave the priesthood, but as recently as this spring was saying mass in the Washington, D.C., area.

More charges possible Jason Sigler is no longer a priest and has lived in New Mexico for about three decades. But when Sigler was a priest, he was accused of damaging young lives in parishes in Michigan and New Mexico.

Sigler, who was born in River Rouge but ordained in Winnipeg, Canada, was laicized in the early 1980s. Duggan said he will be charged today with assaulting his 12-year-old third cousin at the boy's home in River Rouge and other places from 1964 to 1967.

Sigler would tell the boy's parents he was going upstairs to bless him at bedtime and then would perform oral sex on the youth, Duggan said.

Genesee County Prosecutor Arthur Busch said his office has been investigating the former priest for months and will decide this week whether to charge him with abusing two boys in the Diocese of Lansing.

One of those boys was Tony Otero of Macomb Township, now 40. On Tuesday, Otero said Sigler repeatedly molested him in 1975 when the priest was at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Flushing.

"This man had no business being free to begin with," said Otero In New Mexico, Sigler was sentenced to probation on a criminal charge and faced several civil suits over the alleged abuse of minors, Busch said.

Sigler's attorney, Ray Twohig of Albuquerque, said his client will return to Michigan to fight the charges. "It's hard to imagine a charge that old being brought," Twohig said.

Msgr. Walter Hurley, who handles sex-abuse complaints in the Archdiocese of Detroit, said the church's response years ago was not very effective or compassionate.

"That would not happen today," he said. "It's a very sad matter for the whole church."

 
 

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