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  Priest Convicted of Sex Abuse
But 30-Day Jail Term Angers Some Who Still Suffer

By Ben Schmitt
Detroit Free Press
November 2, 2002

With a no-contest plea from an 86-year-old retired priest, Wayne County prosecutors obtained their first conviction Friday in the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic church for months.

The Rev. Robert Burkholder, who was branded by prosecutors as one of the state's worst pedophiles for allegedly victimizing at least a dozen boys, is going to jail for 30 days -- a sentence that outraged some victims.

Burkholder's lawyer, Irving Tukel, said he had been prepared to litigate the case to the end but, when prosecutors came calling with the offer, it was too good to pass up.

On Friday in Wayne County Circuit Court, Burkholder pleaded no contest to two second-degree criminal sexual conduct charges. "He's basically being slapped on the wrist with jail time, because of his age. At least, it's a symbol," said one of Burkholder's alleged victims, who is now in his early 50s. The Free Press generally does not identify people who say they were sexually abused.

A relative of another alleged victim said she felt that 30 days in jail was not enough.

"I don't feel justice was done," said Pamela Hall of Saugus, Calif., whose brother accused Burkholder of molesting him in Southgate in the 1960s. "I feel Burkholder should suffer the way the people he hurt years ago have suffered every day of their lives."

Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan said that in the plea agreement, no charge was reduced. Duggan also said that, under such a charge, Burkholder might have received only a sentence of probation if the case had gone to trial. The prosecutor said he regards 30 days in jail for an 86-year-old man as tantamount to three years in jail for a younger man. Duggan said the victim in the case was pleased with the result.

Burkholder also will be placed on five years' probation and must register as a sex offender.

Tukel said the bottom line is that Burkholder, who is in a segregated cell at the Wayne County Jail's Dickerson facility, gets to go home in a month.

"Mr. Duggan created this situation by making a big headline-grabbing situation out of this, and he wound up with a 30-day sentence," Tukel said Friday.

Tukel said he has medical documentation that could prove that Burkholder is suffering from dementia and has early signs of Alzheimer's disease. Duggan said he believes the claim is a sham and Burkholder is lucid. "You abuse a kid in Wayne County, no matter how many years it takes us, no matter how old you are, you will be made to pay," he said. "In this case we've gotten a good result."

Douglas Baker, chief of special prosecutions for Duggan's office, worked on the Burkholder case and said there was no need to respond to Tukel's comments.

In the criminal case, Duggan said Burkholder took a 13-year-old boy from Redford Township's St. Robert Bellarmine parish to Hawaii in 1986 as a reward for the boy's eighth-grade graduation. Duggan said Burkholder molested the boy at least twice in Hawaii.

The Archdiocese of Detroit barred Burkholder from working as a priest in 1993. At the time, he admitted in writing to having molested at least 12 boys during his career as a priest, Duggan said.

On Friday, Ned McGrath, spokesman for the archdiocese, said in a statement that Catholic leaders cooperated with investigators in this case.

"And while there is resolution of the case at hand, the archdiocese recognizes this is a sad and difficult time for everyone involved," McGrath said.

Meanwhile, a revised sex abuse policy for U.S. Roman Catholic clergy calls for tribunals to hear cases of accused priests and mandates that guilty clerics -- including those who committed offenses years ago -- must be removed from church work, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., said Friday.

The policy, which has not been made public, could become binding on U.S. prelates if it is approved at a meeting Nov. 11-14 of all U.S. bishops and then passes a final Vatican review.

In addition to Burkholder, Duggan's office has filed criminal charges against three other current or former priests who allegedly molested children in metro Detroit: the Rev. Edward Olszewski, 67; Harry Benjamin, 60, and Jason Sigler, 64. Benjamin and Sigler are no longer priests.

A quirk in Michigan's law allowed prosecutors to charge the priests with past crimes because they moved out of Michigan before the statute of limitations expired, stopping the clock from ticking as the years passed.

Duggan said his office is close to wrapping up a 6-month investigation of Catholic priests accused of sexual misconduct.

 
 

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