Former priest admits to sex crimes, withdraws pleas after judge rejects sentencing agreement

The Oakland Press [Troy MI]

January 11, 2022

By Aileen Wingblad

After hearing emotional victim impact statements and then explicitly admitting in court that he sexually abused young boys several decades ago, a former Catholic priest withdrew his pleas of guilty and no contest Tuesday because an Oakland County judge rejected a light sentencing agreement offered by the Michigan’s Attorney General’s Office.

At his sentencing hearing in Oakland County Circuit Court, 80-year-old Gary Berthiaume exercised his right to pull back pleas of guilty to two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and no contest to one count of gross indecency stemming from allegations made when he was a priest at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Farmington in the 1970s. A “Killebrew Agreement” with the prosecutor’s office called for one year and one day in prison In exchange for his pleas made last November. But O’Brien rejected the agreement and sentenced Berthiaume to 20 months to 15 years, ruling that what the prosecution had proposed didn’t fit the crimes.

In his guilty pleas, Berthiaume had admitted touching penises of two boys after bringing them to the church rectory. One case involved a 14-year-old in 1977 and the other involved a boy, who was 13 to 15 years old at the time, in 1976-1977. Berthiaume was in his 30s at the time. He knew the boys from the parish, and admitted what he did was “coercive” behavior.

Berthiaume’s no contest plea was for a case involving the brother of one of the other victims that reportedly happened at a sauna house in Southfield in 1972 or 1973, where he admitted taking the boy following a skiing trip. The boy was aged 13 to 15 at the time. Berthiaume said in his plea that he remembered taking the boy to the sauna but didn’t recall touching his genitals. He also said he remembered the boy being honest at that time, and that “If he said it, it may have happened.”

At Tuesday’s hearing — prior to withdrawing his pleas — Berthiaume reiterated that he was guilty of the charges — and that he “empathized” with the victims as he, too, was a victim of sexual assault at the hands of a priest while in the seminary.

“I should probably never have been ordained. I was sick from what happened to me,” Berthiaume told the court.

“The victim became the victimizer… as they wish me dead, at times I wish myself dead for what I did,” he said.

He further admitted to “betraying the trust” of the victims.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t pray for their healing and peace,” Berthiaume said.

‘Demon disguised as man of God’

During the hearing, the court heard several victim impact statements including those from two men who described how they were too scared as kids to report the assaults, which led to shame, guilt and problems with social interaction — some which continue still, nearly 50 years later. They also expressed anger, not only at Berthiaume but also leaders of the Roman Catholic Church who’ve shielded and protected priests suspected of or known to have sexually abused young parishioners.

Berthiaume, they said, targeted and took advantage of youngsters from families struggling financially or with other problems who had turned to him for advice and moral support.

Assistant Attorney General Danielle Russo also read to the court victim impact statements, including one in which Berthiaume was described as “a disastrous false friend” and a “pedophile priest.” Through his position at the church, the alleged victim said, Berthiaume drew him into a “pay to play” situation, providing gifts, taking him on camping trips and to professional sporting events, and choosing him for altar boy duties where he’d receive monetary compensation from families. Another described Berthiaume as “a demon who disguised himself as a man of God.”

Berthiaume’s next court date is pending. Bennetts could reinstate two other counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and one other count of gross indecency that were dismissed as part of the Killebrew Agreement.

For now, Berthiaume is out on bond — but O’Brien said that could change. Bennetts indicated Berthiaume could be considered a flight risk which his attorney, Timothy Wrather, denies. He’s reportedly living at a hotel in Brighton.

Berthiaume was arrested in September 2020 at his home in Warrendale, Illinois following an investigation by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office. He’s one of several individuals with connections to the Catholic Church who have been charged with crimes by the Michigan AG’s office following the seizure of a vast amount of documents in 2018.

Berthiaume also had a prior run-in with the law regarding sexual misconduct. In 1977, he was arrested for sexual assault of two children in Michigan and served six months in the Oakland County Jail. The church then transferred him to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio. He was moved again 10 years later to the Diocese of Joliet in Illinois.