New clergy abuse report contains allegations against northern Michigan priests, deacons

Detroit Free Press [Detroit MI]

January 8, 2024

By Beth LeBlanc

The second of seven reports on Catholic clergy sexual abuse allegations in the state of Michigan outlines accusations against 26 priests and two deacons in the Diocese of Gaylord.

The report, released Monday by Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office, outlines the findings of a roughly four-year investigation led by the attorney general’s office into how Michigan’s seven dioceses handled reports of sexual abuse. A report on allegations in the Diocese of Marquette was released in October 2022 and another five reports are expected still on the dioceses of Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Saginaw and the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Monday’s report includes any and all allegations made by victims against priests living and dead who worked for the Diocese of Gaylord since the diocese was established in 1971. The diocese represents Catholic churches in 21 counties across the northern Lower Peninsula.

None of the cases contained in the report resulted in criminal charges because of a lack of evidence, a lack of criminal activity, the age of the case or the offender being deceased, Nessel’s office said.

“The Gaylord diocese report is a compilation of the information obtained from my department tip line, victim interviews, police investigations, open source media, paper documents seized from the diocese, and electronic documents found on diocesan computers as well as the reports of allegations disclosed by the diocese,” Nessel told reporters Monday.

The Diocese of Gaylord said its officials had cooperated with all requests for documents associated with the investigation. The diocese noted 85% of the alleged incidents in the report took place before 2000.

Jeffrey Walsh, bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord, on Monday apologized to victims for the “immense pain” they and their families have suffered.

“Many of you have suffered in darkness for years and I am truly sorry for that,” Walsh said.

Since the investigation began in 2018 under Republican then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, nearly 220 boxes of paper documents have been seized and 3.5 million electronic documents in relation to the cases, according to the attorney general’s office. Nessel’s office has charged 11 priests with sexual abuse crimes; nine of the cases have resulted in convictions.

Knowing that much of the alleged abuse would be barred by the statute of limitations or lack evidence because of the age of the allegation, Nessel’s office has promised the release of reports on allegations against each of the dioceses in the interest of transparency.

In Gaylord in particular, of the 26 priests and two deacons accused, allegations against nine diocesan priests had previously been considered “credible” by the diocese and allegations against five non-diocesan priests also were considered credible, according to the report.

Of the 28 individuals named in the report, 16 are known to be or presumed to be dead, according to the report. Three remain in active or retired ministry who were accused of inappropriate sexual relationships with adults.

The majority of the accusations occurred with boys or girls under the age 18, but 12 of the 28 priests or deacons listed in the report were accused by individuals who were over the age of 18 at the time of the alleged abuse.

Nessel said the diocese was cooperative with investigators and “instrumental” in providing information that helped to put the report together.

“We are worlds apart from where we were when we first started this when I took office in January 2019,” Nessel said. She noted dioceses since then had been reporting cases to her office from victims who had first come to the diocese and delaying their own canonical review until after Nessel’s office had completed theirs.

The Democratic attorney general raised eyebrows in 2019 when she criticized the dioceses for their response to the investigation and their contact with victims who had come forward, accusing them of “self-policing” reports against clergy. She warned victims that if an investigator showed up on their doorstep: “Ask to see their badge, and not their rosary.”

Her comments were denounced as a threat to religious freedom in a Detroit News guest column by the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Michigan Catholic Conference.