Two of three priests named in Michigan abuse report barred from public Masses

Crux [Denver CO]

January 30, 2024

By John Lavenburg

NEW YORK – Two of three priests named in a recent report on clergy sex abuse in the Diocese of Gaylord in Michigan, and who had been in active ministry, have now been restricted from presiding at any public celebration of Mass following a diocesan review of the allegations against them.

The decision by Bishop Jeffrey Walsh to impose the restrictions on Father James Gardiner and Father Raymond Cotter was made after Walsh met with Gaylord’s Diocesan Review Board Jan. 22, in what he described as a “long and intense meeting” to thoroughly review files and to discern outcomes.

The third priest in active ministry named in the report, Father Donald Geyman, will continue his current assignment as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Traverse City, Michigan, pending the outcome of an assessment and determination of a safety plan.

Walsh said the outcomes are his “best effort to apply both mercy and justice.” In a Jan. 29 statement, Walsh said he understands the weight of the decision on the priests, their families, those they have served, and those “who were affected by their moral failings and the church at large.”

Although the allegations against each priest date to years ago, Walsh said he ultimately assessed each situation based on how he would respond if the situations occurred today. Criminal charges have not been filed against any of these priests, and, based on the report, it doesn’t look like any will.

“Given the circumstances, these decisions reflect my best effort to apply both mercy and justice in these three cases,” Walsh said. “Moving forward, let us be confident that all will be sustained by God’s grace and live under God’s Providence.”

The report, published on Jan. 8 by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, details allegations against 26 priests and two deacons who ministered in the diocese dating back to 1950. The Michigan attorney general’s office launched the investigation into the Diocese of Gaylord in 2018, the second installment in its initiative to investigate each of the seven Michigan Catholic dioceses.

Geyman is the only one of the three priests named who isn’t retired.

The allegation against Geyman, 58, dates to 2012, when a parishioner alleges she was sexually harassed. After the diocese sponsored an external investigation, then-Gaylord Bishop Bernard Hebda – now the Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis – wrote that he “doubted” the claims of the woman, and that she had “denied any inappropriate activity.” The report stated that Hebda asked Geyman “to be particularly attentive to the way he comports himself with women.”

When contacted by Michigan State police in 2019 as part of the state’s investigation into the diocese, the woman said “Geyman touched her thigh, which made her feel ‘uncomfortable’,” but she did not want to pursue criminal charges, according to the report.

The other two priests, Gardiner and Cotter, are both retired but still active.

Gardiner, 80, retired from active ministry in 2015 and has continued to serve the diocese as a sacramental minister at St. Anthony of Padua in Mackinaw City, Michigan. In addition to the restrictions on his ability to preside at a public Mass, Gardiner has been relieved of that assignment.

In the attorney general’s report, a man claimed that he was “a victim of unwanted sexual touching” by Gardiner when he was pastor of a diocesan church. When questioned by authorities, Gardiner admitted that he had committed the sexual act. According to the report, “Father Gardiner stated it was his impression that this was [between] consenting adults.”

Cotter, 72, is listed as a “senior priest” for the diocese with no assignment, which remains the case.

According to the attorney general’s report, in 1992 he allegedly engaged in sexual intercourse with an adult woman on one occasion that resulted in the birth of a child. The woman sued Cotter and the diocese in 1996. The parties ultimately settled on a compensation agreement, and the lawsuit was dismissed.

The first attorney general’s report on a Michigan diocese focused on the Diocese of Marquette, and was released in 2022. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a Crux request for comment on the recent decisions by Walsh.

Announcing the report, Nessel thanked survivors.

“I especially want to thank the survivors who have shared their stories, sometimes for the first time after decades of silence,” Nessel said. “Their willingness to come forward has helped bring attention to an issue that has affected so many in our state and our country, especially children.”

Follow John Lavenburg on X: @johnlavenburg