Defrocked Priest Still Saying Mass

By David Crumm and Patricia Montemurri
Detroit Free Press [Michigan]
August 9, 2005

Wayne County prosecutors began investigating Monday how a former Detroit Catholic priest, convicted in 2003 of sexually abusing a minor in the 1980s, wound up celebrating mass recently for a gay-rights group in Virginia.

Prosecutors are concerned that Harry Benjamin might have come into unsupervised contact with minors, a potential violation of the terms of his probation in Michigan.

Benjamin's return to the altar, though not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, underscores the difficulty of monitoring hundreds of men accused of sexual misconduct and removed from the ministry, including more than 40 in Michigan since 2002.

Prosecutors and church officials say they didn't expect a defrocked priest to resurface celebrating mass for Dignity-USA, the leading Catholic gay-rights group that often operates outside church rules and, in Virginia, worships in an Episcopal church.

On Monday, Maria Miller, spokeswoman for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, said, "We're investigating what he has been doing in terms of his activities with Dignity, whether he's been conducting masses and is in the presence of minors."

Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman Ned McGrath said that since all church ties have been severed with Benjamin, "He's no longer our priest."

Benjamin could not be reached for comment. Michael J. Smith, the Sterling Heights attorney who represented Benjamin in the criminal abuse case, had no comment.

The national head of Dignity-USA said her group was confused about Benjamin's status and made inquiries into his record, apparently triggering the new interest by prosecutors.

Debbie Weill, head of Dignity-USA in Washington, D.C., said Benjamin "presented himself here as not having been found guilty. We're trying to find out what really happened in this case. I'm not an attorney myself, and now we're discussing with an attorney what happened here."

Since 2002, Catholic rules in the United States bar priests credibly accused of abusing a minor from dressing or working as priests. Dignity-USA said it follows that same policy.

At a 2002 court hearing in Benjamin's case, the man who accused Benjamin of abuse said he was sexually assaulted several times as a 14-year-old during visits to the St. Jude rectory in Detroit, where Benjamin was living in the mid-1980s.

Unaware of the abuse, the man's mother encouraged him to keep going on the outings, saying she hoped the priest would be a good influence, the man said. The family lived in Canton at the time.

When Benjamin, now 63, was sentenced in March 2003 on one charge of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, the former priest asked for "forgiveness from the God in whom I believe" and said he felt "a truly profound sense of remorse in having hurt and offended people knowingly and unknowingly in the past."

Benjamin's probation began after he served seven months in jail in 2003 and is to continue until 2008, Miller said. While the terms do not forbid him from acting as a clergyman, they were set up to avoid contact with minors.

"We're very concerned that he honor all of the provisions of this long period of probation that he has left," Miller said.

Benjamin's recent actions and other reports of disciplined priests sneaking back into the Catholic ministry underscore why the church needs an Internet site listing the names and status of censured priests across the nation, David Clohessy, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Monday.

"Church leaders recruited and educated and trained and hired and ordained these men -- and therefore have a moral duty to protect others from them and warn others about them," Clohessy said.

Benjamin's Wayne County conviction and photo are posted on the Virginia State Police sex-offender Web site.

Benjamin has friends and business associates in the area around Arlington, Va. He moved to Virginia after his 1991 laicization, a rarely used punishment that involves a Vatican decree. That came after Benjamin was accused of abusing the Michigan boy in the mid-1980s. At the time, church officials in Detroit kept the case quiet and no criminal charges were filed.

In Virginia, Benjamin began celebrating masses for Dignity-USA and continued until shortly before he was charged in Wayne County in 2002. During that period in Virginia, Benjamin also founded a travel agency and recruited Catholic customers.

His agency booked at least one group tour for a metro Detroit parish before archdiocesan officials ordered parishes in 2002 to avoid the firm. Benjamin continues to operate the travel agency, called Shirben. According to Internet travel sites, the agency specializes in booking cruises and travel for gay and lesbian groups.

Dignity-USA leases space in Immanuel Church on the Hill in Alexandria for Saturday evening services, said parish administrator Jennifer Addington. She said she doesn't know Benjamin but is familiar enough with the group "to know they wouldn't let somebody come in and do services if they knew of his background."

Weill and Miller said confusion over Benjamin's status may have arisen because Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards allowed him to plead no contest.

"He said that his plea was something other than being guilty," Weill said.

Miller said that because a no-contest plea is treated as a guilty plea by the court, "It was most certainly a conviction."

Benjamin, who was born in Royal Oak in 1941 and ordained in 1968, worked in parishes in Detroit, St. Clair Shores, Trenton, East Detroit, Grosse Pointe and Canton. He served seven months of a 12-month sentence at the Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck and was released Oct. 3, 2003.