Bishop Tells of His Abuse As He Fights for Victims
Controversial Church Leader Reveals Incidents from '40s

By Patricia Montemurri, Jim Schaefer and David Crumm
Detroit Free Press
January 12, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Detroit Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton rocked his church Wednesday, first by admitting that he, too, was a child victim of sexual abuse years ago and then by calling on lawmakers to change laws that bar victims from suing the church in older cases.

"I speak out of my own experience of being exploited as a teenager through inappropriate touching by a priest," the 75-year-old bishop said in a statement he passed out at a news conference on behalf of abuse victims in Ohio.

That made Gumbleton the first U.S. Catholic bishop to acknowledge having experienced such abuse.

"I understand why victims of sexual abuse need this new window of opportunity" to bring legal actions, he said at the demonstration. "I know how difficult it is for me to speak about what happened."

What happened, he said, dates to the 1940s in a cottage where a Detroit priest liked to take boys, wrestle with them and eventually put his hands down their pants. It was something that Gumbleton said confused him as a young teen and that he kept secret for decades but that he now realizes was "very inappropriate."

Catholic leaders expressed sympathy over the abuse, but a rebuff of Gumbleton's political plea came swiftly from Mark Chopko, the legal spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.

Most bishops reject the idea of reopening older cases, Chopko said, because it amounts to "punishing the church today, and the people sitting in our pews today, for things that happened generations ago."

Proposals to remove time limits on pursuing older abuse cases have arisen in the Michigan Legislature but have gone nowhere.

Dozens of victims' lawsuits for past damages have been thrown out of court as a result. Some cases are now on appeal before the Michigan Supreme Court. A current bill to remove time limits is stalled in the House, fiercely opposed by Catholic leaders.

Until now, Gumbleton has not weighed in on the local debate.

Whether or not Gumbleton's plea sways Ohio lawmakers, who are considering such a proposal, his sudden willingness to air painful secrets provides a unique window into the 4-year-old crisis.

Gumbleton chided Catholic leaders nationwide, arguing that bishops generally have not accepted the full extent of abuse. He said there is a "strong likelihood that some perpetrators have not yet been brought to account. ... I do believe that the abusers need to be exposed."

In making that claim, Gumbleton broke ranks with his colleagues more dramatically than he has in a lifetime of political activism, pushing for world peace, combating racism and supporting gay rights.

Chopko said most Catholic leaders would strongly disagree with Gumbleton's claim that a significant number of abusers are lingering in the priesthood. Most bishops have done all they can to remove abusers, Chopko said.

Hundreds of priests accused of abusing minors already have been removed from ministry across the United States since 2002, including about two dozen priests in metro Detroit.

"The church today is different than it was even four years ago," Chopko said.

In interviews Wednesday, Gumbleton acknowledged that major changes have taken place. Attitudes have changed as well among Catholic families who once were reluctant to take legal action.

Decades ago, when abuse was reported to Gumbleton and other bishops, he said, "I remember I was very firm in trying to encourage families to go to civil authorities, and my experience is that people didn't. People were afraid of going into court and going ... against the church."

Gumbleton said, for example, that he helped to deal with complaints of abuse lodged against the Rev. Lawrence Edwards, a now-deceased Detroit priest named previously in a lawsuit against the diocese.

"It was an instance where the family didn't want to go into court," said Gumbleton, and the priest "denied it and there was no way to prove it.

"The parents would say, 'We don't want anything to happen to the priest, but we don't want him to hurt other children,' " he said.

Describing his own experience, Gumbleton said he remained silent about it until this week and still refuses to name the priest. "The man is dead and buried and there's no way for him to speak himself, and I don't want to bring his name in," he said. "I realize mostly how badly that priest needed some help."

In the mid-1940s, Gumbleton was studying at Detroit's Sacred Heart Seminary High School. The priest was a teacher who invited him and another teenager to the cottage.

"I would start wrestling with him, and he would put his hand in my pants," Gumbleton said. "It was very minor, but it was also something that was very inappropriate."

Gumbleton said he's still trying to understand the impact of the abuse, but believes it "didn't psychologically damage me in any way," at least not when compared with the systematic, violent abuse others experienced.

Gumbleton said he felt compelled to speak out now, "because I was trying to help victims who suffer so much. People don't believe them and don't understand why it takes so long to come forward."

Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida, Gumbleton's superior since 1990, issued a statement saying he is especially saddened that Gumbleton apparently is a victim.

Paul Long, a spokesman for the Michigan Catholic Conference, a nonprofit group supported by Catholic bishops across the state, said the conference remains opposed to opening past cases. "It is our belief that Michigan's statute of limitations is in the mainstream of national law and serves well its intention of fairness."

State Rep. Paul Condino, D-Southfield, disagreed with Long on Wednesday. Last year, Condino re-introduced a bill that would allow lawsuits dating back to abuse in the mid-1980s.

"All we're asking is that folks be given redress to be judged by a jury of their peers," said Condino, lauding Gumbleton's disclosure. "We just want them to be able to tell their stories."

Also on Wednesday, Gumbleton apologized to all victims of abuse as well as "the parents, spouses, siblings and other family members and friends of the victims. I know you, too, have suffered. I am so sorry for what each of you has endured," he said.

Contact PATRICIA MONTEMURRI at 313-223-4538 or

Gumbleton at a glance

Roots: Born in Detroit in 1930, Thomas J. Gumbleton entered Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit right after elementary school. While in that high school seminary, Gumbleton says he met the priest who abused him.

Ordained: 1956 as priest; 1968 as bishop, serving as auxiliary to three Detroit cardinals.

Political activism: First made international headlines in 1973 with a controversial visit to North Vietnam. That led to three decades of campaigning for peace, including trips to hot spots in Iran, Iraq, Haiti, Nicaragua and Afghanistan. He is almost alone among Catholic bishops in visiting gay and lesbian groups and calling for full inclusion of gay church members.

Role in abuse crisis: Still a bishop, but mainly works on political issues and as pastor of St. Leo Catholic Church in Detroit. Until now, he has said little about the 4-year-old crisis. Now says he wishes Catholics had sought legal help long ago in confronting abusers and that he hopes that one last opportunity for legal action can be given to victims of abuse.

In his own words: A global audience reads his weekly homilies at the National Catholic Reporter Web site, Click on a link to "The Peace Pulpit."


How to report abuse

The Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit asks that all cases of sexual abuse of minors be reported.

Recent abuse should be reported to police. Current or older cases also should be reported to church officials by calling, toll free, 866-343-8055 anytime.

More information is online at Click on the link to "Promise to Protect. Pledge to Heal."

This part of the diocese's Web site includes dozens of links to reports on the scope of abuse since 1950, details about church policies to combat abuse and the status of dozens of accused priests.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.