Mid-Michigan priest charged with sex crimes

By Rachel Mccrary And Kate Nadolski
February 26, 2018

[with video]

A local priest has gone before a judge, accused of multiple sex crimes.

Father Robert DeLand, Jr., a pastor at St. Agnes Church in Freeland, was arrested in the late hours of Feb. 25 after months of investigation.

DeLand, 71, was first accused of sexual assault in August of 2017 by a then 21-year-old man who claimed the incident happened at DeLand’s house on Mallard Cove in Saginaw Township, according to Det. Brian Berg with the Tittabawassee Township Police Department. 

Police were then approached by a 17-year-old and his parents, concerned about the relationship developing between the teen and the priest.

That teen then agreed to work undercover for police, leading to DeLand’s arrest Sunday night.

Investigators said since the time of the complaint, DeLand has been under surveillance.

"At no time were students or others in danger during this covert law-enforcement operation," Berg wrote in a press release. 

Regarding the August 2017 incident, DeLand was charged with two counts of attempt to commit second-degree criminal sexual conduct and gross indecency between males.

In regards to the case involving the 17-year-old alleged victim, DeLand has been charged with one count of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree.

DeLand was released on bond, but must wear an electronic tether at his home in Saginaw Township. He can't have contact with anyone under 21.

Items have also been seized from DeLand’s home, the church and the rectory.

As a result, the Catholic priest is now banned from Freeland Community Schools and the CAN Council where he serves as a board member. 

"He had been warned by the courts not to have any contact with the victims. Whose only words to the court was, 'judge can I please have the names of the victims,'" Saginaw County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Mark Gaertner said.

Gaertner said complaints started to come in on the Catholic priest in August 2017.

Saginaw Township and Tittabawassee Township launched a four-month investigation in November. Since then, they two found male victims, a 21-year-old man and a 17-year-old.

"I'd like to stress that the age difference between the victim last night and Father DeLand is a 54 year age difference," Gaertner said.

Berg said he is afraid this case is far from over.

"My concern is that we're hearing after the fact," Berg said. "You're hearing all these parents and all these people that had suspicions."

Berd adds DeLand gave the minor alcohol and the drug known as ecstasy. He said they've received complaints from at least five other people and complaints continue to come in against DeLand.

"What I seen through this four-month investigation has been detestable and I've been doing this for 35 years," Berg said. "The activities, in this case, are detestable." 

TV5 has learned the 17-year-old alleged victim met DeLand through his friend Michael Dennis. In May of 2017, Dennis shot himself while having a party at his home in Freeland.

Authorities said the alleged victim was also at Dennis' party. The 17-year-old was found liable for playing around with a loaded gun. As a result, he was sentenced to court-ordered community service under the supervision of DeLand.

Berg said his department has received several calls from other possible victims of the priest.

"We have been, I would say, inundated by a number of calls from individuals alleging similar acts over the last 30 years. So, we're beginning to sort through that and contacting the appropriate police agencies so that some investigations can be done," Berg said.

The investigation continues, and police are urging any potential victims to come forward.

DeLand’s attorney said the priest has helped "not hundreds but thousands" of people.

His next court appearance is scheduled for March 12.

The Catholic Diocese of Saginaw said it had no previous knowledge of the police investigation into DeLand, and learned about his arrest from local media. 

The following statement has since been released: 

“I am deeply distressed by this most serious situation,” said the Most Rev. Joseph R. Cistone, Bishop of Saginaw. “Clearly, the diocese will cooperate fully with law enforcement and their investigation. I ask that you keep in your prayers Father DeLand and anyone who has brought forward allegations against him. My heartfelt prayers and support go out to the St. Agnes Parish family and the entire Freeland community.”

DeLand will be placed on administrative leave during the investigation, according to the diocese. 

"My initial reaction was one being betrayed and disappointed," said Suzanne Greenberg, CEO of the Great Lakes Bay Region CAN Council.

The CAN Council focuses on the prevention of child abuse and neglect.

"This is something that we're trying to protect children from," Greenberg said. "We're trying to warn parents and warn teachers. It's hard because we can't tell them when we can't tell them who or why."

She said DeLand had only been a board member for less than a year. She said a lot of parents are worried their children could have been victims as well.

"I think what makes it so shocking is that he was so personable. He was so charismatic, extremely jovial," Greenberg said.

Thoughts of "what if" are running through the minds of many in the Freeland community.

"They're shocked that this could actually happen in such a small town with the person it happened with," said Austin Macintosh, Freeland alumni.

DeLand was a volunteer at Freeland High School.

"It's actually pretty sickening to know that, I actually live on Third Street so, to know that someone that I live close to someone that actually did that probably on a day to day basis just sucks," said Zachary Alexander, former student.

Macintosh said he interacted with DeLand a few times.

"He was always friendly, always there to help, always contributed to anything he needed to and we could always go to him if you needed," Macintosh said.

He said while he isn't sure what to think, he is very shocked.

"Right now I still can't believe it happened, but you know, you know someone for so long and you don't know their other half and it could be true, it could not be," Macintosh said.

As for Alexander, he's already made up his mind.

"I wish he would've set a better example for the kids being a priest. I know when I went to church I looked up to my priest and to hear that someone who probably knew him for years, that he did that and didn't know. Probably ruined a lot of people's families," Alexander said.


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