Teen Testifies He Went Undercover to Get Recordings of Priest Accused of Sexual Assault
By Cole Waterman
April 25, 2018
A teenager testified in court he reluctantly agreed to go undercover to gather evidence against a Roman Catholic priest as he didn't want others to be harassed by him.
Two preliminary examinations for the Rev. Robert J. "Father Bob" DeLand, 71, were held Wednesday, April 25, before Saginaw County District Judge David D. Hoffman, each related to a separate victim. The first hearing saw a 22-year-old man testify DeLand, a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, had sexually assaulted him on Aug. 7 inside DeLand's Saginaw Township condo. It ended with Hoffman binding DeLand over to Circuit Court for trial on charges of attempted second-degree criminal sexual conduct and gross indecency between males.
After a break, the second hearing began with Saginaw County Assistant Prosecutor Melissa Hoover calling a 17-year-old male to the witness stand. The teen said in 2017 he had pleaded guilty to a charge of minor in possession of alcohol and was court-ordered to perform 25 hours of community service.
The teen knew DeLand as the priest worked as a hall monitor at his high school. He ended up doing his community service under DeLand's supervision, beginning around October.
The teen grew concerned when DeLand began constantly calling him on the phone. He would also step on his feet and grab his hands in the school hallways, make him promise to hang out with him and would offer to buy him things. The teen told this to his parents and then they contacted police in November.
The teen told police he felt DeLand was harassing him, he said. Despite not wanting to do so, he agreed to investigators' request to record his conversations with DeLand.
"I didn't feel comfortable being around him," the teen said. "I was just very intimidated by him, I guess you could say."
DeLand would pick the teen up from his home, he said. The two would talk about drugs, alcohol, and sexual orientations, and smoke cigarettes, which DeLand bought for him, he said.
"There was one time where he touched my butt inside a classroom in the high school," he said, adding DeLand hugged him every day. "He told me if I got marijuana he would smoke it with me. He told me he'd buy me alcohol and drink it with me, any time I wanted it. He would question me about how I felt about things sexually, what kind of porn I watched."
In addition to giving the teen multiple cigarettes packs, DeLand would give him money, he testified. Eventually, DeLand asked the teen to acquire ecstasy for him, which the teen did. The teen testified DeLand gave him $100 for the illicit drug.
The teen on Feb. 25 stayed at DeLand's condo and pretended to take an ecstasy pill, then faked the drug's effects, he said.
"He really wanted to know what I was seeing," the teen said. "He wanted to keep me awake."
Feigning tiredness, the teen laid down on DeLand's bed. DeLand then took off the teen's shoes and socks and began massaging his feet, he said.
"He said that they were 'starting to warm up,'" the teen said. "He was breathing heavily also. I felt a lot of anxiety and started feeling scared and said I wasn't tired anymore and went back to the living room."
The teen later returned to the bedroom with DeLand. The priest massaged the teen's feet, chest, and back and put his hand on the teen's buttocks for a minute or two, he said.
As this occurred, the teen had one hand holding a recording device over his groin. DeLand began rubbing the top of the teen's hand, he said.
The teen then went to the bathroom and texted a detective, saying he wanted to leave.
"I felt like I was having a panic attack," the teen testified. "I felt violated and I really, really wanted to get out of there. I felt like my heart was pounding out of my chest."
During cross-examination, defense attorney Alan A. Crawford asked the teen if DeLand had reached out to him after he had missed several group community service events. The teen said the priest had. Crawford asked him if he had ever been convicted of a credit card fraud, and the teen replied he had when he was 14.
The teen said he did not recall when he started wearing a wire during his interactions with DeLand. He said police investigators encouraged him to pretend around DeLand that he was gay or confused about his sexuality. DeLand would then repeatedly reference anal and oral sex and tell the teen it was OK to be gay and that's just how God made him, the teen testified.
Under re-cross, Hoover asked the teen why he agreed to function as an undercover operative. He replied he did so out of concern for others, not wanting anyone else to be similarly harassed.
The teen said he didn't ask for DeLand to touch him or insinuate he wanted him to touch him. Questioned by Crawford, teen said he didn't tell the priest to stop touching him either.
Once the teen finished, Tittabawassee Township Police Detective Brian J. Berg testified the teen and his parents met with police on Nov. 2 regarding DeLand behaving inappropriately.
"It suggests there could have been some grooming going on," Berg said. "It was the early stages, so I didn't have a lot of facts at that point, but the behavior was concerning."
He said grooming involves a defendant building a relationship of trust with a potential victim with some goal, possibly sexual, in mind.
The detective added that DeLand was thought highly of in the community.
On Nov. 3, Berg said he met with Saginaw County Assistant Prosecutor Mark Gaertner and learned of Saginaw Township police investigating DeLand on another matter. From there, Berg began an investigation to either prove or disprove DeLand's guilt.
Part of the investigation involved the teen going undercover, Berg said, adding he was concerned for the teen's safety.
"My goal was to give Father Bob the opportunity to do the right thing by planting police ruses," Berg said.
The first of these ruses involved the teen's dad calling DeLand and falsely telling him he caught his son watching gay porn. Berg said he hoped DeLand would react to this by talking the teen out of such behavior, saying the Catholic church still believes homosexuality is a sin. However, subsequent recorded conversations involved DeLand encouraging the teen to engage in homosexual activity, Berg said.
On one occasion, DeLand encouraged the teen to bring another male to DeLand's home where they could have sex, Berg said. DeLand also told the teen if he wanted to run away from home, he could stay at his condo and he wouldn't tell his parents, Berg said.
Other ruses involved the teen pretending to be high on Xanax while with DeLand and advising him that drugs were easy to get, but expensive. DeLand responded by taking the teen to an ATM, giving him cash, and encouraging him to get drugs, Berg testified. DeLand also made a comment that cocaine was a good drug to do, because it's safer, the detective said.
During these recorded conversations, police were listening nearby in case they had to quickly intervene, Berg said. When the teen was at DeLand's condo on Feb. 25, there were several officers outside with search warrants ready to be executed if they felt they needed to rescue the teen, Berg said.
"My intent on using (the teen) was to hopefully show Father Bob was that upstanding citizen and man of God he's been referred to, and not a criminal defendant," Berg said.
He added investigators did not engage in entrapment with DeLand, as every scenario they presented him with allowed for him to make a choice.
During cross-examination by Crawford, Berg said he once was a Catholic altar boy but later left the church. Crawford asked the detective if he has strong feelings regarding the church, to which Berg said he disagrees with its philosophy.
Crawford then asked Berg if he wrote in police reports that the Roman Catholic church has a propensity to cover up sexual assault allegations among its clergy. Berg replied he did write that, and stands by it.
Crawford also asked Berg if has strong opinions on homosexuality. Berg responded that doesn't know of any priests that would encourage a 17-year-old to engage in homosexual acts, saying gross indecency is against the law. Crawford followed up by asking Berg if he would arrest someone who identified as gay, but Judge Hoffman interjected and told him to move on.
Hoover asked Berg if his feelings about Catholicism would lead him to pin a false charge on a Catholic priest.
"I was hoping Father Bob would be exonerated or be cleared," he answered.
The hearing ended with Hoffman binding DeLand over to Circuit Court on a charge of second-degree criminal sexual conduct causing injury, despite Crawford's objections.
DeLand is to face three more preliminary examinations on three other cases the afternoon of Friday, April 27. Two of the hearings involve the 17-year-old who testified Wednesday, while the third involves a third alleged sexual assault victim, an 18-year-old male.