West Michigan dioceses refuse to release pedophile priests lists

By Ken Kolker
February 14, 2020

St. John the Evangelist. To the right is the rectory.

An undated courtesy image shows Father Jacob Vellian preaching.

Ann Phillips Browning.

Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids headquarters.

[with video]

In the face of an ongoing Michigan Attorney General’s investigation, most of the state’s Catholic dioceses have released lists of priests credibly accused as pedophiles.

Those lists include 135 names, 85 of which are in the Detroit archdiocese alone.

The only two of the state’s seven dioceses that haven’t released their lists: Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.

Church leaders in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids have refused not only Target 8’s request to release the lists, but the requests of a survivor support group and survivors themselves.

For survivor Ann Phillips Browning, it raises questions:

“Do you care about little kids? Do you really care about us survivors? Do you care that there might be other survivors out there that are living in pain and shame because they think they’re the only one?”

Browning, now 62, of St. Joseph, is identified in court records as Jane Doe in the Attorney General’s case against Father Jacob Vellian.

He’s accused of raping her twice in the early 1970s, once when she was 15 and again when she was 16, in the rectory at St. John the Evangelist in Benton Harbor.

The young girl from a staunch Catholic family told Target 8 she was volunteering as a weekend receptionist at the church.

Vellian, a priest from India, was in his 30s, temporarily assigned to the Kalamazoo diocese.

“He started giving me presents and the whole grooming process started,” Browning said.

She said he sexually assaulted her more than a dozen times over a year and a half in his back office.

“He gave me a necklace and he asked to put it on me, and he did, and when he did that, his hands roamed down to places they shouldn’t have been, and that’s how it first started,” she said.

She said he fondled her breasts.

“I would go, ‘No,’ He’d go, ‘It’s OK, I’m a priest, it’s OK, I’m praying for you,'” she said. “When he started down the lower half of my anatomy, he was filling my body with the Holy Spirit.”

After years of therapy, she reported her abuse to the Kalamazoo diocese in 2010, which found her allegations credible. That led her to report it to Benton Harbor police, but prosecutors found the case was too old to prosecute.

Vellian, now 85, was among five priests charged last May by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. His case normally would have been well beyond the statute of limitations, but the clock on that was frozen because he’s been out of the state, allowing the AG to file the charges.

The AG has found him in India — reportedly in poor health and living at a retirement home — and is working to extradite him, though that could take years.

In a letter obtained by Target 8, Vellian denied the allegations.

“I strongly believe,” he wrote, “that the allegations made are baseless, false and defaming and cooked up.”

Since coming forward, the accuser in Vellian’s case said she has repeatedly asked Kalamazoo Bishop Paul Bradley to release his list of credibly accused priests.

“He goes, ‘There’s just really no point. It wouldn’t serve a purpose. One’s retired and out in Arizona; another one’s not practicing; the other one’s retired. There isn’t a need,'” Browning recalled.

She said she asked again after the Attorney General’s Office announced in 2018 it was investigating statewide sexual abuse by priests.

“And I said, ‘Now? Now will you since this is going to be made public?’ ‘Well, now I can’t because they have all my records,'” Browning said. “He said, ‘There’s no point now. Michigan will come up with their own.'”, which tracks abusive priests, lists three Kalamazoo priests accused of molesting children, including Vellian. But it also lists six more who served in Kalamazoo with allegations outside the diocese.

A Target 8 investigation last year identified 14 priests accused of molesting children in the Grand Rapids diocese since the 1950s, but that list is likely to grow.

The AG’s office said its review of seized church documents dating back decades from three dioceses — Marquette, Gaylord and Grand Rapids — has found 552 victims and a total of 270 priests. The state won’t say how many of those were in Grand Rapids.

Nessel, the AG, said dioceses should be releasing their own lists.

“Obviously we’re hoping for each of the dioceses to be as transparent as possible,” she told Target 8 in a recent interview. “That’s the best possible scenario, but that doesn’t impact our work, obviously.

“We’ve had better luck with some dioceses than others for certain, but we’re hoping by the end of it that all seven dioceses will be as cooperative as possible and understand that it’s a new day in this state.”

Target 8 reached out to Kalamazoo Bishop Paul Bradley and Grand Rapids Bishop David Walkowiak, but diocesan officials said they were unavailable.

The Kalamazoo diocese said it had planned to release a list but can’t now because the state seized its files.

“The Attorney General retains certain files in its ongoing investigation and at this time we cannot publish a list without our complete files,” the Kalamazoo diocese said in a written statement.

The Grand Rapids diocese said it has chosen not to publish its list.

“While the Attorney General’s office has possession of these related files we have elected to not publish a list that may not be complete,” the Grand Rapids diocese said in its statement.

Both dioceses said they have cooperated with the state investigation.

Five of the seven Michigan diocese have released lists on their websites, a total of 135 names in all once duplicate names are accounted for, according to a Target 8 review.

Three of those dioceses, Gaylord, Saginaw and Lansing, released their lists after the AG’s office seized their files. The other two, Marquette and Detroit, have updated their lists since the AG’s investigation started.

Below, click on each diocese to see a list of credibly accused priests.

In a statement to Target 8, the Detroit archdiocese spokesman said the list gives “validation” to survivors.

“Those who are brave enough to bring complaints forward want to know — after we’ve determined a semblance of truth — that their alleged abuse is being taken seriously,” Detroit archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath said.

Zach Hiner, the executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he has also asked Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo for their lists.

“This is a simple step that church officials could take. It’s kind of mind-boggling that have yet to do so,” Hiner said.

“As we know, in cases of sexual violence, it’s much more likely that other victims will come forward if they know that they’re not alone,” he said. “And so by posting these names out there, it can let someone, who might be suffering in silence and hasn’t come forward, to see there’s the person who abused me. They must have abused somebody else, and that’s when they raise their hands and say, ‘Me, too.'”

“If they were truly committed to transparency, and they’re in a bind, I get it,” said Browning, the accuser in the Vellian case. “The bishops are in a bind, they are paid by the church, they answer to the church, they have to do damage control, but if you truly care about kids and other victims, you will choose to do the right thing and not cover your diocese’s butt.”

Anyone who has been assaulted by a member of the Catholic church can confidentially report it to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office online or by calling 844.324.3374 during regular business hours. The state also has a hotline for all survivors of sexual assault that offers support and resources: 1.855.VOICES4 (864.2374).


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