Employee Sues Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, Claiming Retaliation for Reporting Sex-abuse Complaint
By Cole Waterman
May 12, 2020
SAGINAW, MI — A man who says his job with the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw was impacted after he reported a sex-abuse complaint against a priest has filed a lawsuit against the diocese.
In the suit, Gabriel Villarreal alleges he was retaliated against by the diocese and its agents for reporting a relative had been assaulted by the Rev. Robert J. DeLand. A jury acquitted DeLand of charges related to the relative, but DeLand was convicted of sexual assaulting a different person in a separate case.
Villarreal is a maintenance worker for the diocese.
Detroit attorney Jonathan R. Marko in March filed the suit in Saginaw County Circuit Court on behalf of Villarreal. The suit is seeking at least $25,000, plus interest, attorney fees, and exemplary damages.
Contacted by MLive-The Saginaw News, the diocese declined to comment, apart from saying it had not yet been served the complaint and would not comment on matters of litigation.
Villarreal’s relative testified in DeLand’s March 2019 trial that the priest called him into a coatroom and when they shook hands it was “very low” near the person’s groin. Villarreal later addressed the matter with a diocesan nun. He and the relative spoke to police about the incident after news broke in February 2018 that DeLand had been arrested on charges of sexually assaulting another person.
DeLand was later charged with attempted second-degree criminal sexual conduct relating to the handshaking allegation. DeLand in September 2018 pleaded no contest to the charge and six others related to the assaults of two other males, though he later withdrew those pleas and faced trial. A jury acquitted him on the charge relating to the handshake.
With two more trials scheduled, DeLand then pleaded no contest to single counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, gross indecency between two males, and manufacturing or distributing an imitation controlled substance. That case involved a different person.
The lawsuit states that Villarreal had been a model diocese employee before he went to the authorities about DeLand’s conduct in February 2018.
“As a result of his complaints of protected civil rights activities, the sexual harassment, and attempted abuse of his (relative), the Defendants retaliated against Mr. Villarreal and began to harass him,” the suit states.
The diocese also cut Villarreal’s work hours, his pension benefits, his medical benefits, and his paid time-off, and took away his job responsibilities, the suit alleges. Villarreal remains employed by the diocese, Marko told MLive-The Saginaw News.
|Robert J. DeLand Jr.'s prison mug shot|
The suit levels three counts against the diocese — two counts of violating the Michigan Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act and one count of public policy violations. Regarding the former, one count specifies Villarreal was subjected to a hostile work environment and the other states he was the victim of retaliation.
The lawsuit’s next court date is pending.
Saginaw County Circuit Judge Darnell Jackson in April 2019 sentenced DeLand to two to 15 years in prison. DeLand, now 73, is currently incarcerated at Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula. His earliest possible release date is April 23, 2021, and his maximum is April 23, 2034.
Villarreal’s lawsuit is the second pending against the Saginaw diocese in light of DeLand’s actions. In September 2018, attorney Todd J. Weglarz filed a suit in Saginaw County Circuit Court named the diocese, DeLand, and former Bishop Joseph Cistone as defendants.
Weglarz filed his suit on behalf a juvenile and an adult representative, alleging DeLand at his condo in February 2018 had inappropriately touched a teen boy by “groping and fondling his crotch and buttocks, feet and toes.” The boy fled the condo and police arrested DeLand the same night.
That suit is scheduled for a case evaluation before Circuit Judge Andre R. Borrello on July 23.
The Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, headquartered at 5800 Weiss St., covers 11 counties in eastern mid-Michigan: Arenac, Bay, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, Huron, Isabella, Midland, Saginaw, Sanilac, and Tuscola.
In the aftermath of DeLand’s arrest, the diocese named 22 clergy as having been credibly accused of sexual misconduct going back decades. Many of those are now deceased.