Bishop Defends Priest Accused of Molestations
He Says Alpena Pastor Erred, but Poses No Harm to Children
By Patricia Montemurri and Alexa Capeloto
Detroit Free Press
March 7, 2002
Diocese of Gaylord Bishop Patrick Cooney on Wednesday defended his appointment of the Rev. Gerald Shirilla as pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Alpena, despite allegations that Shirilla molested boys and young men years ago.
Shirilla was removed in 1993 from active ministry in the Archdiocese of Detroit because of concerns that he was unfit to be a priest, legal documents show. The reassignment was reported in the Free Press on Saturday.
"I believe Father Shirilla made some errors in judgment," Cooney said of accusations dating to the 1970s. "However, based upon all of the material I have reviewed and interviews I have conducted, I also believe Father Shirilla poses no threat to the well-being of our children. If I felt otherwise, he would not have received an assignment."
Shirilla declined comment Wednesday, but said he might talk later with his lawyer present.
Cooney was among the first to learn of the accusations.
In January 1993, Cooney visited the bedside of an ailing Helen DeMeyer, a former Roseville resident who had retired to East Tawas, part of Cooney's northern Michigan diocese.
On that visit with members of the DeMeyer family, he heard accusations that three DeMeyer sons had been molested by Shirilla, who had been pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Roseville and Our Lady of Loretto Parish in Redford Township.
According to depositions in a lawsuit against Shirilla, it was Cooney who alerted archdiocesan authorities and triggered a review of Shirilla, then director of worship for the archdiocese.
On Jan. 26, 1993, within days of Cooney's alert,Shirilla was removed from his post because an archdiocesan investigator found credible evidence that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with young men, and had received complaints from two men saying Shirilla had molested them when they were minors, the depositions show.
Monsignor Walter Hurley, who reviewed the accusations against Shirilla, said in a June 1994 deposition "that there is not a place for him in the ministry within the church."
The lawyer questioning Hurley asked, "The church in general or the Archdiocese of Detroit?" "The church in general," replied Hurley, who also said he had asked Shirilla to leave the priesthood.
Cooney said Wednesday in a statement that he conducted "a thorough investigation" of the record against Shirilla.
He received care
Cooney appointed Shirilla to St. Mary in Alpena in August 2001. After his ouster from the Detroit archdiocese, he received treatment for roughly one year at a Maryland clinic, until about May 1994. It's unclear what Shirilla did in the years that followed, before the appointment in Alpena.
He acknowledged in a deposition that his treatment included medication to curb his sex drive.
Shirilla was never charged criminally, but he was sued by Declan DeMeyer in 1993. DeMeyer alleged Shirilla sexually abused him in the 1970s.
Several Catholic dioceses and archioceses across America, most notably Boston's, are embroiled in a scandal that raises questions whether church authorities did enough to investigate priests accused of molesting minors, or simply reassigned them to other parishes.
Declan DeMeyer, now 39, came to know Shirilla first through his brother Daniel DeMeyer, who was a seminary student when Shirilla was a seminary teacher. Declan DeMeyer alleged that Shirilla molested him from when he was 9 until he was 17.
Shirilla's deposition in the DeMeyer lawsuit paints a disturbing picture. Shirilla admitted giving massages to boys who worked in the Our Lady of Loretto rectory in the mid-1970s. In one instance, Shirilla acknowledged that he and a teenage boy engaged in mutual rubdowns in their underwear in Shirilla's rectory bedroom. Under questioning, the priest said he found nothing inappropriate about it.
Attorney Jeffrey Feldman asked Shirilla, "Were you clothed" when the boy came to the rectory? Shirilla: "Yes."
Attorney: "Entirely?" Shirilla: "Yes."
Attorney: "You became unclothed while he was up there?" Shirilla: "Yes."
Attorney: "... did you have any insight that it was inappropriate to do that?" Shirilla: "No."
Attorney: "At that time, did you have any understanding that it could be harmful" to the youth? Shirilla: "No."
In the deposition, Shirilla admitted massaging DeMeyer on the chest and stomach on one occasion in 1978, in the youth's bedroom.
Shirilla also admitted he'd been warned about inappropriate massages when a complaint was lodged against him in 1973 while Shirilla was teaching at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.
He denied other allegations, and refused to answer some questions about allegations on the grounds that it might incriminate him.
Hurley, who supervised the Detroit archdiocese's review of Shirilla in 1993, said Shirilla was removed from his post because witnesses came forward.
"They lent credence to the fact that Father Shirilla may possibly have abused a number of adult males," Hurley testified. "We believed that we had sufficient information to move him out of the ministry."
But Hurley said the accusations that Shirilla had molested minors, including DeMeyer, weren't further investigated by the archdiocese because DeMeyer and another complainant would not make the accusations during a face-to-face interview with Hurley.
Hurley, now pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Farmington, could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
Ned McGrath, an Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman, said Wednesday that Shirilla "hasn't been in active ministry" in the Detroit archdiocese since he was removed in 1993. He had been praised for planning the Pontiac Silverdome mass for Pope John Paul II's Michigan visit in 1987.
The DeMeyer lawsuit against Shirilla and the archdiocese was dismissed in 1999 because the cases of alleged abuse were too old, exceeding Michigan's statute of limitations, which requires victims abused as minors to file for monetary civil damages before they turn 19, said Feldman, DeMeyer's attorney.
Shirilla's lawyer, Michael J. Smith, said Feldman had trouble proving the allegations.
Smith said "DeMeyer's attorney couldn't produce credible evidence."
Asked if Shirilla's admissions indicated inappropriate behavior, Smith said, "There may be moral issues, surely there may be."
Feldman provided the Free Press with the depositions he conducted of Shirilla and Hurley. The case file has been misplaced by Wayne County Circuit Court employees, who have been unable to locate it since the Free Press requested it more than a week ago.
In March 1993, after becoming aware of the DeMeyer family's accusations, the archdiocese sent Shirilla to be evaluated at St. Luke Institute, a center in Maryland known for treating priests with sexual disorders. He was accepted for in-patient treatment in late April 1993.
Daniel DeMeyer was the oldest boy of 12 siblings and was studying for the priesthood at Sacred Heart Seminary when Shirilla was teaching there in the early 1970s. DeMeyer said Wednesday that he and Shirilla went on a camping trip out West one summer in the early 1970s.
DeMeyer said he told church investigators in 1993 that Shirilla tried to physically force himself on the seminary student while they shared a tent. DeMeyer also said the priest kissed him during the so-called kiss of peace or handshake of peace during a mass Shirilla performed for the two of them on the trip. DeMeyer said he rebuffed Shirilla, forgave him for the transgression and cut the trip short.
DeMeyer said Shirilla later became close to the DeMeyer family when Shirilla was assigned to Sacred Heart parish in Roseville. But DeMeyer said he didn't know until years later that his brother, Declan, also accused Shirilla of molesting him.
When a Free Press report that included coverage of Shirilla appeared Saturday, Daniel DeMeyer said he called Shirilla's superior, Cooney, as well as Hurley.
Daniel DeMeyer, now 50, recalled Wednesday that Cooney "did say that with the time he spent in counseling and in treatment, they felt that Shirilla had the willpower not to offend anybody anymore.
"It's so sad that he's now a pastor... . He's already betrayed a trust. He's betrayed many trusts. He hasn't gone back to those he betrayed to reconcile."
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