New Claim Made against Priest
The Local Diocese Says Another Sex Assault Investigation Is under Way As Church Leaders and Parishioners Try to Process the News

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
April 7, 2002

One day after the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids acknowledged paying $500,000 in 1994 to settle a sex-abuse case, a diocesan official on Saturday said a new investigation is under way involving the same priest.

The revelation came even as members of Holy Spirit Catholic Church were struggling with the news that mushrooming allegations involving the church nationally have now touched their parish.

"I had no idea," said the Rev. Leonard Sudlik, pastor for seven years at the church on Grand Rapids' Northwest Side.

"I'm certain this is having the same impact on members of this parish."

Bishop Robert Rose on Friday confirmed the Rev. John Thomas Sullivan, a priest locally from 1958 to 1960, sexually abused three girls in the parish. The women, all sisters, did not came forward until 1993.

Rose acknowledged the 1994 payout after The Press obtained settlement documents. The amount reflected the fact the bishop at the time knew of allegations against Sullivan in an earlier diocese, Rose said.

On Saturday, the chancellor for the 11-county diocese said officials recently began another investigation involving Sullivan, who died in 1999.

Sister Patrice Konwinski said she received a call about a week ago -- before the diocese disclosed the payout -- from another woman involving decades-old allegations against Sullivan.

Konwinski said the diocese's victim-assistance minister, who investigates abuse claims, was immediately contacted.

"I would guess we will be getting a report on that shortly,' said Konwinski, adding she did not know specifics of the case. "Victim assistance follows through pretty quickly."

Konwinski said she knows of no other allegation against Sullivan, besides the three women with whom the diocese reached the settlement.

In addition to Holy Spirit, Sullivan served at St. Jude in Northeast Grand Rapids and at St. Patrick in Grand Haven before leaving the diocese.

Holy Spirit's pastor said Saturday he found himself suddenly altering the sermon he planned to deliver this morning at the church, 2230 Lake Michigan Drive NW. He said he was stunned by the news.

Sudlik said he feels he must start a dialogue within his parish about the problem, and will open his door to anyone who needs to talk about the incidents.

"We never need to go in denial," Sudlik said. "We have to stop and ask ourselves the big thing, is this something we can learn from?

"All of us -- people, not just priests -- we meet this with embarrassment," he said. "Not just me as a priest, but the people in the parish. It's a natural feeling. We may not want to talk about this, but we need to talk about this and learn from it."

Sudlik said the church's actions in the past appeared to emphasize saving the priest above victims' problems.

"It is distressful to look back at how things were dealt with as moral issues. You did penance and dealt with it. You moved on," he said. "Even into the '80s, this was happening. It would be inexcusable today not to act on these instances and to learn from them."

In preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Holy Spirit's founding this year, Joanne Dusendang said she doesn't even recall a Father Sullivan being mentioned in any of the many records and photos that have been gathered.

Dusendang, Holy Spirit's religious education director, said Saturday's revelations caused her to think of her own youth and how trust of her parish priest strengthened her faith.

"I don't think this will cause a doubt about faith for most, although I certainly see how it damaged these women," Dusendang said. "It will cause some questions about how the hierarchy handles things. I hope the perspective about that has changed. It should make all of us more vigilant."

The 1993 allegations about Sullivan weren't brought to diocesan officials until after the sisters discovered each had been molested or raped, starting at ages 7 to 12, while he was a priest here and during return visits to their parents over the next few years.

The diocese said the large payment reflects the fact that when Sullivan transferred in 1958 from a diocese in New Hampshire to Grand Rapids, then-Bishop Allen Babcock was aware of previous complaints. Sullivan had fathered a child and attempted suicide, according to a letter the bishop in New Hampshire sent in 1958 to Babcock.

John Tully, a lawyer who represents the Grand Rapids Diocese, said Babcock concluded after an interview of Sullivan that the priest was sincere in his desire to amend for his past.

Babcock accepted Sullivan into the diocese, but in another letter, written in 1960 -- about the time Sullivan transferred out of Grand Rapids -- Babcock noted, "There were indications of danger in his conduct with children." He did not elaborate.

Sullivan eventually was assigned to priestly duties in Arizona. He resided in a retirement home in San Diego at the time of his death. Babcock died in 1969.

The diocese investigated the women's complaints, including interviewing Sullivan, and determined their stories were valid. Beyond the half-million dollar settlement, the diocese covered $61,000 in counseling costs for the women.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.