Priest Fights to Keep Job
He Says Archdiocese Cannot Dismiss Him, Based on Church Law
By Jim Schaefer
Detroit Free Press
August 1, 2002
The Rev. Dennis Laesch has faced some horrible accusations. So far, he has survived them all.
In 1983, seven years before Laesch entered the priesthood, a man sued him for breaking his cheek and nose. But Laesch argued his punch was leveled in self-defense after a burglary. He won at trial. In 1987, he was a murder suspect, but he passed a lie detector test and the cops went away. They never found the killer.
And now, the 48-year-old Catholic priest is battling an accusation that he molested a 17-year-old boy in 1997, an allegation that could force him out of the priesthood.
But in an aggressive style that belies the oath of obedience taken by every Catholic man of the cloth, Laesch isn't rolling over.
"Do you hear that big flushing sound? That's 48 years of my life going down the drain," he said Tuesday in his first public comment on the case. "Before they ruin my reputation, before they ruin my life, before they deprive me of my ministerial position as well as my livelihood, I think they better have darned good evidence."
"They" is Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida, Laesch's boss.
And the priest, who once practiced law, said Maida should place him back on the altar soon. If that doesn't happen, Laesch said "with all due respect," his boss may find himself answering "Why not?" in a court of law.
"I pray it's not necessary," Laesch said. "It will be the last thing I want to do."
A Teflon past
Laesch says he isn't sure why his name keeps getting linked to crimes.
"Experiences that a lot of people never had, I have. Why? Heck if I know.
"But I think I have acquitted myself truly, publicly. Everything that has ever been investigated here has come out in my favor."
In 1983, a man sued in Macomb County Circuit Court, claiming Laesch punched him in the face, forcing corrective surgery. Laesch, who now stands 6 feet 5 and weighs more than 300 pounds, said it was self-defense.
He explained in a counter-suit that the fight happened just after the man had broken into Laesch's motor home early one morning in June 1982 in Eastpointe.
Laesch went outside to investigate, and the man and his accomplice fled. He followed, confronted them and held them for police, he said. The man who later sued him threw a punch, and he defended himself, Laesch said.
At trial in 1988, Judge Raymond Cashen cleared Laesch of any responsibility, court records show.
At the time, Laesch was into his second term on the Eastpointe City Council. He also had spent a year in the mid-1980s working as an assistant Macomb County prosecutor. Later in the '80s, he opened a private law practice.
On a Saturday morning in September 1987, Laesch received a troubling phone call, he said. The woman he occasionally dated, Linda Bettencourt, was uncharacteristically absent from work as manager of the Berkshire Inn in Eastpointe.
He went to her St. Clair Shores home and found the police already there.
Inside her tidy bungalow, Bettencourt, 34, lay dead in a hallway in a tangle of bloody clothes. The killer had stabbed her four times in the chest, once in the back, and slit her throat four times.
A review of the St. Clair Shores police file found no explanation for why detectives suspected Laesch or any of the other dozen or so people questioned. But investigators said in interviews they were looking at people who knew Bettencourt, mainly because they believe she probably let her killer inside.
Laesch said it was probably suspicious that he showed up at her house minutes after police. He also said he was one of the last people to see Bettencourt the night before she was killed.
"I was considered a suspect for a while in that murder investigation, and we went through the whole nine yards," he said.
That included giving up his fingerprints two days after the killing and taking a lie detector test two weeks later.
State Police examiner Harold Raupp asked him four questions, including, "Did you kill Linda?" Laesch answered no, and Raupp ruled he told the truth.
St. Clair Shores police said they have no leads today.
Heeding the call
Three years after Bettencourt's death, as Laesch's term on the City Council wound down, he entered Sacred Heart Seminary at age 36.
"The short answer is, God called," he said about his decision. Friends were shocked at his career change. Laesch said he was raised Catholic in Detroit and Eastpointe, along with nine brothers and sisters. He has been living off and on with his mother since May when he was put on temporary leave as pastor of St. Alfred in Taylor.
During an interview on Tuesday, Laesch said the current sexual allegation against him is not the first.
While in the seminary, Laesch said, a fellow student accused him and several other students of making unwanted propositions. Laesch denied acting improperly, and said the student, whom he wouldn't name, was expelled.
Laesch survived again.
But now he may face his toughest battle. Some view his case as a test for bishops nationwide.
A young man says that in 1997, when he was 17, Laesch got him drunk and molested him near Lexington.
Laesch says it didn't happen, that the young man is troubled, addicted to alcohol and a liar. Investigators' records show the boy took a lie detector test that was inconclusive. Laesch declined to take one.
The lead investigator in Sanilac County said recently he believes the young man, though the case is not clear-cut.
A prosecutor decided in 1997, and again this year, that he would not file charges. The archdiocese paid the accuser a $125,000 settlement.
But Maida has yet to decide Laesch's fate.
Laesch contends Maida has no choice in the matter. The cardinal kept him on the job in 1997 and, under the Vatican's canon law, can't remove him now. His accuser, who is now 23, simply cannot be believed, Laesch said.
"He says it happened. I say it didn't. As most of these cases are, you've got to make a judgment," Laesch said. "I've got 48 years of life. I think it's a pretty exemplary life. He's got 23 years of failure. . . .
"I am still the pastor at St. Alfred and because of that... the cardinal, if he wants to remove me, has to basically take me to trial. . . . The canon lawyers who have looked at it for me said he can't win."
Laesch has been there before.
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