Vatican Defrocks Priest, Orders Trial for Another

By Patricia Montemurri
Detroit Free Press
January 12, 2004

The Vatican has issued two extraordinary decrees in Detroit-area priest abuse cases, ordering a rare church trial for an ousted priest from Marine City and defrocking another priest against his will.

The orders, issued by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, were revealed Sunday and are the first to be handed down affecting priests from the archdiocese, nearly two years after the sex-abuse scandal convulsed the American Catholic Church.

They affect Father Joseph Sito, as he was known to parishioners of several Detroit-area churches, and the Rev. James Wysocki of Marine City's Holy Cross parish.

With the order issued in formal Latin last week, Sito is no longer considered a priest, Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman Ned McGrath said Sunday.

The Vatican approved a request by Cardinal Adam Maida that Sito be laicized — that is, returned to the status of layperson. Sito was convicted of assaulting a teenage boy in 1999 and was moved from his Livonia retirement home in 2002 so the archdiocese could monitor his activities.

In Wysocki's case, Holy Cross parishioners were told this weekend that their ousted pastor will be subject to an unusual church legal review — known as a canonical trial — on charges that he molested metro Detroit boys decades ago.

Three lawyer/priests from other dioceses will hear the evidence against Wysocki in the procedure, which has yet to be scheduled and isn't open to the public. The last time such a trial took place in the Detroit Archdiocese was 20 years ago, when a priest was accused of financial improprieties. That priest was found not guilty.

Neither Sito nor Wysocki could be reached for comment Sunday night.

The Vatican is considering other abuse cases involving archdiocese priests. Since March 2002, the archdiocese has removed 20 priests from public ministry because of allegations of abuse.

Auxiliary Bishop Walter Hurley, Maida's point man on the abuse scandal, said the Vatican is currently reviewing about five other cases involving Detroit priests, and that the archdiocese is preparing more cases to be sent to Rome. The cases involving Sito and Wysocki were sent to the Vatican last June.

The Vatican's actions telegraph varying signals.

On one hand, the Vatican recognizes the outrage the abuse scandal provoked against the church and now is laicizing predatory priests after it was revealed that such men were often secretly shuffled from parish to parish.

But the Vatican is also going to stick to canon law procedures, which outline due process rights for both victims and accused priests, much as U.S. law does.

"We're pleased to receive the responses on these cases. It helps us bring some of them to closure and finality," Hurley said. "The Vatican has always had a concern that they be addressed in a straightforward way, but that also respects the rights of everybody involved in this."

In Sito's case, he resigned as pastor of St. Cletus Church in Warren in 1993 after he was accused of sexual misconduct with a minor and was sent for treatment as a sex offender. But Sito, 68, was allowed to work as a priest on a limited basis. He got into trouble with the law again in 1999, when he was charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct after he convinced a 17-year-old boy — who had come to him for counseling — to expose himself, court records show.

The 1993 complaint came from a local retired police officer, who told church officials Sito had abused him decades earlier.

Sunday night, that man said the news was a relief but a long time coming.

"Why did I have to wait 11 years for this?" said the man, who has asked that his name not be printed. The Free Press usually does not print the names of sex-abuse victims. Had the church laicized Sito earlier, perhaps the 1999 assault wouldn't have happened, the man said.

Still, "I take it as a positive sign that the church is moving forward ... to heal itself."

Sito, Wysocki and the other priests removed from their work assignments have been ordered not to dress as priests, say mass in public or identify themselves as priests. The men, however, were allowed to say Catholic mass only for themselves in private. Now that he's laicized, Sito is no longer supposed to say mass for himself.

Sito will receive an archdiocese pension, which any priest gets after 15 years of work, Hurley said.

"But beyond that, the archdiocese will have no further obligation to him," Hurley said.

Wysocki, 63, was ousted in February from Holy Cross parish and has consistently fought the move and proclaimed his innocence.

His parishioners held a big fund-raiser and raffle for him last spring and used the parish bulletin to drum up support. Wysocki had refused to formally resign as the church's pastor, but the Vatican order in his case upheld Maida's dismissal of him as pastor.

Wysocki is accused of molesting minors in the 1970s. The archdiocese received a complaint about him several years ago but didn't discipline him because of insufficient information, McGrath said Sunday.

After another complaint was investigated in late 2002, Wysocki was removed from his ministry.


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