AG: Priests, church leaders could face criminal charges

Target 8

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — The state’s investigation into decades of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Michigan is focusing not only on the offenders, but also on church leaders who protected them, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told Target 8.

“In any other place, we would call this a criminal enterprise, wouldn’t you?” Nessel said in her first television interview since taking office in January.

“It’s not just unethical, but I believe that is criminal behavior, and you can bet if we’re able to use our state laws to charge people who’ve been involved in that kind of activity, we will do so,” she said.

She said her office will pursue criminal charges for any sexual abuse against children since 1995, as far back as it can go under the statute of limitations. It will also pursue any diocesan officials who shuffled pedophile priests from church to church, diocese to diocese or state to state, she said.

“That is something that needs to be explored: If people knowingly allowed an individual they knew was conducting acts of pedophilia and transferred them to another location which enabled them to continue to commit those criminal acts, certainly that’s something that we’re going to have to look into,” Nessel said.

Since her predecessor launched the investigation in August, 270 tips have come into the AG’s Catholic Church abuse hotline.

Nessel wouldn’t go into details about those tips and said she couldn’t say how many have come from the Diocese of Grand Rapids, which covers Ionia, Kent, Lake, Mason, Mecosta, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo, Oceana, Osceola and Ottawa counties.

“What I will say is these tips continue to come in and I don’t think anybody should be surprised if there are people who are active in the priesthood still here in Michigan who end up being prosecuted,” she said.

She said the investigation will lead to a comprehensive report that could take two years to complete. But, she said, if the AG’s Office finds evidence of ongoing abuse, it will file criminal charges sooner.

The AG’s office, working with the state police and with search warrants, seized hundreds of thousands of pages of records in October from all seven Michigan diocesan offices. It was prompted by the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation that found 300 priests had molested 1,000 children over the decades in that state.

“One of the things that was discovered was that there were priests who had committed acts of sexual pedophilia (in Pennsylvania) that were then brought over to Michigan and were actually working here, so of course that piqued the interest of this office,” Nessel said.

She said a dozen assistant attorneys general in her office are working on the case. She is asking for more money from the Legislature to fund the investigation.

Her office also is working with other states to find abusive priests who might be hiding elsewhere.

Across Michigan, Catholic dioceses are fearing the worst.

“The Attorney General’s Office has said that they’ve gotten a number of calls. They didn’t say what diocese from, so that’s very important,” Grand Rapids Bishop David Wolkowiak told Target 8.

Wolkowiak said the Catholic Church has changed to protect children since 2002.

“I think the farther back you go, they’ve taken the files from 69 years ago, from 1950, so yes, there will be some very not pleasant stories that will be related,” Wolkowiak said.

Target 8 research found 14 priests in the Grand Rapids diocese and 33 child abuse survivors, dating back to 1958. Some of the abusers are still living in West Michigan, collecting pensions, which the diocese says it’s required to provide by law. They also get health, dental and car insurance.

The latest assault reported in the Grand Rapids diocese was in 2002, when Father Shauman Beas molested two girls in Sparta. He’s the only local priest charged and convicted of a sex crime. He went to prison and has since been deported to his native Pakistan.

Most of the other assaults happened in the 1970s and 1980s, too far back for criminal prosecution.

Regardless, Nessel said her office is investigating any abuse dating back to the 1950s. That would include the case of Father John Sullivan, who raped three young sisters from the same Walker family in the late 1950s. He also raped a girl in Grand Haven. The survivor, now 73, said Sullivan raped her a dozen times when she was 14. She only recently told her story to Target 8.

“That makes the point perfectly, is that some of these people have been suffering in silence for decades and decades, and for some people they just need to know that somebody is out there that actually cares,” Nessel said.

“I hope that is what this investigation will accomplish, is to give a voice to the voiceless and make certain that people understand how seriously we take these crimes and do everything in our power to make sure they don’t continue to go on,” she continued.

The Grand Haven woman, who asked not to be identified and still attends a Catholic church, said she hopes the AG’s investigation leads to justice for other survivors.

“Probably put them in jail, not let them live like they are,” she said.

The AG’s office asked any survivors or witnesses to call her office, instead of their local diocese.

“When there is an issue, if there’s a problem, don’t go to your local church to make the complaint,” Nessel said. “Go to law enforcement. Come to us.”

On Friday, the Attorney General’s Office told Target 8 that it had received 10 more tips about clergy abuse in the last two days, directly crediting the “After the Fall” series. Since setting up its reporting website and hotline (844.324.3374) last year, the office has received a total of 282 tips.

The state also has a 24/7 hotline for all victims of sexual assault that offers support and resources: 1.855.VOICES4 (864.2374).

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Know something newsworthy? Report It!

Toxic Tap Water

More Toxic Tap Water

A Killer Among Us

More A Killer Among Us