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Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette will investigate all allegations of sexual abuse and assault by Catholic diocesan and religious order priests as well as any attempts to cover up those actions dating back to the 1950s in Michigan. 

The attorney general confirmed the investigation Friday in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request from WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids.

The state investigation started in August, according to the Freedom of Information Act response. Victims or those with information can confidentially report at Michigan.gov/CI or at (844) 324-3374.

"The department encourages victims of sexual abuse, their families, and others to report any and all information relevant to sexual abuse, assault, or the cover up of such acts," Schuette's office wrote.

A recent grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania that revealed hundreds of abuser priests prompted the investigation by Schuette's office, said spokeswoman Andrea Bitely. The Pennsylvania report, at the very least, served as an acknowledgement of what had occurred there, "an important step for survivors of sexual abuse," she said. 

An investigative team from the attorney general's office is already working on the review, she said. The office also is supplying about six staffers in Special Prosecutor Bill Forsyth's $1 million probe into the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal at Michigan State University.

"Our goal here is to find out what happened and when it happened," Bitely said. "And if there are cases that we can take on and there are people who can be charged, we will."

Michigan bishops in the state's seven dioceses have addressed revelations from the grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania, which found an estimated 300 Roman Catholic priests in that state molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s. They have done so in letters to Catholic parishioners, reiterated policies put in place after the 2002 revelations of child sex abuse cases in the Boston archdiocese and, in some cases, put additional plans in motion. 

In a statement Friday, the Archdiocese of Detroit said it will cooperate with the investigation and welcomes it as the "next phase of our commitment to transparency and healing." Archdiocesan officials learned of the investigation Thursday evening, spokeswoman Holly Fournier said.

The archdiocese has worked with prosecutors in the six counties within its boundaries since 2002 to review old cases and turn over any new allegations. 

"We have full confidence in our safe environment policies put in place and carefully followed for more than 15 years," the statement said. "We remain committed to protecting everyone — especially children and vulnerable adults — and therefore look forward to working closely with officials to determine if there is more we can do to accomplish this goal."

State investigation welcomed

Schuette's investigation comes as dioceses throughout the United States grapple with a Pennsylvania investigative report that alleged senior church officials, including former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, helped to cover up the complaints.

Michigan's six remaining dioceses — Grand Rapids, Marquette, Gaylord, Lansing, Saginaw and Kalamazoo — issued similar statements in response to Schuette's announcement, welcoming the investigation while restating the protections put in place after the 2002 revelations of child sex abuse in the Boston archdiocese.

The Diocese of Lansing last week said it would invite an outside agency to review its handling of clergy sexual abuse cases and planned to publish the names of all diocesan priests who sexually abused children. 

"It is important that anyone committing these crimes is brought to justice," the diocese said in a statement Friday. "We continue to pray that Christ will bring healing to all victims and to his Church."

The Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed "systemic criminality" in the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse cases, and the investigation of potentially similar behavior in Michigan is long overdue, said sexual abuse lawyer John Manly.

Manly has litigated on behalf of victims of clergy sexual abuse in several states and represented hundreds of victims in lawsuits pertaining to former Michigan State University sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar. 

Given his experience with the Attorney General's Office in the Nassar case, Manly said pedophiles within the church in Michigan and bishops who helped cover it up should be "very concerned."

"It’s important to note, this is not an investigation of Catholicism," he said. "This is an investigation of leaders who allowed clergy to engage in criminal misconduct.”

Claims have cost millions

Sexual abuse claims throughout the state have cost the church in Michigan millions of dollars, much of which were paid for through insurance and investment income. Many of the confirmed allegations in Michigan in recent years have involved abuse alleged to have occurred prior to 2002. 

The Archdiocese of Detroit has paid nearly $4.5 million in settlements and counseling related to clergy sexual abuse, $1.3 million pertaining to cases reported prior to 2004, said Ned McGrath, director of public affairs for the archdiocese. 

Several dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Detroit, have agreements with local prosecutors that allow them to review old files and require the diocese to submit any new complaints to the prosecutors' offices. 

Many Michigan dioceses name accused priests in press releases and bulletins when an allegation arises and some have a list of abuser priests on their websites.

In recent months, Archbishop Allen Vigneron has called for accountability among clergy, initiated a review of policies and practices related to clergy sexual abuse and rolled out a new website, protect.aod.org, to make resources and information more easily available.

Boyea also called for more accountability among bishops while announcing last week his plan for an external review.

“Not only are these acts deeply sinful, they are criminal,” Boyea wrote. “Anyone guilty of causing such pain to victims, as well as those at any level within the Church’s leadership who protected sexual predators, must be held accountable. Justice demands it.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

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