Michigan church leaders urge transparency, accountability at bishop's conference

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
As hundreds of worshippers fill the pews for a monthly "Mass Mob," Archbishop Allen Vigneron presides over a 175th Eucharistic Celebration Mass.

Michigan church leaders pushed for more transparency in investigating allegations against U.S. bishops but came up short in advancing the proposals two weeks ago at a bishops’ conference.

Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea and Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron both proposed plans to increase accountability and transparency in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal at a gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 12-14 in Baltimore.

The general assembly was set to vote on an episcopal accountability plan prompted by allegations against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and the larger clergy sexual abuse scandal. But the plan was nixed when the Congregation of Bishops from the Holy See asked the group not to vote on the measure until February.

Among the sidelined initiatives was one presented by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron that would create a commission made up of clergy and lay people to review complaints against bishops.

In a Nov. 15 letter to Detroit area priests and deacons, Vigneron said he was surprised and disappointed by the Vatican’s request that the bishops wait on voting and implementing a plan, but encouraged them not to give up hope for change.

“Even though our intended ways and timetable for fixing this mess have been altered, this does not change our resolve,” Vigneron wrote.

"Frustration and anger erupted" among the bishops attending the general assembly when they learned the episcopal accountability plans would be shelved until February, Marquette Bishop John Doerfler told his diocese in a Monday letter. 

"My brother bishops and I were deeply concerned about the delay and wanted to act now," Doerfler wrote, but noted the U.S. bishops remained committed to ensuring accountability.

Boyea introduced a motion that encouraged the Vatican “to release all documentation that can be released” regarding its investigation into the alleged misconduct of McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington.

The Vatican opened an investigation into McCarrick this fall after allegations arose that he had slept with seminarians and young priests. Archbishop Carlo Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador, claimed Pope Francis himself knew of the allegations in 2013, but ignored sanctions that had been imposed on McCarrick by Pope Benedict IX.

Boyea was one of the first in Michigan to announce an external audit of his diocese’s handling of sexual abuse, an initiative that will have to be pushed back because of Attorney General Bill Schuette’s investigation into the Michigan dioceses’ handling of allegations, Boyea said Nov 16.

In his Nov. 14 comments at the general assembly in Baltimore, Boyea argued for his motion by saying the U.S. bishops had an obligation to those mistreated to hold themselves accountable, learn from mistakes and save souls by “dealing with this scandal.”

“It’s the transparency issue," Boyea said of the Vatican investigation. "We don’t want just conclusions.”

Boyea’s motion was discussed at length before it was voted down 137-83.

“The successor of Peter has said he’s going to be truthful about this, and it seems to me we need to take his word on it,” said Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Chicago Archdiocese.

The Michigan bishops’ proposals come as their own dioceses are being investigated by the state Attorney General’s Office in an inquiry meant to examine cases of clergy sex abuse and potential cover-ups dating to the 1950s in Michigan.

All of Michigan's seven dioceses have said they welcomed the investigation and cooperated with Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office when search warrants were served at each of the dioceses on Oct. 3.

Schuette’s office has received roughly 200 tips since the start of the investigation, which was prompted by a grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania that revealed hundreds of priests who molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s,

Schuette’s office has asked any victims or people with information about alleged incidents to contact investigators at Michigan.gov/CI or (844) 324-3374.

Although little else is known of the investigation's status, dioceses around Michigan continue to grapple with allegations and initiatives to increase transparency within their jurisdictions. 

The Archdiocese of Detroit has announced allegations against two priests, one living and one dead, since the investigation started. But the diocesan review of the complaints against the priests was under way months before Schuette announced his investigation, said Ned McGrath, a spokesman for the archdiocese. 

In Lansing, allegations against three priests have been announced since the investigation started and a fourth, who was accused of sexually harassing a coworker in September, has resigned as pastor of his East Lansing parish.

The Diocese of Gaylord published on Nov. 15 a list of priests who had been credibly accused, many of whom are dead. 

And, on Wednesday, the Diocese of Saginaw published a list of more than a dozen priests who are subject to credible claims of sexual abuse, many of whom are dead.

The allegations against those listed are considered “highly serious,” said Bishop Walter Hurley, recently appointed apostolic administrator for the Saginaw diocese after the death of Bishop Joseph Cistone in October, in a Wednesday press conference.

“We are providing you with a list of 18 names and that would include the five that were released earlier,” Hurley said. “And we do have two or three other names that we just don’t have enough information.”

On Oct. 10, the Archdiocese of Detroit said it had restricted senior priest Rev. Robert Witkowski from performing any public ministry due to “credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors.” On Nov. 10, the archdiocese announced credible allegations of sexual abuse against the deceased Monsignor Thaddeus Ozog.

McGrath said both archdiocese probes had been ongoing "for several months" prior to Schuette's investigation.

Since early October, the Diocese of Lansing has announced the resignation of an East Lansing pastor based on allegations that he sexually harassed a co-worker and revoked ministerial permissions for a senior priest living in Kalamazoo because of decades-old allegations of sexual assault of a man. It also has sent back a religious order priest working in Fenton to his congregation in India because of allegations of sexual harassment of a woman, and removed from public ministry a second senior priest subject to a credible allegation of sexual assault of a minor dating to the 1960s.

A fifth priest from Archdiocese of Westminster who is living in Washtenaw County saw his permission to minister in the Diocese of Lansing revoked in September over a credible allegation of “inappropriate sexual behavior with an adult male.”


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