Michigan priest legal defense group ousts two officials amid AG deal
The president and treasurer of a Michigan group that provides legal and moral support for accused priests across the globe are out following state concerns about the oversight of the tax-exempt nonprofit.
Former Attorney General Bill Schuette reached a settlement with Opus Bono Sacerdotii in December, five months after he filed a July cease-and-desist order against the Lapeer County group for alleged violations of Michigan’s nonprofit and charitable solicitation laws.
Prompted by a 2017 complaint from a former employee, Schuette's 2018 cease-and-desist order came about a month before he launched a far-reaching probe into Michigan's seven dioceses, essentially an investigation into the clergy Opus Bono assists.
Opus Bono Sacerdotii, whose Latin name means “work for the good of the priesthood,” focuses on helping priests who are "experiencing acute difficulties” and was started by founder and president Joe Maher in 2002. According to the group's website, Maher helped fund the defense of a parish priest after he was arrested by Detroit police on a sexual abuse allegation. The priest eventually was acquitted.
The group is the only one of its kind in the world, helping "Catholic priests facing criminal investigations and charges, substance and alcohol abuse, gambling addictions, pornography addiction, financial improprieties, behavioral and emotional disorders, vocational crises, interpersonal problems, career burnout, etc," according to responses Opus Bono sent to Schuette's office in January 2018.
The group solicited donations for living and legal expenses last year for the Rev. Jonathan Wehrle, an Okemos priest accused of embezzling $5 million from his parish. Maher told Michigan Radio last year that he had supported “thousands of priests around the world through their legal and personal troubles.”
It was shortly after the group’s solicitation on behalf of Wehrle that Schuette threatened to dissolve the organization if it failed to address several complaints, including a lack of governance from the board of directors that allowed Maher and Treasurer Peter Ferrara to use the group for personal benefit.
Maher and Ferrara used assets from the organization for meals, expenses, travel and auto leases without board supervision and “routinely, and without authorization, withdrew or transferred OBS funds to themselves as ‘compensation,’” Schuette said in a July statement. Between 2014 and 2017, that compensation allegedly totaled $1.7 million, including $55,000 in compensation for Ferrara in a five-day period.
Schuette alleged the group's donations rose to more than $1 million annually starting in 2014 in part due to mailings that “fabricated quotes from priests purportedly helped by OBS to make their stories more sympathetic.”
The group’s lawyer, Joseph Richotte, and Maher’s lawyer, Thomas Cranmer, did not return calls and emails seeking comment. The News was unable to reach Ferrara.
One fired, another resigns
The group agreed to pay the attorney general's office $10,000 to cover the investigation and litigation. The agreement was reached days before Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel took the oath of office.
“OBS has offered its assurance that it has discontinued and addressed the conduct of concern to the attorney general and has submitted an offer of settlement to avoid litigation,” the settlement said.
Ferrara, a shareholder in the charity, was fired from the organization in October, according to the settlement, after the board learned he had received more than $143,000 in “unauthorized compensation” in 2017.
Ferrara brought in $306,395 in 2017 when the board had authorized a salary of $162,951. Compensation consultants are examining whether he took additional unauthorized compensation during 2012-16, according to the agreement.
Maher, one of the group’s founders, will resign by March 31 and will not rejoin the group “in any capacity,” nor can he ever form another charitable entity in Michigan, according to the agreement. Unlike Ferrara, Maher appeared to have earned "a reasonable salary" between 2012 and 2017, consultants said.
The group initially defended Ferrara and Maher's compensation by noting that the additional pay was to make up for deferred payments and financial hardships the pair endured during the organization's early years, according to responses filed to the Attorney General's Office. The compensation also reflects the emotional toll of the job, the group said.
"Because Opus Bono's mission often involves assisting priests accused of committing crimes, there are many who vehemently oppose its efforts through property damage and threats of physical violence," the group wrote.
When the organization had to relocate in 2014, public hostility and threats caused the group to choose a rural location purchased through Maher and Ferrara's for-profit production company so as to avoid property records that opponents could directly link to Opus Bono.
"Many accused clergy and members of the church hierarchy, including cardinals from the Vatican, come to Opus Bono for confidential meetings," the group said in its response. "Some of those clergy have high profiles and are easily recognizable from national media."
In 2018, upon inquiries from Schuette's office, the production company was transferred to Opus Bono at no cost.
Opus Bono installs new board
The Rev. Eduard Perrone, a shareholder in the group and pastor of Assumption Grotto Church in Detroit, resigned from the board last year, along with three other directors, shortly after the group was restructured from a membership to a directorship corporation.
Perrone told investigators the group's annual meetings had been informal and that "he never viewed himself as a director," but more of "a spiritual adviser to the group," according to the July cease-and-desist order. Perrone did not immediately return a call for comment.
The Archdiocese of Detroit said it neither sponsors nor endorses the the group.
A new board took over Opus Bono in 2018 and held more than a dozen meetings after the attorney general’s cease-and-desist notice, according to the settlement.
The new board made changes, the settlement said, including hiring compensation consultants, reducing executive salaries 30 percent, outsourcing accounting, reviewing solicitations to donors, creating new policies for expense reimbursement and adopting an ethics and anti-fraud policy.
The settlement came a few months after Schuette launched a far-reaching investigation into clergy sex abuse and potential cover-ups dating back to the 1950s in Michigan’s seven dioceses. The investigation was launched after a grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania revealed hundreds of abuser priests who molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.
An entire team within the Attorney General’s Office remains dedicated to the investigation, Nessel said.
“I am committed to ensuring we leave no stone unturned as we continue to receive additional information on our tip line and review the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents obtained in search warrants executed last fall,” she said in a statement.