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Nessel: Probe finds abuse allegations against 270 priests involving 552 victims

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Attorney General Dana Nessel plans to announce charges against two more priests after the first of the year and is reviewing two additional warrants related to the  investigation into clergy abuse in the Catholic Church in Michigan. 

Dana Nessel

Seven priests have been charged, two of whom have pleaded guilty, in the wide-ranging investigation that so far has included 1.5 million seized paper documents and 3.5 million electronic documents. The information has been reviewed by 32 volunteers who put in over 1,400 hours at night and on weekends, Nessel said Monday. 

The department has received 641 tips on its clergy abuse hotline, identified 270 priests  alleged to be abusers and received allegations involving 552 victims of clergy sexual abuse, Nessel said. She estimated the department would identify “several thousand” victims by the end of the investigation. 

“The vast majority of the cases can’t be prosecuted based on the statute of limitations issues,” Nessel said. 

“I hope that part of this investigation is really sort of a thorough vetting of what can be done in the future so that we can address these types of concerns earlier and better,” she said.

The department has reviewed 130 cases for potential charges, 50 of which were closed because the statute of limitations barred prosecution in the cases or the priest in question had died, Nessel said. Twenty-five cases have been referred back to the diocese for action because the priests were in active ministry.

The Archdiocese of Detroit is cooperating with the investigation, said Ned McGrath, spokesman for the archdiocese. At the end of 2018, the Archdiocese of Detroit was aware of about 150 victims and 75 clerics credibly accused within the archdiocese between 1950 to 2018. 

“The health and well-being of children is of the utmost priority here and the people who are victims,” McGrath said. “We’ll work with anyone anywhere to have that achieved.”

The department has concluded its review of paper documents in the Marquette, Gaylord and Grand Rapids dioceses. Dioceses have referred 89 cases to Nessel’s office for investigation of potential abuse, she said. 

The number of people who reported to elders in the church, only to have it languish in a file was disconcerting, Nessel said. But she said that’s not necessarily the practice currently. 

“I think things have changed substantially now with the church,” she said. “I will say that the Detroit archdiocese in particular has been very cooperative with us. So I’m hoping that it’s a new day in the church and that they’ve learned from the error of their ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important for us to go back and to try to provide some justice people who have been denied it so long.”

First estimated to last about two years, the investigation could go on much longer, Nessel said, citing the need for more funding. 

The investigation is much larger than the ongoing review of Michigan State University’s handling of the Larry Nassar scandal, for which the Legislature allocated $1 million. The department has used about $345,000 for the management of electronic documents. It used supplemental allocations from the Legislature to hire a victim advocate. 

“There’s only so much that can be done, and quite honestly, we need more funding if we’re going to get through it at a quicker pace,” Nessel said. 

Nessel's updates on the investigation come the same week the Vatican office responsible for processing clergy sexual abuse complaints said it received a record 1,000 sex abuse reports this year from around the world, according to the Associated Press. 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which has been examining sex abuse cases for the past two decades, has processed 6,000 cases. Pope Francis has noted a backlog of 2,000 cases, the Associated Press reported.

Francis last week decided to abolish the so-called "pontifical secrete" that governs the office's handling of abuse cases to promote cooperation with law enforcement.