Lawyer cites 'cover-up' after pastor removed at Plymouth's Our Lady of Good Counsel

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A priest recently removed from leading an Archdiocese of Detroit parish after church leaders said he became “overwhelmed with the responsibilities” is challenging the decision, claiming it was retaliation for his objections to another leader's alleged sexual harassment and abuse.

The Rev. Michael Suhy, who had been pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, was targeted because he "refused to be quiet," his lawyer, Ron Thompson, told The Detroit News. "This is a cover-up. This is once again the Catholic Church trying to hide their misconduct."

The Rev. Michael Suhy was pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Plymouth.

Archdiocese officials dispute the claim, saying Suhy could no longer handle his duties.

"The discussions aimed at getting Fr. Suhy to step aside voluntarily for his good and the good of the parish started — with him — this past spring," said Ned McGrath, a spokesman for the archdiocese, in an email Tuesday. "Ultimately and unfortunately, his intransigence triggered a canonical process for his removal."

Last week, the archdiocese announced its leader, Archbishop Allen Vigneron, informed Suhy that he was relieved of his duties as pastor following a months-long process that included interviews with current and former clergy, staff, parishioners and others.

"One of Archbishop Vigneron’s conclusions was that Fr. Suhy has become overwhelmed with the responsibilities, burdens and challenges of administrating a large and complex parish like Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish with its added dimension of having a school," Auxiliary Bishop Gerard Battersby said in a statement.

"Following the required consultations and fact-finding, the action taken on November 17 was believed necessary for Fr. Suhy’s well-being, and also for the well-being of the parish, parishioners and school."

In a statement, Suhy said he had alerted church officials after receiving a letter last year from a couple "notifying him that a prominent employee of the Archdiocese of Detroit was engaging in the sexual harassment and grooming of their son."

That employee was not punished, "and another colleague spontaneously shared with me his grave concern that the same alleged harasser was acting inappropriately with young priests of this archdiocese," Suhy wrote. "... What we have here is nothing less than the selective and arbitrary enforcement of the archdiocese’s policies against sexual harassment and abuse ... and the removal of a whistleblower pastor."

Battersby, however, said archdiocese officials started meeting with Suhy in late spring "in the hopes of assisting him to become better equipped," but Suhy declined offers for help.

"In September, the need — and the specific reasons — for Father to step aside were documented and discussed at length with him," Battersby wrote. "As required by church law, two letters were sent to him encouraging him to resign as pastor for his own sake and for the sake of the parish; but, he chose not to do so. 

"Due to that decision on his part, the administrative process moved forward respecting church law on the matter. ... That administrative process has now reached the point where Archbishop Vigneron can —and has decided to — relieve Fr. Suhy of his office as pastor."

McGrath added that Suhy "was provided with some two dozen pages of documentation and clarification why he was being removed. None of that information, however, is contained in Fr. Suhy’s ... statement. In other words, Father knows — and knows well —why it was necessary to take this step. The removal is about him and his pastorate, not someone or something else."

Thompson rejected that, saying Suhy oversaw a thriving congregation with maximum attendance accompanied by a school boasting steady enrollment; "joyfully" serves parishioners; earned "a good reputation from Dearborn to Ypsilanti for his strong leadership" during the pandemic; and maintained finances well enough that, through last week, the congregation was $79,000 ahead of budget in weekly offerings.

"All the markers of a good, well-run parish by a competent and able pastor are in play," Thompson said.

Citing "the questionable nature of evidence" against the priest, Thompson said he believes archdiocese officials were displeased Suhy eliminated the position of a church staffer who had potentially damaging information and would not back down about the allegations involving the other official. "It's a situation where Father Suhy is being sacrificed because he won't keep quiet."

The canon lawyer representing Suhy in the canonical process involving his position was not immediately available Tuesday night to comment on its status.

Until receiving a new assignment from the archdiocese, Suhy "will be provided a residence, his medical benefits will continue, and he will be supported financially by the Archdiocese of Detroit," Battersby said. "There are no restrictions on his priestly ministry. However, for the good of everyone, he will no longer live at this parish, nor will he be permitted to return to Our Lady of Good Counsel to celebrate Mass or sacraments or visit the school."

Vigneron has appointed Monsignor. Patrick Halfpenny the temporary administrator at Our Lady of Good Counsel until a new pastor is assigned. 

"Together, we’ll continue to pray for our brother, Fr. Michael," Halfpenny said in a letter to parishioners Monday. "I know that the Lord is with us, and He will lead us through this challenging time.”

Meanwhile, Suhy is exploring his legal options, Thompson said Tuesday.