Nessel to Catholic dioceses: 'Stop self-policing' clergy abuse reports

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Attorney General Dana Nessel answers questions from reporters during a press conference Thursday morning in Lansing.

Lansing — Attorney General Dana Nessel warned Michigan's seven Catholic dioceses to "stop self-policing," suspend any internal investigations and comply with the state investigation into allegations of clergy sexual abuse dating back to the 1950s. 

During a Thursday press conference, Nessel noted that dioceses are "self-policing," asking victims to report abuse to the dioceses only and encouraging the victims to sign non-disclosure agreements or take confidential settlements. Michigan State Police Col. Joseph Gasper said they learned of such church tactics through interviews with victims. 

Nessel urged victims: "If an investigator comes to your door and asks to speak to you, please ask to see their badge and not their rosary."

Michigan's largest diocese disagreed with the attorney general's "broad generalizations" in a Thursday statement. Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman Ned McGrath also took exception to Nessel's language about the rosary.

“The rosary is a treasured devotion of the Catholic Church. And it’s troubling to have it used as a punch line," McGrath said late Thursday. "Here’s hoping future statements show no additional disrespect.”

The attorney general encouraged those who had already signed non-disclosure agreements to come forward anyway and call the attorney general tip line at (844) 324-3374.

"You still have a right and I would say a responsibility to speak to law enforcement authorities," Nessel said. "An NDA will not protect the church. ... We can and we will follow the trail of abuse."

The Archdiocese of Detroit said Thursday afternoon that the archdiocese, unless requested by a victim, has not entered any non-disclosure agreements since 2002, nor does the archdiocese enforce agreements signed prior to 2002. 

"The Archdiocese of Detroit does not self-police," the statement said, noting that victims are directed to report abuse directly to law enforcement. 

The archdiocese countered Nessel's contention that church officials had been asked to stop their internal review processes and noted that the reviews are required by canon law so as to remove sexual abusers from ministry. 

The diocese of Lansing in a statement on its website said it "continues to fully cooperate" with the attorney general's investigation and has delayed an external audit of all priest abuse cases because the attorney general has diocesan files needed for the review. The dioceses of Marquette, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo also issued statements reaffirming their cooperation.

The advice came at a press conference where the Democratic attorney general also called on Michigan State University to release documents related to the Larry Nassar sexual misconduct investigation and announced that Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy's office was joining the Flint water investigation and prosecution team. 

The response form the Catholic Church in Michigan is "jarringly similar" to MSU's reticence in the Larry Nassar sexual abuse investigation, Nessel said. 

"Both institutions when confronted with the public sex abuse scandal publicly pledged their cooperation with law enforcement authorities but have failed to deliver on those public promises," Nessel said. "Regrettably, it would seem as though those two powerful institutions care more about protecting their brand than the people they serve."

Former Attorney General Bill Schuette in August opened an investigation into how Michigan's seven Catholic dioceses handled clergy sexual abuse of minors and any attempts to cover up the actions dating back to the 1950s.

In October, police seized clergy misconduct records from the dioceses of Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Marquette, Kalamazoo and Gaylord. Michigan's bishops have welcomed the investigation and said they will cooperate fully with authorities.

The simultaneous raid at Michigan's seven dioceses involved 70 police officers and 14 assistant attorneys general, Nessel said. Unlike other states, Michigan "did not depend on the dioceses to turn over the documents" and recovered hundreds of thousands of documents. 

Investigators have received more than 300 complaints, involving "a high number" of potential clergy sexual abuse victims, Gasper said. 

The investigation could last "in the neighborhood of two years," Nessel said, with first priority given to situations in which there's a risk of continued victimization and then to cases where the statute of limitations may expire.

Though the investigation reaches back into the 1950s, Nessel said the statute of limitations under which prosecutors can charge priest abusers generally stretches back to 1995. 

Michigan's investigation was launched in the wake of a grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania that revealed hundreds of abuser priests who molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.

Many of the dioceses have had agreements to share clergy misconduct files in place with local prosecutors since 2002. Several have independent review boards that investigate new allegations after law enforcement have reviewed the case. They've also implemented training, background checks and sexual abuse reporting procedures for more than 15 years.

But the Pennsylvania report that shook the Catholic Church in the U.S. led Michigan bishops to address the issue again in letters to Catholic parishioners, reiterate policies put in place after the 2002 revelations of child sex abuse cases in the Boston archdiocese and, in some cases, announce plans for a new outside review of the diocese's handling of clergy misconduct.

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