Lansing, Mich., Feb 23, 2019 / 04:37 am (CNA).- Catholic dioceses in the state of Michigan are reaffirming their commitment to reporting sex abuse, while asking for clarifications about recent claims made by state Attorney General Dana Nessel.
Nessel claimed in a recent update that dioceses are “self-policing,” using non-disclosure agreements and “failing to deliver” on their promises to cooperate with law enforcement authorities.
In response, the Archdiocese of Detroit said the update made “broad generalizations” that call for clarity.
“The Archdiocese of Detroit does not self-police,” the archdiocese said Feb. 21. “We encourage all victims to report abuse directly to law enforcement.”
“Clergy with credible accusations against them do not belong in ministry,” it continued. “Since the attorney general’s investigation began, the Archdiocese of Detroit has not received notification from that office regarding credible accusations against any of our priests. Should we become aware of such a complaint, we will act immediately.”
“Since 2002, the Archdiocese of Detroit has not entered into any non-disclosure agreements, unless specifically requested by a survivor of abuse, as required by the Catholic Church in the United States. In addition, the archdiocese does not enforce any non-disclosure agreements signed prior to 2002. We encourage all abuse survivors to share their stories.”
Other dioceses made similar points, and some said they had not yet been asked to stop internal investigations.
At a Feb. 21 press conference, Nessel gave an update about the Catholic clerical sex abuse investigations in Michigan begun in August 2018 under her predecessor, Bill Schuette. In October 2018 law enforcement conducted simultaneous raids on the offices of the state’s seven Roman Catholic dioceses.
Nessel said these raids involved close to 70 officers and special agents and 14 assistant attorneys general.
“We did not depend on the dioceses to turn over documents, which is what primarily happened in other states,” she said. Investigators are reviewing hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, including Church procedures regarding abuse allegations and investigations.
“Unfortunately, the reality is there are predators in the priesthood that are still out there and we feel as though they have to be stopped and we need to ensure this doesn’t happen again and bad actors are consistently held accountable,” she said.
Nessel estimated the investigation will take about two years, suggesting over 1,000 sex abuse victims could be found. She did not discuss how her office estimated that number, the Michigan news site Mlive.com reports.
State authorities have received 300 tips since the launch of the investigation. The attorney general said a report will be released at the end of the investigations. She contended that the Church was currently “self-policing” and said this should stop.
“If an investigator comes to your door and asks to speak with you, please ask to see their badge and not their rosary,” Nessel said. “Victims may believe that they cannot or should not report abuse to us because the Church is going to handle it. That’s simply not true.”
She cited reports from victims that they were encouraged to agree to settlements and sign nondisclosure agreements. Those who have signed such agreements have the right to speak to law enforcement, she said. Even if alleged abuse falls beyond the statute of limitations, a report can be useful in other prosecutions.
“We can, and we will, follow the trail of abuse where it’s occurred.”
First-degree criminal sexual conduct has no statute of limitations for criminal prosecution under state law. All other levels of criminal sexual conduct have a limit of 10 years from the time of the crime or from the time the victim turns 21, whichever comes later.
The attorney general’s update drew different reactions.
“We were surprised by some of the statements made this morning,” said Candace Neff, communications director for the Gaylord diocese, which pledged continued cooperation and assistance for the investigation.
“We are very grateful for the assistance of the attorney general in this process,” Neff said, adding that the diocese has not received a request to cease all internal review processes.
“We hope to receive clarification on this request soon,” she said.
Neff said the diocese looks forward to the attorney general’s final report and shares the goals of intending “to respond with compassion for victim-survivors, to properly prosecute offenders, to prevent anyone from being abused in the future, and to bring about healing for those who have been harmed in the past.”
Col. Joe Gasper, head of the Michigan State Police, said the best agents have been assigned to this “exceptionally complex and complicated” case.
“We have high standards within the Michigan State Police and I can assure you we won’t be cutting any corners … and let the citizens of Michigan down,” he said, according to Mlive.com. “We take all leads seriously. It’s critically important that we hear directly from you when you have information to provide.”
Gasper said that cooperation of Church officials varies from diocese to diocese.
Nessel’s office has sent letters to every parish in the state asking them to tell parishioners about the investigation.
The Detroit archdiocese noted its support for mandatory sex abuse reporting laws and its education efforts of its mandated reporters. It said it has worked to help parishes publicize the state’s sex abuse tip-line.
The archdiocese said it places no time limits on reports of sex abuse of minors by priests, deacons and other personnel. The archdiocese added that the attorney general’s office has not asked it to stop internal review processes.
“These internal investigations are required under Church law, and their purpose is to restrict or remove from ministry anyone who has committed sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult,” it said.
In September, Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing said that the diocese would name priests with credible sex abuse allegations after a review from an external agency. The attorney general’s raid on diocesan offices put that review on hold, since it took possession of all clergy files, the Lansing State Journal reports.
A spokesman for the Lansing diocese said the diocese will cooperate with the investigation and with the request that internal reviews be put on hold. At the same time, he said, the diocese will conduct its own review after the investigation.
The diocese’s general counsel was recently hired after seven years with the attorney general’s office. The diocese said its general counsel “promptly reports alleged crimes to the attorney general and local prosecutors” when alleged victims report to the diocese rather than legal authorities.
“The diocese welcomes this review of our handling of abuse cases. We are confident in our processes. We have and will continue to reach out to law enforcement with these matters,” the Lansing diocese said Feb. 21. “We know of no one active in ministry in our diocese who has abused a child. The last known event of abuse of a minor occurred prior to 2002.”
“There is no place in the Church for anyone who would harm a child. It is important that anyone committing these crimes is brought to justice. We continue to pray that Christ will bring healing to all victims and to his Church,” said the Lansing diocese, encouraging anyone with knowledge of any kind of abuse to contact protective services or the police.
The Diocese of Marquette said no one presently in ministry is known to have abused a child. It encouraged individuals to report all sex abuse of minors, “no matter when the abuse occurred,” to local law enforcement and to the state attorney general’s office. The diocese is committed to “fully cooperating” with the state investigation and has “fully complied” with requests for information, it said.
In a short statement the Kalamazoo diocese affirmed continued cooperation with the investigation and encouraged anyone with information of suspected abuse to report it to the attorney general. It offered prayers for victims.
The Grand Rapids diocese similarly said it is continuing to cooperate with the investigation and reports all sex abuse allegations to law enforcement. It has not been notified by the attorney general of any credible accusations against its priests and will take “immediate action” if it is.
Some dioceses noted their past efforts at cooperation. The Detroit archdiocese said that in 2002 it turned over past case files involving clergy misconduct and committed to turning over all new allegations “regardless of when the alleged abuse occurred.” The Gaylord diocese said it “voluntarily reported all known allegations of sexual abuse of minors involving clergy of our diocese” 16 years ago.