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2 Priests Step Down Amid Sex File Review

May 6, 2002 | Detroit Free Press

Two local priests stepped down from their parishes Sunday, two days after the Archdiocese of Detroit surrendered internal case files to prosecutors regarding priests accused of sexual misconduct.

The Rev. Tony (A.J.) Conti of All Saints Catholic Church in Memphis and the Rev. Dennis Laesch of St. Alfred Catholic Church in Taylor abruptly left their pastorships Sunday, according to archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath.

Like other clergy pulled from active ministry since the sex abuse scandal struck the Catholic Church four months ago, both priests are facing allegations of previous sexual misconduct that only now came to light or were deemed serious enough to warrant their removals.

McGrath was not available for comment Sunday night, but in a statement about the two priests he alluded to the recent deal between archdiocese officials and local prosecutors that opened secret church files to review. He did not detail the allegations that prompted the latest removals.

Archdiocese officials plan to discuss the two priests and related matters at an 11 a.m. news conference in Detroit today.

McGrath said Conti has resigned as pastor of All Saints in northern Macomb County and is on leave from active ministry. He added that the archdiocese is "committed to cooperating with civil authorities in accord with its recently signed voluntary agreement on the reporting of such cases."

Unlike Conti, Laesch has taken only a temporary leave of absence "to deal with personal matters that have arisen," McGrath stated. After the archdiocese decided a previous sexual misconduct allegation against Laesch had "sufficient ambiguity," the priest agreed to step down, the spokesman said.

Conti, 53, was ordained in May 1976 after attending the former St. John Provincial Seminary in Plymouth. He served parishes in Detroit, Warren and Dearborn before becoming pastor of All Saints last year.

The allegation that sparked Conti's removal refers to misconduct during his early years as a priest, McGrath said. He declined to elaborate.

A senior priest in the archdiocese, the Rev. Leo Broderick, will be temporary administrator at the parish in Conti's absence.

Laesch, 47, more recently entered the priesthood -- in 1996, after obtaining a law degree from Detroit College of Law and attending Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He was an associate pastor at parishes in Rochester and Sterling Heights and became pastor of St. Alfred in 2000. He will be temporarily replaced by the Rev. Frank Weingartz, another senior priest.

No one answered the phone at either parish late Sunday.

Conti and Laesch are two of at least 51 priests accused of sexual misconduct since an archdiocese policy on the matter went into effect in 1988. Church officials revealed that total number Friday, the same day they turned over their files to prosecutors in the six-county archdiocese.

Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga said Sunday night that Conti's name strikes him as one of 10 priests reported to his office by the archdiocese last week, but said he could not be certain.

He said he and Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan and Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca may make the names of accused clergy public even if the alleged misconduct exceeds statutes of limitations.

"We have criminals who have escaped justice in the past and who may still be in a position to commit present and future crimes," Marlinga said. "The law doesn't provide any clear answer as to what we should do."

It is not clear how many of the allegations against the priests made in the last 14 years are credible or would constitute criminal activity. But they include accusations of abuse against adults and children. Duggan could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Since the nationwide scandal ignited in January, Catholic officials have taken action against at least 12 Michigan priests; about half are connected to the Archdiocese of Detroit.


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