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2 Convictions Vindicate Priests' Abuse Victims

Dec 19, 2002 | Detroit Free Press The Rev. Edward Olszewski was found guilty Wednesday of molesting a Detroit schoolboy in the 1970s, and in another Wayne County courtroom, former priest Jason Sigler accepted a 1-year jail sentence for abusing two youngsters decades ago.

The convictions brought comfort and vindication to victims of sex abuse.

Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan called Wednesday "a day of closure" in a year in which the Catholic Church was convulsed by revelations that priests had sexually abused children and been allowed to continue in ministry.

The convictions send a message that "if you are abused by a priest it may take a long time, but certainly the wheels of justice will catch up to you," Duggan said.

The Detroit cases were unusual because convictions were won in cases in which the complaints were decades old, when typically the charges would have been considered too old to bring to trial. But through a quirk in the law, Wayne County prosecutors charged Olszewski and Sigler because both men left Michigan before the 6-year statute of limitations had expired on their cases.

In August, Duggan's office brought charges involving sex abuse with minors against four men who had worked as priests in the Detroit area. Three have now been convicted.

Olszewski's lawyer said his client was unjustly convicted and would press for a new trial or appeal. The trial in Wayne County Circuit Court was marked by starkly differing testimony, and Olszewski maintained his innocence, contending his accuser, Albert Green, lied and wanted money. The 69-year-old priest faces up to 10 years in prison after being convicted on four counts of indecent liberties with a child. He was acquitted of four counts of sodomy.

A plea agreement will send Jason Sigler to jail, decades after he avoided imprisonment despite numerous past allegations of abusing boys that caused a New Mexico diocese to pay out millions in settlements.

Sigler, 64, pleaded no contest in Wayne County Circuit Court to charges that he molested a River Rouge cousin in 1965 and an altar boy he met in 1975 at St. Mary Magdalene in Hazel Park.

The Rev. Robert Burkholder, a retired Catholic priest, spent 30 days in jail last month for molesting a child in the 1980s. A fourth man, former priest Harry Benjamin, faces trial in January.

"I expect by January, the church scandal will be completely behind us" in Wayne County, Duggan said.

David Clohessy, the cofounder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, credited Wayne County prosecutors for a "can-do attitude, not a throw-up-your-hands-and-give-up attitude" in prosecuting abusive priests.

The priests' convictions, said Clohessy, "should serve as a signal to survivors that, long after the fact, if you gather the strength and courage to come forward, justice is sometimes a possibility."

The jury in Olszewski's case deliberated for 3 1/2 hours.

Green, 44, who testified that the priest molested him for years beginning in 1971, said he learned about Olszewski's conviction from noon television newscasts, which he watched accompanied by a hotel maid. Green testified that Olszewski molested him when Green and two brothers lived at St. Cecilia rectory in Detroit while their mother was ill.

Green's life has been plagued by drug addictions, run-ins with the law and homelessness. During the trial, prosecutors blamed it all on the abuse.

Green said he expects to file a civil lawsuit against the Catholic Church.

Juror Paula Rodriguez, 19, said jurors were initially split, 6-6.

"When we sat and looked at the evidence there was enough to know something must have happened," she said.

She said jurors believed Green and his brother, Reginald Green, who corroborated that Albert Green often slept in the priest's bed in the rectory. She said she also thought it was incriminating that Albert Green, a young teen, would sit on the priest's lap.

Albert Green said he felt vindicated by the convictions.

"I can't help what happened. I still care for him. I still love him," he said of the priest, whom he stayed in touch with until two years ago.

"But my life was ruined. I wanted the shoe to be on the other foot," Green said. "I wanted him to know what it was like in my life to be in trouble with the law, to see what it's like to be with nothing."

Olszewski declined comment. His lawyer, S. Allen Early, said he believed the jurors unfairly penalized the priest for not taking the witness stand to defend himself and that a new witness has come forward.

Olszewski's sentencing was set for Jan. 30. Prosecutors will push for significant jail time.

The priest, who left Detroit in 1976, was a pastor at St. Justin parish in Key Largo, Fla., until this spring, when Green came forward. Olszewski was placed on administrative leave from the Archdiocese of Miami and is not allowed to work as a priest.

"It is a difficult time for all involved and affected by the crisis in the Catholic Church," Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the Miami archdiocese, said Wednesday.

Sigler, a native of River Rouge, left the priesthood more than 20 years ago, after he was implicated in more than a dozen abuse cases in New Mexico, where he served as a priest.

His no-contest plea on Wednesday was not an admission of guilt, but he agreed to jail time. He will be formally sentenced Jan. 16.

Sigler, who still lives in New Mexico, choked back tears. Sitting behind him was one of his victims, a 40-year-old Florida firefighter who was a teenage altar boy when Sigler molested him in 1975.

The firefighter, who asked that his name not be revealed, said Sigler would take him to a relative's home in River Rouge and perform oral sex on him. As a young boy, he stayed silent because he was "ashamed, embarrassed, scared."

He said he came forward this fall when he read Sigler's name in a Florida newspaper and told himself "it was time" to tell what happened.

Sigler declined comment Tuesday. But Joe Maher, a Detroit businessman who has founded a support group for accused priests, accompanied him to court. Maher said the former priest has been married for 20 years, has worked regularly and goes to mass daily.

Maher said Sigler told him he didn't try to hide from his past. Maher called the plea bargain "a just resolution."

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