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Bishops' Policy May Be Tested By Priest's Case

Jun 20, 2002 | Detroit Free Press

Sometime soon, with a new national policy against sex abuse in hand, Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida must decide what to do about the Rev. Dennis Laesch.

Laesch, 47, was accused five years ago of getting a 17-year-old boy drunk and sexually assaulting him in a cottage near Port Huron.

The priest denied it, insisting they played Nintendo that evening. No criminal charges were filed. And Maida kept Laesch on the altar -- indeed, the cardinal promoted him in 2000 to pastor of St. Alfred Church in Taylor.

Laesch's case was neatly closed.

But a closer look by the Free Press, in interviews and a review of police documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, unearthed disturbing details that could lead to Laesch's permanent removal from the altar.

The lead investigator in the case told the Free Press recently he believes the boy's story that he was coerced to have sex. "If they're going to say zero tolerance, I think there's enough evidence there that it happened," said Paul Cowley, who investigated the case for the Sanilac County Sheriff's Department.

Cowley also found records he says corroborated the boy's claim the priest bought him pornographic movies at an adult bookstore before the alleged assault.

Investigators scheduled a lie-detector test for Laesch, but he refused to take it, according to police reports. Laesch could not be reached for comment for this report. His attorney, Jerome Fenton, declined to comment.

Maida's handling of the Laesch case points up the stark change in church policy enacted by the nation's Catholic bishops in Dallas on Friday. Until then, bishops had leeway with accused priests to weigh many factors, including whether sex with 17-year-old youths might have been legally consensual and whether physical contact was proven.

The new policy makes it clear that any sexual involvement with a minor -- even providing pornography -- is grounds for ending a priest's career.

And it doesn't get any easier for Maida. Laesch's denial of wrongdoing highlights a major flaw in the policy. Bishops didn't specify how they will determine whether an accusation is believable.

An unexpected calling

Laesch was not your average candidate for the priesthood.

He was older than most students -- 36 when he entered the seminary in 1990. He is a former two-term city councilman in Eastpointe. He also is a lawyer, and in the late 1980s, he worked for a year as an assistant prosecutor in Macomb County. Later, he ran a private practice specializing in criminal defense and divorce.

In a 1990 Free Press article, even Laesch indicated his surprise at his sudden calling.

"I have not lived a bad life," he said, "but it hasn't been priestly, exactly. I'd go out and party with the best of them."

His new vocation shocked those he knew, he said, but "if they expect me to be any less crazy and impetuous, they're going to be mistaken."

Three years later, as a student at Detroit's Sacred Heart Seminary in 1993, Laesch interned for one year at St. Raphael School in Garden City. There, he befriended a 13-year-old seventh-grader.

(The youth, now 22, agreed to be interviewed for this report, but asked that his name not be used. The Free Press generally does not publish the names of alleged sexual-abuse victims without their consent.)

In Laesch, the boy found someone to confide in and someone to admire. The boy wanted to be a fireman -- or maybe a priest. He hung around Laesch at the school and shared his thoughts about classes, girls, problems and dreams.

Years later, when Sanilac County sheriff's deputies asked Laesch in a recorded interview to describe his relationship with the boy, he said:

"I'm sure he thought we were buddies or something like that. I found him kind of a pest. But I am there as a minister, so I give the kid a sympathetic ear and try to talk to him."

In August 1994, the boy's family moved to Kentucky, where life grew more difficult. His grandmother died. He was injured in a car wreck. He attempted suicide, according to an investigator's report.

His mother told detectives that he spent 30 days in a detention center after threatening to kill a court employee in a dispute over traffic tickets.

But the boy said he kept in touch with Laesch, and when the family moved back to Michigan in March 1997, he called the priest at St. Andrew Church in Rochester, where the rookie priest was assigned as associate pastor.

The alleged abuse
The boy said they talked about having coffee soon, but weeks passed.

By spring, though, they agreed to meet, and decided on a June 4 overnight trip to Laesch's parents' cottage in Lexington, near Port Huron.

The boy said Laesch told him another friend would come along, but that friend never showed.

In his interview with detectives, the boy said this is what happened next:

In Port Huron, they stopped about 5:30 p.m. for dinner at a restaurant, with Laesch treating. After, they headed to Blockbuster video and rented the R-rated "The People vs. Larry Flynt."

In his interview with police, Laesch confirmed the movie rental, but from this point on, their stories differ.

The boy told detectives that Laesch next asked if he would like to get "more adult-type" movies. They stopped at an adult bookstore and strip club called Deja Vu, where the priest bought two pornographic videos, one of which was titled "Switch Hitter" and featured gay sex. He also bought a pack of playing cards with nude women on them and gave all the items to the boy as gifts, the boy said.

Sheriff's investigators obtained the two movies and cards from the boy as evidence. Detective Cowley said in a recent interview with the Free Press that he verified that the purchases were made at Deja Vu, roughly a half-hour after Laesch had admitted being at the Blockbuster store.

From the adult bookshop, the boy said, they stopped at a liquor store, where Laesch bought a pint of Jack Daniel's whiskey and a six-pack of Zima, a malt liquor.

"I was like, well, that's pretty cool, you know? Party with a priest," the boy told detectives.

They went to the cottage, and the boy said he began drinking the whiskey as they watched the Larry Flynt movie. He said he downed the whole pint before the movie was halfway through.

Laesch then put in one of the pornographic movies and offered the boy a Zima, the boy said. He began drinking those and before long, "I was totally blown out. . . . Everything was wobbly."

The priest came over and put his hand on his leg and started groping his crotch, the boy told detectives. The boy said he tried to protest but was too drunk.

Laesch picked him up by the belt and carried him into a bedroom, the boy said. There, he unzipped the boy's pants and performed oral sex on him, the boy told police.

"I was trying to say no and I was trying to, like, throw a punch at him or push him away but I couldn't get my arm up off the bed. . . . I couldn't move my arms or nothing," he told police later in a recorded interview. "I was just so intoxicated."

The priest then forced himself onto the boy for oral sex, the boy said in the police interview.

Afterward, Laesch went to sleep in another room. The next morning, the priest proposed taking a shower together and he declined, the boy said.

They drove home.

The broken silence
The boy said he kept quiet for nearly two months. But near the end of July, there was another incident. He and friends were returning from a trip up north. They had no money and the car was running out of gas. He stopped at St. Andrew in Rochester to ask Laesch for money.

He said the priest called him upstairs to give him $20 and grabbed him inappropriately and tried to kiss him.

Three days later, on July 30, 1997, the boy and his mother went to police.

Cowley, who is now police chief in Sandusky, interviewed the boy and Laesch.

In a transcript of his interview with Cowley, Laesch said he never molested the boy. He denied taking him to the adult bookstore or buying pornographic material there. And he said he did not provide alcohol to the youth. He said they spent the night eating pizza, watching the Larry Flynt movie and playing video games. He also said he assumed the boy was 18.

Cowley said Wednesday he believes the boy's account.

"I definitely believe that it happened, yes. The priest lied about the stuff at Deja Vu," said Cowley, who said he has investigated child abuse and sex abuse for 26 years. "There's no doubt the priest went over and bought that stuff."

But Cowley also said he does not disagree with Sanilac County Prosecutor Jim Young's decision in 1998 not to pursue charges against Laesch because the case is not clear-cut.

Another investigator said that, in a lengthy interview, the boy admitted the sex between himself and Laesch was consensual.

The boy denied making that statement in a follow-up with Cowley, and he did the same in an interview with the Free Press last week. But if there was sex between the boy and the priest -- even if consensual -- it violates the bishops' charter approved last week.Maida would have to decide whom to believe, the boy or priest.

Even back when the allegation was made, though, the church showed some support for the boy. The archdiocese paid for his counseling and gave him $125,000.

Laesch maintained his innocence, and church leaders did not discipline him, archdiocesan spokesman Ned McGrath said Wednesday.

In 2000, Laesch was promoted to pastor of St. Alfred.

In May, after Maida ordered a review of past complaints involving priests, Laesch was put on temporary leave. Msgr. Walter Hurley, Maida's representative in the church scandal, said the church would ask for another review of the case by Young, the prosecutor.

Last week, Young said again that he will not charge Laesch.

McGrath said Wednesday that Laesch's status is still under review. Maida will decide whether to welcome the priest back into the fold or remove him permanently from public ministry under the new rules.

"In light of the charter, we're going to have to look at this a little more intently and maybe even differently," McGrath said.

Laesch's supporters at St. Alfred have asked for his return.

The church sits off Telegraph Road in Taylor.

The young man who accused Laesch didn't know the priest was working there, but he was shocked when he found out.

He can see St. Alfred from his front yard.

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