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Church To Divulge Sex Abuse

Apr 26, 2002 | The Detroit News

In what is considered the most sweeping pact of its kind in the nation, the Archdiocese of Detroit agreed Thursday to share with prosecutors all complaints of sexual abuse by clergy it has received in the past 15 years.

The deal, signed with prosecutors from the six counties that make up the Detroit Archdiocese, calls for the Catholic Church to disclose all allegations -- even those made by adults -- and it releases victims from the terms of past confidentiality agreements in lawsuits against the archdiocese.

The agreement forms a "zero-tolerance policy," something the nation's clergy resisted during an unprecedented meeting about the sex scandal this week at the Vatican. U.S. bishops will likely try again to craft a comprehensive reporting policy during their June meeting in Dallas.

"We do this willingly because we want to eliminate any perception that we are trying to hide or protect those who may have acted criminally," said Msgr. Walter Hurley, who signed the agreement for the archdiocese. "We want to restore any trust in the church that may have been lost" in the nationwide scandal.

Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan promised his office would thoroughly review every allegation of abuse by clergy.

"We are going to independently investigate every single allegation in Wayne County," said Duggan, who, like most of the prosecutors in the agreement, is Catholic. "If criminal charges can be brought within the statute of limitations, they will be brought. If there are no charges, we will make that statement to the public as well. However it all comes out, the church is going to come out a lot stronger as a result."

The Detroit agreement could defuse pressure on the local Catholic Church, which like others across the nation, has faced months of scrutiny for how it handles complaints of priests molesting children and adolescents.

It comes a day after American cardinals in Rome announced policies to defrock priests "notorious and guilty" of abusing minors.

The sexual-abuse scandal ignited in Boston but quickly swept across the nation, including Michigan with its large Catholic population. The Archdiocese of Detroit serves about 1.5 million Catholics.

Howard Biglin, 64, of Bloomfield Hills, is a salesman who was an altar boy when he grew up in Detroit, said the church had no choice but to turn over the records.

"It's a culmination of a volcano. This thing has been brewing for a long, long time," Biglin said. "Circumstances warrant this. I don't think the Catholic Church had a choice. They had to do this and it was the proper thing to do -- and I say that with some sadness. You do what has to be done."

Rosemary Schimizzi, 51, of Dearborn, also approves of the agreement.

"I feel a lot better if they do turn over the files," Schimizzi said. "This is something the Catholic Church should have turned over to the proper authorities long ago. They should not have shifted the priests from parish to parish."

The prosecutors for Macomb and Oakland counties said they hope the sharing of information will help heal wounds caused by the scandal.

"We are not as prosecutors antagonistic toward forgiveness, but we see that in the spiritual realm, which is separate from what we do. We have to treat these cases as we would any other case," said Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga, who called the agreement a "zero-tolerance policy."

"There will be a tremendous healing coming out of this process," said Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca. "It will show a new way of how the legal community and the church community can work together."

Michigan Atty. Gen. Jennifer Granholm consulted on the agreement and said it should become a model for the rest of the state.

Duggan predicted that other bishops will resist the Detroit agreement, considering it overly broad. Hurley declined to comment about how other dioceses should handle the crisis.

The church will hand over its files on sexual-abuse complaints by May 3, under the terms of the three-page agreement. Church officials also will report future complaints immediately to police, prosecutors and the state's Family Independence Agency.

Church officials also will continue to do their own investigations of complaints.

The records are shared under a standing investigative subpoena, which means people accused of misconduct will only be identified if charged.

The agreement was modeled after a similar one drawn up in Massachusetts, but it is believed to be more stringent because it discloses alleged criminal sexual conduct against adults and shares papers gathered in lawsuits as well.

The importance of complaints involving adult victims is underscored by the only charge filed in Wayne County so far, which claims Fr. Komlan Dem Houndjame sexually assaulted a woman while he served at Assumption Grotto in Detroit.

"This reporting requirement does not pertain to information ... disclosed to a priest during a confessional communication," the agreement notes.

Hurley said the church will turn over all complaints received in the past 15 years, though some allegations date to the 1940s and involve priests who are dead.

Some of the files include complaints that resulted in priests or deacons being removed from the active ministry, Hurley said. "Many of these are currently part of the public record," he said.

Four Michigan priests are among dozens nationwide who have left parishes recently because of sex-abuse allegations. But the Archdiocese of Detroit has consistently declined to publicly detail the amount or nature of all such complaints against priests in Metro Detroit.

Michigan priests who have stepped down recently amid sex-abuse allegations include:

* The Rev. Gerald Shirilla, 63, resigned from an Alpena parish, years after he admitted in a sex abuse lawsuit that he had massaged a boy's chest and legs.

* The Rev. Vincent DeLorenzo, 63, resigned from a parish near Flint in January and told parishioners in a letter that he had "inappropriate sexual contact with a minor."

* The Rev. Dennis D. Duggan, 54, stepped down from two Detroit parishes, the same day the archdiocese received a sexual abuse allegation against him.

* The Rev. Gary Bueche, 57, resigned from a Washington Township parish because of a decades-old sexual misconduct allegation.

Duggan's office has received about 15 complaints since the scandal gained attention. Michigan's six other dioceses will review the agreement and could sign similar arrangements with law enforcement agencies across the state. For now, it applies only in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Monroe, St. Clair and Lapeer counties.

Michigan has statutes of limitation in criminal sexual conduct cases and that may mean substantiated investigations will not result in charges. Last year, the state abolished time limits in rape cases. In other sex crimes, the state has 10 years or until the victim turns 21 to file charges, whichever comes last.

Because the time limits changed twice since 1988, Duggan and the prosecutors restricted themselves to complaints filed in the past 15 years.

"In Detroit, we've had a policy since 1988," Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida told WJR radio Thursday from Rome. "It's been revised on two occasions and now we're going through another revision in which we would hope to strengthen and do it in such a way that we'll root out all the abusers in the priesthood.

"What has happened 30, 40 years ago is difficult for me to correct. But what happens in the future is pretty much my charge," he said.

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