In the Catholic priesthood, Jason Sigler said he sought to heed a calling from God and to find the dignity and respect he never felt as a child from parents who neglected and abandoned him.
His Detroit-area victims said in court Thursday that he perverted the priest’s role, misusing it to befriend them and win their families’ trust while secretly sexually abusing them.
The former Catholic priest went to jail Thursday in Detroit, the first time he has been incarcerated for sexually abusing minors, though his notorious history as a predator resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements in New Mexico and an expose on CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes.”
In an interview with the Free Press a few hours before he was led away by a sheriff’s deputy, Sigler said he prays daily for his victims and for their forgiveness, and said he himself had been sexually abused as a child by male relatives.
“I’ve lived in the prison of my own life for 64 years. I have lived a life of hell, of shame and degradation,” he said. “I’ve asked God for forgiveness and for peace. I believe now that I’m going to jail, I will now perhaps have peace. I would hope that anybody who has been harmed by me in any way will experience the mercy, the forgiveness, the compassion of God.”
Sigler, a River Rouge native who worked at parishes in Jackson, Flushing and Hazel Park, later apologized to his victims during his sentencing before Wayne County Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny.
He will spend a year in the Dickerson jail in Hamtramck, the result of a December plea agreement to charges that he molested a relative in River Rouge in the 1960s and a Hazel Park altar boy in the 1970s. “I am truly sorry for what happened in the past and all the pain and suffering that has been caused to anyone,” Sigler said in court.
One of his victims addressed the court.
The Wayne County man, now 51, said he was one of eight brothers of a Catholic family who were “taught to honor, respect and obey” priests, including Sigler, who is his mother’s first cousin.
Sigler would end a friendly visit with the man’s parents in River Rouge “by excusing himself to go upstairs to bless the boys,” the man said. Instead, Sigler molested him several times over three years, he said.
“This unquestionable reverence allowed Jason Sigler to steal my innocence, my dignity and my soul. I am here today to reclaim them,” the man said.
“His true punishment will come when he one day meets his maker. There will be no lawyers, no deals, no statute of limitations only true justice.”
The man’s father told the court that Sigler also abused another son.
“You forced yourself on these little innocent boys,” he said. “You are a disgrace, I have nothing but contempt for Mr. Sigler.”
The Free Press is not identifying the victim or his father under a general policy of not naming people who say they are victims of sex crimes.
After his release, Sigler will be on probation and have to register as a sex offender. He may face additional charges in Genesee County, where prosecutors have investigated abuse allegations dating to 1975, when Sigler lived at St. Robert Bellarmine parish in Flushing.
Sigler said he has lived a quiet, reserved life in New Mexico for 20 years, with a woman he married after leaving the priesthood. He said he was “cured of my illness” after extensive therapy through a program at the University of New Mexico and steady counseling over the years.
“I’ve had no contact with young people for 20 years. I do not allow myself to be alone unsupervised. I will never be accused again,” Sigler said. “I believe that I am not a threat. But I will not be put in the position where I could be accused.”
The Sigler case mirrors, in many ways, the cascade of clergy sex abuse revelations that have convulsed the Catholic Church in the last 12 months.
In the early years of his priesthood, Sigler’s record of misconduct with minors became known to his superiors in several dioceses, including the Diocese of Lansing, where he served parishes in Flushing and Jackson, and in New Mexico and Canada.
His behavior wasn’t treated as a crime but as a moral failing, he said.
At least three times, Sigler said, he was sent away for retreats or treatment and reassigned to new parishes.
“The belief 30 years ago was this was a moral issue, and prayer and retreat and reflection would resolve it,” Sigler said.
After his 1966 ordination in Winnipeg, Sigler spent two years at a Jackson parish but was sent away when a family accused him of molesting their son. He spent the next several years in New Mexico, interrupted by a brief return to the Lansing Diocese in the mid-1970s.
While in New Mexico, he was sentenced to probation on a criminal charge and faced several civil suits over alleged abuse of minors. The Santa Fe archdiocese paid millions of dollars in settlements.
In Michigan, most of the decades-old allegations involving clergy sex abuse can’t be prosecuted because they happened so long ago, exceeding the six-year statute of limitations. But Sigler’s case was an exception, because the clock stopped when he moved away from Michigan.
Using that quirk in the law, Wayne County prosecutors brought charges in August against four men who worked as priests in metro Detroit. Sigler became the second of the four to be jailed in Michigan in recent months for crimes committed decades ago.
The Rev. Robert Burkholder spent 30 days in jail in November for molesting minors. The Rev. Edward Olszewski is to be sentenced later this month after a Wayne County jury convicted him in January of abusing a boy in the 1970s.
The fourth man, former priest Harry Benjamin, faces trial this month on abuse charges.
Sigler would not discuss any specific allegations by victims, either in Michigan or in multiple incidents in New Mexico in the 1970s.
Sigler said he was raised by an aunt and uncle after being neglected by his parents. At age 11 months, he said, his aunt and uncle visited his home to find him malnourished and “in a wet, dirty crib, crying and hungry.”
“My aunt said to my mother, ‘If it was my baby, I’d take care of him,’ and she said, ‘Take him if you want,’ ” Sigler, choking back tears, said in the interview with the Free Press. “At least with them, I was fed and loved and clean.” But he said there were incidents of sexual abuse by male relatives.
After graduation from Our Lady of Lourdes High School in River Rouge, Sigler entered the seminary.
“I really felt called by God. It was a life where I thought I could have dignity and respect,” he said.
Mental health professionals say most sex abusers were also abused as children.
Sigler has been aided in recent months by Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a Detroit-based group founded by Catholic businessman Joseph Maher that has provided legal help and expenses for accused priests. Maher accompanied Sigler to recent court appearances and was with him Thursday.
“I want to say the cycle of sexual abuse can be broken,” Sigler said.
Sigler said he will use his year in jail as “a time of spiritual retreat.”
“I hope that I can be an example to others in jail of the mercy and goodness of Christ.”