An eight-month investigation by Wayne County prosecutors into complaints of sexual misconduct by priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit ended Tuesday with a former priest pleading no contest to molesting a 14-year-old boy nearly two decades ago.
Harry Benjamin, 61, who was defrocked in 1989 after a complaint was made to the church against him, was scheduled to go on trial Tuesday. He was facing four counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. Each charge carries a 15-year prison term upon conviction.
Instead Benjamin, who now lives in Virginia, agreed to end the case by admitting guilt to one of the counts. In exchange, prosecutors dropped the other three counts against him and agreed to allow Benjamin to enter the no-contest plea on the record.
Assistant Prosecutor Douglas Baker said Benjamin will spend a year in the Wayne County Dickerson Jail and four years on probation. He will serve the full 12 months and will not be granted an early release because of overcrowding at the jail, Baker said.
“For the Archdiocese of Detroit, as far as further prosecutions are concerned, the nightmare is over,” Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan said. “There is no doubt kids in the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Detroit are safer today than they were a year ago.”
David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said while Wayne County prosecutors generally have been more assertive and creative in seeking justice for victims, the lenient sentences were troubling.
“It’s crucial to remember molesters virtually never stop regardless of their age, so the short sentences are certainly of concern to us,” Clohessy said. “It’s also important that people realize that jailing abusers is not about vengeance, it’s about protection.”
He scoffed when told of Benjamin admitting guilt to one of the charges, but being allowed to enter a no-contest plea so he won’t be sued.
Church leaders were relieved to hear that the investigation had ended.
“The archdiocese cooperated with civil authorities in this matter and respects the results of the process that followed,” spokesman Ned McGrath said. “And while there is a resolution of the case at hand, the archdiocese recognizes this is a sad and difficult time for everyone involved.”
Duggan said Benjamin was the last of four priests who were criminally charged in the investigation. One was found guilty by a jury, and the cases against the others ended on pleas by the priests.
Clohessy said the 30-day jail sentence one of the four received was hurtful to some survivors. Robert Burkholder, whom Duggan labeled as one of the worst pedophiles in Michigan, was allowed to plead no contest to two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, he said.
Duggan praised the Detroit archdiocese for fully cooperating with his office to expedite the investigation. He pointed out that while similar cases grind on slowly around the country, the Detroit church leaders helped prosecutors by turning over all files and information on 37 complaints against priests dating back 15 years.
Duggan said his office looked into sexual-misconduct allegations against 58 priests involving more than 140 victims. Of that group, 23 were dead.
In addition to the four who were charged, five others were falsely accused and cleared of wrongdoing, Duggan said.
The remaining 26 cases were past the statute of limitations and could not be prosecuted. But 23 of those priests were removed from the ministry or retired. Two others are still in the church but in other states. Duggan said his office has sent its findings to church leaders in those states.
The one remaining case is that of a Wayne County parish priest who will either be cleared or removed from the church in the next few weeks, Duggan said.
Clohessy said children need further protection against predators.
“These cases also underscore the importance of extending or eliminating the statute of limitations because kids would be safer, and these men would be locked up longer if the prosecutors had a more effective tool,” Clohessy said.