Michigan police are investigating a new sex abuse claim against a notoriously abusive priest — a man who once avoided criminal charges here in 1970 by agreeing never to return.
But Father Jason Sigler did return. And now, a 40-year-old Macomb Township man claims Sigler repeatedly abused him in 1975 when the priest briefly lived in the rectory at St. Robert’s Parish in Flushing, near Flint.
“I’m taking the action I should have taken as a 13-year-old boy,” said Tony Otero, a General Motors Corp. engineer who recently told police Sigler initiated sex acts with him. “I’m doing it because I’m so proud of all the other people who have come forward.”
Sigler left the Diocese of Lansing in 1970 to seek treatment at a special center for priests in New Mexico. After his release from the center, he worked in New Mexico parishes and later acknowledged sexually abusing at least 17 boys there in the 1970s and 80s. He pleaded guilty to a 1983 sex charge and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe paid at least $13 million to settle more than 20 sex abuse lawsuits against him. Sigler also was featured last month on CBS’s 60 Minutes in a story about abusive priests.
Nine Michigan priests have resigned this year as part of the Roman Catholic Church’s national sex abuse scandal. The latest allegation against Sigler offers two new twists:
Unlike other decades-old abuse allegations, this one could result in charges. Flushing Police are actively investigating Sigler. The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that the state’s 10-year statute of limitations on sex crimes doesn’t apply in cases where defendants have moved out of state. Sigler is believed to have lived in New Mexico for most of the past 30 years. Efforts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.
Church officials offer little explanation why Sigler was allowed to live in the Flushing parish after agreeing to never return to the Diocese of Lansing. A diocese official warned of Sigler’s past a year before the priest came to Flushing.
Encounters long ago
Jason Sigler lived at St. Robert’s in Flushing for about eight months, beginning in October 1974, according to Diocese of Lansing records. At that time, Cuban immigrant Antonio Otero was a rising GM engineer and a devout Catholic. He recalls welcoming Sigler into his Flushing home for coffee and evening visits.
“For us to bring a priest home, it was like bringing God into your home,” Otero said.
The Oteros recall that Sigler came to dinner after their youngest daughter’s first communion.
That night, the family claims, Sigler wanted 13-year-old Tony to accompany him on an after-dinner visit to see a friend. Tony alleges the trip was to a parish rectory in Metro Detroit, where Sigler took him into a bathroom and sexually assaulted him. It was one of a number of sexual encounters between Sigler and the boy that spring, Tony claims.
The boy didn’t tell anyone about the alleged encounters at the time and kept the story a secret until telling his parents in 1987.
“You feel like a fly in a spider web,” Tony said. “My parents idolized this man. I couldn’t tell my parents. There was tremendous fear in telling them.”
The Catholic Church acted on other sex abuse complaints against Sigler long before he arrived at the Flushing parish.
Sigler was a priest at St. John the Evangelist in Jackson, Mich., from October 1968 to March 1970. He left the Jackson parish for a New Mexico treatment center, where he and many other priests were sent for a variety of problems, including sexual disorders, according to press reports and Diocese of Lansing records.
A 1973 letter from Diocese of Lansing Chancellor James Murray to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe said Sigler “allegedly became involved in re turpi with some boys” in Michigan, according to court records. In re turpi is a Latin expression describing immorality.
Parents and prosecutors agreed not to prosecute at the time “on the condition that (Sigler) leave the Diocese and never return,” Murray wrote.
“To the best of my knowledge, the allegations had some basis in fact,” Murray wrote. “Father Sigler’s reaction was one of genuine humility and honesty. He evidenced a sincere desire to seek professional help in overcoming his problem.”
Despite that warning, Sigler served in various New Mexico parishes in the 1970s and 1980s, sandwiched around his brief time in Flushing. He received a deferred sentence in New Mexico in 1983, after pleading guilty to sexual penetration of a minor. In 1993, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and its insurance companies agreed to pay $13 million to settle sex abuse suits brought against Sigler by 17 young men, according to reports in the Albuquerque Journal.
The Diocese of Lansing now isn’t explaining why Sigler was allowed to return to Michigan in 1974, despite Murray’s alert the year before. Sigler made an agreement with Flushing priest John Fackler to serve “in residence” at St. Robert’s, so Sigler could care for his ailing parents in Flushing, according to a letter in Diocese of Lansing records.
An in-residence priest doesn’t have official duties, but lives in the parish rectory, said Michael Diebold, director of communications for the Diocese of Lansing. While the diocese didn’t officially approve the Flushing appointment for Sigler, Diebold acknowledged the priest shouldn’t have been there, given his previous record.
“I don’t know why they would allow Father Sigler back in the diocese,” Diebold said this week, after conferring with other diocese officials.
It’s an elusive question, 27 years later. Fackler and other church officials of that era are dead. Chancellor Murray, now bishop of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, the Otero family wants an answer. “They had knowledge and they brought him into a parish?” Antonio Otero asked. “Why would you take the risk? Why was his value as a priest more important than the risk of him molesting altar boys in the church?”
Diebold said the situation would not be repeated under the diocese’s current zero tolerance policy for sex abuse in the clergy.
“We’re not going to see the shuffling around from diocese to diocese anymore,” he said.
Otero’s troubled past
Tony Otero said he kept his secret for years and traveled what he now calls a very difficult road. He wanted to be an architect, but said he instead became a partner in the Stone Burlesk strip show on Woodward in Detroit. He fathered three children with three women. He wound up in rehabilitation for a cocaine addiction. And he was jailed on murder charges for five months in 1995.
Detroit Police initially claimed Otero killed a woman he met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Charges were dropped after bite marks and semen found on the victim did not match Otero.
Otero said he told his parents in 1987 that Sigler had abused him. His mother, Elva, said a priest in whom she confided told her only to get counseling. His father, Antonio, said he chose not to publicly confront the allegations then because he was embarrassed for his family.
With his life back on track, and building a new career at GM, Tony Otero said he is coming forward now to encourage other sex abuse victims to do the same.
Flushing Police and Genesee County prosecutors said it’s too early to say whether they will seek criminal charges against Sigler. In 1997, Genesee prosecutors imprisoned a former Flint band teacher, George Crear III, for life. Crear was extradited from Miami and convicted of misusing his authority to lead a 13-year-old girl into sex. The charges came some 14 years after the crimes, but the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled the clock stopped when he left Michigan.
If police seek a warrant against Sigler, the statute of limitations questions appear essentially the same as those in the Crear case, said Don Kuebler, an assistant Genesee County prosecutor who worked on the Crear case.
The Otero family has retained Flint attorney Jack Belzer, who said he plans to soon send a letter of demand — a preliminary step to a civil lawsuit — to the Diocese of Lansing. Belzer said he doesn’t yet know how much money he may seek.
“You dream up something and send it off,” he said. “It’s hard. What price do you put on robbing someone of their innocence?”
Antonio Otero insisted the family isn’t interested in money.
“We want to bring the Catholic Church to accountability,” he said. “We believe in God. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. We don’t believe in the Church.”