In the late 1960s, Bishop Foley High School in Madison Heights was abuzz with so many stories about the principal abusing boys that church officials were forced to take action.
But not against the Rev. Robert Haener, the accused principal.
Instead, several priests the students had never seen before swept into the school, pulled 30 boys out of class and put the fear of God into them for questioning Haener’s behavior.
“These guys were ticked, very ticked at us,” said Ray Cunningham, who now lives in Florida but was one of the stunned boys sitting in the room that day. “They scared the hell out of me, to be honest. They told us what we were doing was spreading rumors about Father Haener and that was a mortal sin and could lead to eternal damnation.
“They said, ‘Do not tell your parents, because that is further spreading the rumors.’ And they said, ‘Let’s stop it all right now. Father Haener’s a very nice man. You’re defaming him.”
Now, more than 30 years later, Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida finally has removed Haener and other priests accused of abusing minors from church-related jobs. In most cases, including Haener’s, Maida’s staff is discreetly saying the men are being put on leave or forced into retirement for “a credible allegation of sexual misconduct with minors.”
That’s not good enough, say Cunningham and dozens of other Catholics who have stepped forward in recent weeks to share painful stories of childhood abuse by men their families revered above all others: their priests.
For healing to take place, the full extent of the abuse needs to be aired, abusive priests should be defrocked and church officials should acknowledge the extent of their own role in the decades-long cover-up, said Tom Talbot of Waterford. He and his wife, Karen Dedenbach, are organizing a letter-writing campaign to Maida on behalf of local victims.
“The actual abuse was bad enough, but then there was the abuse of power that went on for years,”Talbot said. “For years, nobody worried about the victims. Teachers, parents, church officials — nobody. It was incredible.”
Talbot and Dedenbach were in Foley’s class of 1970 and are especially concerned about Haener, whom Maida ousted on June 21 as chaplain of Angela Hospice in Livonia.
They say the terse announcement by Maida’s staff about Haener’s misconduct was far from a proper acknowledgment of what Talbot, Dedenbach and others describe as Haener’s reign of terror in the 1960s and early 1970s. In that era, accusers say he psychologically and sexually abused numerousboys at two parishes and two Catholic schools.
“Because no one would listen to these kids, and it went on for so many years, this is just like it happened yesterday to so many people,” Dedenbach said.
Today, Haener, 70, lives in a tidy bungalow flanked by long rows of carefully tended red and white petunias in a retirement complex for priests in Livonia.
Church officials describe him as cooperative with Maida’s order that he quit working for the church and stop representing himself as a priest. But Haener has told reporters twice that he doesn’t want to discuss the past.
“I have nothing to say,” he said most recently when a reporter knocked on his door.
In 45 years as a priest at six parishes and two schools, Haener apparently never was arrested or sued on charges of abuse. In 1992, Maida removed him from St. Anthony in Temperance, when one person stepped forward with an abuse claim, but Haener later was allowed to work as a chaplain for eight years, said Msgr. Walter Hurley, Maida’s point man in the abuse crisis.
It was only after the nation’s Catholic bishops agreed in Dallas on June 14 to oust all priests with a record of abuse that Maida forced Haener out of the hospice.
Still angry after 40 years
If church leaders had listened to kids 40 years ago, Haener’s career would have been cut short, said Sgt. Kenneth Zalenski, an Allen Park police officer who was an altar boy in the early 1960s when Haener was associate pastor at St. Frances Cabrini in Allen Park.
“I’m still so angry that, if I ran into the man today, I’d punch him,” Zalenski said, describing a scenario that other men also say they experienced with the priest.
Haener targeted boys with impromptu confessions he held in his office or rectory, Zalenski and others say.
Craig Piechura of Waterford, an altar boy at St. Louise in Warren, where Haener worked part-time in the late ’60s, said, “In confession, he didn’t just hear your sins. He started doing this very strange third-degree and asked questions of a very sexual nature.”
Several men say Haener was fascinated with explicit details of masturbation.
Often the priest humiliated boys. “Basically, he belittled me,” said Talbot, who knew Haener as the principal of Bishop Foley High School in Madison Heights in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
“He told me he knew that I was a con artist and that nobody else knew what I was like, but he had me pegged. This was hard on a 17-year-old kid,” Talbot said.
At that point, Talbot and other boys bolted.
In some cases, though, “Haener made you kneel down in front of him and he’d squeeze his legs around you,” Zalenski said.
Cunningham said he submissively got down onto the floor. “Here was this massive authority figure: principal, priest, spiritual leader, physically powerful — the whole nine yards.
“And he knelt down over me and started rubbing my kneecaps, then started rubbing up my thighs, then” — Cunningham stopped and took a deep breath — “and then he started rubbing up between my legs to, to the point. I was speechless.”
In Zalenski’s case, Haener did not caress the boy’s genitals, “but what he did to me, squeezing his legs around me like that, it was absolutely criminal sexual conduct,” the police officer said.
Michigan statutes of limitation ran out long ago for Haener’s accusers. But they blame church staffers who did not shelter them.
Adults were silent
Adults must have known something was wrong, said Tom Lubinski of Troy, a Foley student in the ’60s who was large for his age.
When Haener “had me kneel down on the floor in his office . . . and was massaging my neck and got up close to me, I’m like: ‘Please stop! I don’t like this!’ ”
As Lubinski recalls the incident, he jumped up in shock and knocked the priest back over his desk. As he fled the office, a nun on the school staff looked into the doorway at the fallen priest.
Lubinski was sure that he would be accused of assaulting the priest, “but I never heard another thing about it.”
Other priests surely knew that Haener was touching children intimately, Piechura said. Haener never groped Piechura’s genitals, but with altar boys around the church, the priest openly “did this thing where he’d lift up a boy’s shirt and start slapping his belly and say, ‘It’s pink belly time!’ That didn’t feel right. . . . There were barriers he was crossing.”
Most of Haener’s colleagues from that era are dead or could not be located, but John Dulske coached football at Cabrini High School in the ’60s when Haener was the school’s dean of men.
Dulske said he is haunted by memories of the priest, who he said often argued with him about the football team.
The problem was that Haener required players to make a confession before they could play, “and I remember the boys would come back to me and say: What in the hell is wrong with this guy? They didn’t say anything about sexuality, but I remember they didn’t want to go to confession.”
Looking back, said Dulske, “It was a time when you went through some horrible things in your life, but you never talked about sex. It was not like we do things today.”
Some of Haener’s accusers say that his behavior simply taught them a bitter lesson about the hypocrisy that can be found even in the church. Others say they were deeply scarred.
Cunningham said Haener’s pursuit of him on two occasions led to paranoia, feelings of shame, drug abuse and eventually to therapy. “And, thank God, I have been healed of that stuff. I’m married now for 29 years and I’ve got four beautiful kids.”
But a key part of that healing is exposing dark shadows of the past, said Cunningham and other Haener accusers.
“The point is that this is much bigger than Haener,” said Dedenbach. “The point is the church has to quit protecting these guys.
“If these problems we experienced had only been taken care of at the time they happened, the problems never would have been as big as they are today.”