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Spotlight on Priest Abuse in Michigan

Photos by Chloe Michaels

Since the Boston Globe published its series of stories exposing the sexual abuse of minors by priests and the cover up by the Boston Archdiocese, the Catholic Church has been under much scrutiny by both the public and the law. Most people have heard of the cases in Boston, yet few are aware of the magnitude of the issue and just how close to home it hits. The Academy Award winning film “Spotlight” has once again brought the issue to the public’s attention. Although over a decade has passed since the Boston Globe story broke, allegations against abusive priests are still being investigated, and not just in Boston.

In February of this year a report was filed against former priest Richard Lauinger for sexually abusing minors during his time in the priesthood right here in Michigan. Lauinger was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church in 1956 and served until 1975. During this time he served as an associate pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows, Farmington; Christ is King, Detroit; Shrine of the Little Flower, Royal Oak; St Eugene, Detroit, and was co-pastor at St. Margaret of Scotland, St. Clair Shores. In an article by Aftab Borka of the Oakland Press, former Farmington resident Judy Larson claimed that she had contacted the Archdiocese of Detroit in January about Lauinger. While attending Our Lady of Sorrows, Larson alleges that Lauinger raped her. She was only 10 years old at the time. Larson told Aftab, “He (Lauinger) told me then that nobody would believe me. I believed it all my life. And now there are people who are saying ‘We believe you.’ It’s like amazing to me because all my life I believed nobody would take me seriously.” The complaints have been found credible by the Archdiocesan Board of Review. However, the statute of limitations prevents prosecution of Lauinger even if there is evidence to support Larson’s allegations.

Currently in Michigan many victims of sexual abuse are denied the right to prosecute their abusers due to the statute of limitations. A statute of limitations places a limit on how long after alleged crimes were committed that charges can be placed. Under Michigan law, sex crimes against minors are categorized as first, second, third, or fourth degree, depending on their severity (first degree being the most severe). According to state law, the difference between first and second degree sexual conduct is that in first degree sexual conduct, the perpetrator “engages in sexual penetration with another person,” while in second degree, “the person engages in sexual contact.” The offence drops to third and fourth degree sexual conduct if the victim is 16 or older, or 13 or older with extenuating circumstances, with the difference between third and fourth degree depending on, again, whether sexual penetration was involved, or just sexual contact. Second, third and fourth degree sexual assault has a statute of limitations of 10 years or until the victim turns 21. As of 2001, the statute of limitations was removed on first degree sexual assault charges in Michigan in Public Act 6. However Public Act 6 was not retroactive and the statute of limitations still applies to incidents before 2001. Prior to passing Public Act 6, the statute of limitations for first degree sexual assault of a minor was six years.

Because victims of sexual assault sometimes take years to report the abuse, the statute of limitations prevents many cases from going to court. To gain more insight on this issue, the Mirror News reached out to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) Midwest Associate Director Judy Jones. SNAP is an organization that helps victims of priest abuse heal as well as spreads awareness about the issue to prevent further abuse. Jones shed light on the reasons why the statute of limitations has often expired by the time the victim reports the abuse:

“It takes years for victims of child sex abuse to come forward because they were a ‘child’ and perpetrators pick the most vulnerable who they know will keep their secret quiet. They feel ashamed and blame themselves. Many victims who did tell at a younger age were not believed. Victims also go through years of alcohol, drug abuse, broken marriages, etc before they get help and realize that what happened to them as a child was the reason for their problems. Many victims commit suicide because they feel helpless. I know of several victims in the late 80s who still are too ashamed to speak of it, or even tell their spouses.”

In addition to the vulnerability of the child and their inability to cope with the trauma, the manipulation by the abuser often plays a part in preventing the victim from speaking up. Jones explains, “They know every trick on how to groom, threaten, lie, and put the fear of God into their victims and sometimes even their family members.” The Archdiocese of Detroit Director of Communications, Ned McGrath, said in an interview with the Mirror News: “I know these kind of things happened here and I’m sure they happened in other dioceses; where someone would go home and tell their parents that something happened to them and regrettably the parents would get mad at the kid and say ‘Father is a great guy how dare you say something bad about Father.’ Thankfully, praise God, we don’t think that way anymore.”

Currently in the works is House Bill 4231, which would retroactively remove the statute of limitations for first degree criminal sexual assault of minors in Michigan. The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Representative Holly Hughes and Democratic Representative Pam Faris. If passed, this bill would allow people like Lauinger to be tried in court and held accountable for their crimes. However, similar legislation in California was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, due to the U.S. Constitution’s ex post facto clause which prevents laws from retroactively making things illegal. The case, Stogner vs California, was ruled unconstitutional in 2003 by a 5-4 vote. Hughes expects that if passed, the bill will end up in front of the Supreme Court but is hopeful for a different ruling than Stogner vs California because four out of the five justices that ruled against it are no longer on the court. Opponents of the bill, like Republican Representative Peter Lucido, are concerned about the bill because removing the statute of limitations may affect civil settlements between alleged victims of sexual assault and priests. He said, “Our children are first and foremost in this state and county ... but we do have some violations on constitutionality.” Houghs, however, disagrees saying, “We feel that anytime you have a child involved with something this serious, it should be retroactive. We can’t let their abusers get away with their crime simply because the abuse occurred before 2001.”

Since 2002, the Catholic Church has done its best to convince people that the culture within the dioceses which allowed the abuse and subsequent coverup to exist at such a large scale has been dismantled. In an article by Priyanka Boghani called, “What Pope Francis Has Done Differently in Tackling the Sexual Abuse Scandal,” Pope Francis is described as being remorseful while talking to the victims of sexual abuse. Boghani reports, “his language struck me as quite a reflection of guilt on his part on behalf of the hierarchy of the church,” and that he “begged for forgiveness rather like a sinner going to confession.” In addition to his apologies to the victims, Pope Francis also set up the Pontifical Commission For the Protection of Minors to issue guidelines for the Vatican on how to deal with child abuse.

Despite the Pope’s apologies to the victims, many are skeptical that any real change has occurred. Peter Saunders, a member of the Pontifical Commission, says that it’s a “token body” exercising in “smoke and mirrors.” Saunders is currently on a leave of absence from the group while he considers whether or not to continue with an effort that he says won’t help children stay safe from abusive priests. He said in an interview with International Public Radio, “I very quickly realized that I’m surrounded by a group of lovely, kind, caring people whose primary loyalty is to the church.” He went on to say, “The Church is basically corrupt.” According to him, new priests are still being taught that they are not required to report cases of child abuse by priests to the police. Also, after a year of investigating, GlobalPost reports that several priests accused of abuse in the United States and Europe have been transferred to South America where they continue to serve as priests in poor, remote parishes. Although Pope Francis is planning a visit to South America, International Public Radio reports that many are beginning to see his efforts to combat the sexual abuse within the church as “more cosmetic than concrete.”

Fortunately, the sexual abuse scandal in Boston has resulted in real changes to the policies of the Detroit Archdiocese here in Michigan. According to Ned McGrath, “When the Boston thing hit the news a lot of dioceses, including this one, decided it was time to retune the policy and the review process.” The Detroit Archdiocese has had a policy on the books for dealing with abusive priests since 1988, a policy that is reviewed and revised every few years. Several changes have been made to the policy to prevent more abuse from happening in the future. McGrath states, “As soon as we [Detroit’s Archdiocese] get a complaint we turn it over to the prosecutor. We didn’t start doing that automatically until 2002.” To help those who were abused by clergy members, a Victim Assistance Coordinator, who is a trained social worker, was hired to handle reports made by the victims. Victims are given as much time as needed with the Victim Assistance Coordinator, as well as counseling, paid for by the diocese. When dealing with allegations against priests, McGrath assures that “If this [the abuse] looks credible, whether we’ve [the diocese] proven it to a fault or not, the person is removed from ministry immediately.” Although changes have been made to help victims, as well as remove abusive priests within the Detroit Archdiocese, there still is no process for dealing with clergy that fail to report the abuse. When asked what steps are taken against those who cover up sexual abuse, McGrath stated, “I don’t think there’s a formal process on that, but, I mean, there’s certainly no encouragement of looking the other way when something like that happens.”

Although “there’s certainly no encouragement of looking the other way,” there is no punishment of those that do either. Archbishop John Nienstedt, who was accused of repeatedly ignoring reports of sexually degenerate priests in what is called one of the “ugliest clergy sex scandals in the country, at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis” is now in Battle Creek, Michigan. Nienstedt is reportedly helping out an ill friend, Father John Fleckenstein. He arrived in Battle Creek in January and plans on remaining till June. Many people are outraged at the transfer, including former Catholic priest and monk, Patrick Wall, who said “By John C. Nienstedt not stopping and reporting the perpetrators he was aware of ... he negates everything the Church stands for. Are not the same issues which caused him to resign as Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis the same issues to be reviewed for fitness to minister in Battle Creek?”

Upon the arrival of Nienstedt there was a blurb posted on the St. Philip’s Church Bulletin introducing him as a long time friend of Fleckenstein. The two met when Nienstedt served as Pastor at The Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak in the 1990s. The letter neglects to mention, however, the scandal in Minneapolis, and why Nienstadt stepped down. A week later, after news of his past hit the press, statements were issued by the pulpit and a packet was handed out after Mass which said the media’s characterization of him are “false allegations made over two years ago that have again resurfaced.” Former Archdiocese Chancellor Jennifer M. Haselberger resigned and went public in the fall of 2013 with allegations that the archbishop, along with his inner circle, covered up priests sexually abusing minors and funneled money to them. Haselberger told The New York Times that when she tried to warn the archbishop about abusive priests, “my concerns were ignored, dismissed, or the emphasis was shifted to what was best for the priest involved.” He has also been accused of homosexual relations with other priests. An article by the New York Times states that he allegedly had, “a series of inappropriate sexual relationships with men, including seminarians and priests he supervised, as he moved up the church’s hierarchy in Detroit and Minnesota.” Nienstadt denied all allegations, yet eventually stepped down, “in order for that local church to have a new beginning, not because I had done anything wrong.” As the Kalamazoo diocese points out in their defense of Nienstedt, he was not convicted of any crimes and is still in good standing within the church, despite all the allegations.

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, one of the main characters in “Spotlight,” discusses the continued abuse and coverup within the Catholic Church as well as the real life implications the film has had on victims of the abuse. In an interview for Here and Now, Robin Young asks Garabedian if the abuse is still going on. He states, “I have no doubt that it’s going on. You have an entity which is the most powerful in the world, most influential, has trillions of dollars, they’ve operated through secrecy for centuries.” He goes on to request a “fully independent entity investigating the church’s activities” and questions, “How can you possibly trust an entity that has allowed sexual abuse to occur for decades and centuries to be a watchdog over themselves?” Garabedian does not trust the church, telling Young that he was offered millions of dollars to get his clients to sign confidentiality agreements, which he declined. He states that “Any human being would want to expose this,” and despite the Catholic Church’s best efforts, he “was ready to go down with the ship” to expose the abuse. Garabedian goes on to call the Boston Archdiocese’s response to “Spotlight” a “PR stunt” and asks what Cardinal O’Malley has done to help victims. The film itself, however, has given many victims the courage to come forward about their abuse. “I’ve gotten many calls from victims who have seen the movie and it has helped empower them,” explains Garabedian. Overall, victims’ response to “Spotlight” was encouraging, especially after it won Best Picture in the Academy Awards. The victims of sexual abuse by priests no longer felt like they were alone. Though some victims couldn’t watch the movie for fear of triggers. Garabedian told Young that “I’ve also heard from victims say ‘I’m not ready to watch the movie yet, I can’t do it but I will watch it. I just can’t do it.’ Each victim has to proceed at their own pace.”

In the movie, “Spotlight,” Mitchell Garabedian’s character is quoted saying, “If it takes a village to raise a child it takes a village to abuse one.” Garabedian’s message would imply that although the changes that have been made by the Detroit Archdiocese and others like it in response to the publication of the sexual abuse of minors by priests by the Boston Globe have been a good start, the only way to truly prevent abuse in the future is for the entire community - clergy, legislature, law enforcement, and the general public - to work together to prevent it. The Catholic Church, from the Pope down, needs to create and enforce no tolerance policies for abusive priests and work on systemic changes instead of a superficial ones. Advocates for victims urge that sexual abuse must be reported to and acted on by the relevant authorities, with the general public working to keep them accountable. In Michigan, legislation such as House Bill 4231 would remove the statute of limitations for victims whose cases still need to be heard, including cases like those of Archbishop, John Nienstedt and former priest, Richard Lauinger. The Boston Globe’s investigations into sexual abuse by priests has shown that exposing these crimes can result in changes, but as the film, “Spotlight,” dramatized, it may be only through continued exposure and pressure by the general public that these changes can become meaningful, and our children can truly be protected.

Please contact: cmichaels1@hawkmail.hfcc.com if you have any questions about this story.

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