Archdiocese, AG spar over clergy abuse probe

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AG also asks MSU to hand over missing documents in Nassar probe

Attorney General Dana Nessel on Thursday asked Catholic churches in Michigan to halt an internal investigation into clergy sexual abuse and accused the state’s seven dioceses of making the attorney general’s investigation more difficult.

Dana Nessel after a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Feb. 19, 2019 | Ken Coleman

But the Archdiocese of Detroit denied Nessel’s assertions made at a press conference, which also included an update on Flint water prosecutions. The archdiocese said the attorney general’s office has not asked it to stop the internal inquiry, adding its probe is required by church law.

“We encourage all victims to report abuse directly to law enforcement,” the Detroit Archdiocese said in a statement. “When we learn of an allegation of sexual abuse of minors, we immediately notify law enforcement authorities, in accordance with the agreements we have had in place with them since 2002, when we shared past case files involving clergy misconduct and committed to turning over all new allegations regardless of when the alleged abuse occurred.”

On Thursday, Nessel urged the church to “stop self-policing” and said that parishioners confronted by investigators ought to “please ask to see their badge, not their rosary.”

In the statement, the Detroit Archdiocese said the Catholic church does not “self-police.”

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The attorney general also alleged that the church is encouraging parishioners to take settlements after instances of clergy sexual abuse and to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). As a result, victims of sexual abuse may believe they can’t or shouldn’t report anything to the police, Nessel said.

“And simply put, that’s not true. An NDA will not protect the church,” she said. “We can and we will follow the trail of abuse. And victims many of whom were abused years ago … deserve to be heard and their abusers deserve to be brought to justice.”

The attorney general said the case is “jarringly similar” to the office’s investigation into Michigan State University’s handling of former gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar, who sexually abused hundreds of young girls.

Both institutions pledged to cooperate with law enforcement “but have failed to deliver on those public promises” because the “two powerful institutions care more about protecting their brand than the people they serve,” Nessel said.

The Archdiocese in Detroit denied those allegations in a statement it released after Nessel’s press conference.

The church district said it encourages victims to report abuse to the police and “has not entered into any non-disclosure agreements, unless specifically requested by a survivor of abuse, as required by the Catholic Church in the United States.”

Dana Nessel at a Feb. 21, 2019 press conference in Lansing | Michael Gerstein

The statement continued, “Clergy with credible accusations against them do not belong in ministry. Since the Attorney General’s investigation began, the Archdiocese of Detroit has not received notification from that office regarding credible accusations against any of our priests. Should we become aware of such a complaint, we will act immediately.”

The Diocese* of Lansing, however, has removed or accepted resignations from five priests in 2018, the Lansing State Journal reported.

A statewide investigation into Catholic clergy abuse began under former Attorney General Bill Schuette and is continuing during Nessel’s term. The attorney general’s office has seized records after obtaining search warrants in all seven Michigan dioceses, which includes Detroit, Saginaw, Lansing, Marquette, Gaylord, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.

The Diocese of Lansing said in a statement Thursday that it continues to fully cooperate with the AG investigation and “welcomes the review of our handling of abuse cases.”

The statement said the church district knows “of no one active in ministry in our diocese who has abused a child” and that “the last known event of abuse of a minor occurred prior to 2002.”

Joseph Gasper

Hundreds of thousands of pages of documents were seized from the seven dioceses and are now being reviewed, according to the attorney general’s office.

Nessel’s office also is reviewing more than 300 sexual abuse tips and claims it has asked all seven dioceses to stop their own internal review process until the state investigation is over.

The AG’s office also urged victims to report abuse to law enforcement “rather than church officials” on its hotline at 844-324-3374 or www.michigan.gov/clergyabuse

Michigan State Police Director Col. Joseph Gasper said the investigation is “exceptionally complex and complicated,” but that law enforcement are seeking justice and “ensuring that we conduct a thorough and proper investigation.”

AG updates MSU Nassar probe

Nessel also gave an update on the investigation into MSU’s handling of sexual abuse allegations against Nassar.

The former MSU doctor was effectively handed a lifetime in prison after federal judge previously gave him 60 years in federal prison for also possessing about 37,000 images of child pornography, in addition to state charges.

Larry Nassar

The attorney general urged MSU to release more than 6,000 remaining documents she said the university declined to hand over, citing attorney-client privilege.

“The board of trustees has an obligation to act in the best interest of the people of this state, not MSU’s donors and not its brand image,” Nessel said.

She urged members of the board of trustees to voluntarily release the missing documents “if you really care and you’re really sincere about wanting complete transparency.”

Meanwhile, Nessel said her office’s multiple requests to interview former interim President John Engler have not resulted in a date so far, but they are still attempting to schedule one.

Engler, a Republican who served three terms as Michigan governor, resigned last month from MSU after repeatedly tangling with sexual abuse survivors. He took over from Lou Anna Simon, who resigned over the Nassar scandal and has since been charged with lying to police in the matter.

The board of trustees replaced Engler with former MSU administrator Satish Udpa, who issued a formal apology to survivors at last week’s board meeting.

The AG’s office announced it will additionally expand the investigation to include gymnastics coach John Geddert, the founder of Twistars — a Lansing-area gymnastics center where Nassar assaulted young girls.

Interim President of Michigan State University and former Michigan Gov. John Engler testifies July 24, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. | Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Danielle Hagaman-Clark will lead the investigation into Geddert and will also be part of the team working on the MSU and Catholic church investigations, the AG’s office said.

Geddert admitted last year to sexually abusing young girls, CNN reported. The investigation had been headed by Eaton County Undersheriff Jeffrey Cook until Nessel announced her office would now lead it.

The AG’s office additionally is reviewing documents related to former MSU Trustee George Perles after stories emerged that debt he owed may have been forgiven in exchange for his resignation from the board in 2018.

Nessel’s office also has served two MSU athletic trainers administrative complaints for allegedly offering false statements to investigators regarding their knowledge of Nassar’s abuse.

MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant did not immediately return an email request for comment from the Michigan Advance.

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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