Updated 11:15 a.m.
Attorney General Dana Nessel has continued the investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church started by her predecessor, Republican Bill Schuette.
However, the response to the Democrat has been markedly more hostile from conservatives than when Schuette began the probe. That includes state Rep. Beau LaFave* (R-Iron Mountain), who accused Nessel of “anti-Catholic discrimination,” and Michigan Republican Party spokesman Tony Zammit, who wrote an op-ed.
In February, Nessel held a press conference giving updates on three big investigations involving sexual abuse at Michigan State University, the Flint water crisis and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Michigan.
At the news conference, 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.”
Many conservatives were outraged. Kelly Rossman-McKinney, Nessel’s communications director, said she personally received about 500 emails in response.
“Some of them were respectful and polite and just expressed their concern about that phrase, but a lot about it was just vile and hateful,” she said.
Nessel told the Advance that she has received many threats of violence, many of which are in response to the Catholic church investigation. Her office declined to give further details about the threats.
As Nessel is both Jewish and gay, the Advance asked if those factors were raised in any calls or emails the office received.
Rossman-McKinney said some people used the phrase, “You Jewish sodomite.”
“I get a number of those. There were a lot. I have gotten a lot of that,” Nessel added. “But I’m going to say this — whatever happens in regard to people’s comments to me, the homophobic remarks and anti-Semitic remarks, I got nothing on [U.S. Rep.] Rashida Tlaib.”
Tlaib, who was elected last year to represent the Detroit area, is one of the first Muslim women in Congress.
“The stuff that I have seen — I’ve gotten roped into her Twitter feeds more than once, only because … she supports me and she put my Twitter handle it and it automatically ropes you in, too,” Nessel said.
“And the stuff that I’ve seen on her Twitter feed, the Islamophobia. … I don’t know if there’s anything going on in this country that really rises to the level of the Islamophobia that I’ve seen. And I will say that having, of course, appointed the first Muslim-American solicitor general in American history, I’ve seen it towards Fadwa [Hammoud].* It just reaffirms my commitment to making certain that everybody feels safe and protected.”
Nessel has opened up a hate crimes unit in the AG’s office to investigate the rise in incidents in recent years, according to FBI statistics. Nessel has said that Muslim and Jewish communities, in particular, harbor safety concerns after mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and New Zealand mosques. That unit also has been criticized by conservatives.
Nessel said the point she made about the Catholic church’s internal investigations was critical, “whether it was artfully done or not.
“I think that it was really important that we make a certain point,” she told the Advance. “And I thought that that, that phrase, whether it was artfully done or not, really sort of made the point because we did see incidents where the church to be self policing and people thought, ‘Oh, well good, this matter is being investigated.’
“Well, it’s not really being investigated, because we certainly had cases after that press conference where — and I knew that this happened in one diocese in particular where we had a bunch of cases that were turned over to us within 48 hours after that conference. They were doing that; they were investigating on their own. And they were and really not letting people know like, ‘Listen, we’re not really the police here.’”
Rossman-McKinney added that “people still trust the church. So they were signing non-disclosure agreements. They were agreeing to settle months. They thought that because they signed a non-disclosure that couldn’t talk to law enforcement, which isn’t true.”
She said that the attorney general’s office got roughly another hundred calls from sexual abuse survivors after the news conference.
“Some people, they recognize that was well beyond the statute of limitations,” she said. “They just wanted somebody to know about it.”
Nessel said some people are “scarred for life.
“So all of these tips that we get and I think are incredibly important — even cases that we cannot criminally prosecute — we can make certain that those things don’t happen in the future,” she said. “And we are trying to find remedies to make certain that it doesn’t continue to happen.”
The AG said one of her goals is to find sponsors in the Legislature to reintroduce a bill that would prevent clergy from engaging in sexual relations with those in their congregations.
“We’ve seen instance after instance after instance where it technically doesn’t rise the level of criminal sexual conduct under the law, as it is right now,” she said. “But there’s a type of coercion that, if you’re a doctor or an attorney or a psychiatrist and you can’t have a sexual relationship with your client [or patient]. … It seems like it should fall under the same category.”
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud’s name.