SAGINAW, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Vatican is now intervening in the scandals currently wracking the diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, pressuring the bishop to oust various clergy. The bishop's leadership ability itself is being called into question.
"Bishops Cistone and his inner circle have far too much faith in themselves, and little faith in the Truth," one reliable inside source told Church Militant, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. "It would be best if the bishop would resign, so we can move forward with leadership that will confront the generations of destruction laid here by liberalism."
After Church Militant's reports exposing the alleged homosexual relationship between Director of Liturgy Fr. James Bessert and Deacon Jerome Green, a credible source confirmed that high-ranking officials in the Vatican intervened in May, pressuring Bp. Joseph Cistone to remove both men from their roles.
Church Militant broke the news on May 24 that Cistone had abruptly canceled Deacon Jerome Green's ordination to the priesthood, set to take place on June 1, and that his faculties had been suspended.
"Deacon Green has been relieved of his duties as Pastoral Administrator of St. Vincent DePaul Parish, Shepherd; and his faculties to minister as a deacon have been suspended while the matter is pursued," an internal email from Cistone reads.
The letter refers to "some unresolved issues dealing with a time before his coming to the Diocese of Saginaw." Reliable sources say this refers to a sex abuse allegation from Detroit. Further details remain unknown.
And on June 17, Church Militant reported that Bessert, Green's alleged homosexual partner, is being quietly removed from his role as director of liturgy, to be replaced by Sr. Esther Mary Nickel, RSM.
Bessert has been accused of covering up sexual assault by a former deacon in 2009. Bessert was also sent away for treatment at St. John Vianney Treatment Center in Pennsylvania, after reportedly being caught throwing a homosexual, drug-fueled orgy in the rectory of St. Mary Cathedral, when he was rector.
"Father Bessert asked to meet with me and requested that he be relieved of his position as Rector of the Cathedral," reads a November 2009 newsletter issued by Cistone. "Also, at his request, I have granted Father Bessert a period of time for personal health leave."
In spite of Bessert's history, not only did Cistone place him back in active ministry, he promoted him to the high-ranking position of director of liturgy, where he wielded his authority to promote questionable liturgical practices as well as quash the Traditional Latin Mass, in addition to allegedly carrying on active gay relationships.
"Father Bessert has a long history of homosexual relations with young men dating back to the time of Bp. Francis Reh," said one reliable source who has passed on accurate information to Church Militant in related matters. "At that time, Fr. Bessert was in residence at the bishop's mansion on Washington Avenue in Saginaw."
"Cistone reveals what he is through the priests he has promoted to high positions in the diocese," Ray McConnell, a longtime Saginaw parishioner, told Church Militant.
In addition to promoting men like Bessert and Green in spite of knowledge of their conduct, Cistone is also being accused of protecting longtime Saginaw priest Fr. Robert DeLand, currently facing criminal trial for multiple charges of sexual assault of young men.
"There was a constant stream of young men and boys coming and going, as well as parties that often left the rectory trashed," said Marlene Bethune, former housekeeper at Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in the 1990s, where DeLand was pastor. "On some weekends, he'd have several guys that stayed over."
Bethune told Church Militant she was "shocked" one Monday morning to find a "naked man" sleeping in Fr. DeLand's bed when she went in to clean. Although the information was reported, nothing was ever done.
Now Cistone faces a civil lawsuit filed by a 17-year-old victim of DeLand alleging gross negligence on the bishop's part, accusing him of "systematically and regularly minimizing reports of misconduct by employees, agents or representatives which created a climate whereby boundary violations and inappropriate sexual misconduct directed towards children" were allowed to continue.
The lawsuit also accuses Cistone of "removing or ignoring evidence of prior misconduct" and "failing to report instances of suspected child sexual abuse" to the appropriate authorities.
Father DeLand would "ask me to watch gay porn and masturbate to it and call him about it and tell him how it was," the 17-year-old testified during preliminary examinations in April.
According to Detective Brian Berg, the Tittabawasee investigator who spearheaded the undercover operation that ended in DeLand's February arrest, "After he learned that [about the victim's feigned homosexuality], every single conversation thereafter focused on gay sex, anal sex. He instructed him to go home every day and to watch gay porn, to masturbate, and to call him and tell him how it was."
Two other young men also took the stand during court hearings, one testifying that DeLand attempted to touch his genitals in the coatroom of St. Agnes Parish during a teen suicide memorial service in April 2017.
Sister Janet Fulgenzi, a licensed therapist, is the Saginaw diocese's victim assistance coordinator for the Office of Child and Youth Protection, the point of contact for victims claiming priestly abuse. Victims have wondered, however, whether she is a victim's advocate or works rather to protect Cistone.
During the police raid of the chancery in March, sources close to the situation confirm law enforcement discovered a list of victims' names, both adults and minors, in Fulgenzi's desk. Law enforcement could not recall any of those names being reported to them, in spite of mandatory reporting laws requiring clergy or medical professionals to report abuse of minors.
It remains unclear how Fulgenzi processes victims' claims and who decides whether claims are credible. And as the bishop's delegate, she acts in his name and on his behalf with regard to sex abuse allegations.
One victim of priestly abuse told Church Militant Fulgenzi did little to facilitate his request to meet personally with Cistone.
"She was just sitting in, listening to my sessions, like a bystander," Brad Sylvester told Church Militant of his meetings with his social worker, where Fulgenzi was present on several occasions. According to Sylvester, Fulgenzi asked no questions and offered no helpful advice. Other than Fulgenzi's presence, Sylvester's requests to meet with Cistone went ignored.
"Bishop Cistone's file in the Vatican is supposedly very thick, and individuals at the highest levels are well aware of his activities in Philadelphia and mismanagement in Saginaw," Church Militant's inside source said.
Before coming to Michigan in 2009, Cistone was auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia, where a grand jury report shows he was intimately involved in helping in the cover-up of sexually abusive priests — charges Cistone has never publicly denied.
The case involved 63 accused priests (none of whom could be criminally prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run), with evidence showing that Cdl. Anthony J. Bevilacqua had actively hidden or shuffled around multiple priests who abused hundreds of children.
Cistone, as assistant vicar for administration, was instrumental in the cover-up.
According to the 2005 grand jury report, an attorney for Msgr. William Lynn (eventually arrested for his part in covering up abuse) claimed that in 1994, Cistone watched as documents were shredded containing names of suspected sex abusers. Cistone later went on to mislead the grand jury about the cover-up.
In 1996, Cistone silenced a nun who tried to report priestly misconduct:
A nun in Saint Gabriel, Sister Joan Scary, expressed concerns about the safety of children in her parish who were exposed to a priest convicted of possessing child pornography. After she tried to pressure the Archdiocese officials to act and began talking to parents, she was fired as director of religious education.
Lynn informed Cistone that the nun's religious superiors had ordered her to be silent, after pressure from the archdiocese. "Everything is quiet at Saint Gabriel Parish concerning this situation," Lynn told Cistone. The nun eventually left Philadelphia.
The grand jury report also confirms that Fr. John J. Delli Carpini, with a known history of molesting boys, was made speech writer for the cardinal on Cistone's recommendation. A March 21, 2000 memo authored by Cistone proposed that the assignment be concealed from the public "for purposes of his 'personal' issues." Carpini was later placed on administrative leave over his abuse.
Cistone justified the continued ministry of another sex-abusing priest, Fr. David Sicoli, the only priest assigned to St. Anthony in South Philadelphia. According to the report, Cistone claimed that being the sole priest "meant that, by necessity, Fr. Sicoli be in charge of any youth programs and altar boys. It also meant there were no assistant priests to observe and report any improper relationships or behavior." Sicoli was eventually removed from ministry after overwhelming evidence of abuse of multiple boys.
In spite of being aware of one priest's sadistic behavior (Fr. Thomas Smith whipped boys till they bled, pricked them with pins, and was accused on at least one occasion of fondling a boy's genitals), Cistone agreed to keep him at his parish assignment, which included access to boys at the grade school:
The Archdiocese leaders left Fr. Smith in his parish assignment despite reports, found to be credible, of sadistic behavior and manipulative efforts to see boys’ genitals, as well as reports of genital fondling of a victim still too embarrassed to come forward publicly. Instead of ordering meaningful psychological testing that could well indicate otherwise, Cardinal Bevilacqua and his managers apparently chose to accept Fr. Smith’s assertions that the whippings he directed, the pricking of naked boys with pins, and his manipulations to bathe nude with the grade school children in his parishes, served some purpose other than sexual gratification.
On one occasion, Cistone discouraged Cdl. Bevilacqua from meeting with an abuse victim, claiming such a meeting would be "setting a precedent."
Cistone has never publicly refuted the findings of the grand jury report. Instead, he has said he regretted "any mistakes in judgment" but refused to discuss anything further, as "it would not serve any purpose to revisit the grand jury report and endeavor to recall the rationale for past decisions made in specific cases."
Cistone's behavior led a group of children's rights advocates to press the Saginaw bishop in 2012 to answer questions about his past conduct, but he declined to comment. Because the statute of limitations had run, Cistone was never criminally charged for his actions in Philadelphia.
With the Vatican's intervention behind the scenes, insiders are hoping Cistone's reported abuse of authority in Saginaw will come to an end.
*This article was corrected on 7/29/2018 to clarify that Marlene Bethune worked at Fr. DeLand's parish in the 1990s