SAGINAW, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A detective whose work landed a predator priest in jail is suing his police chief for retaliation.
"I'd like to make sure police officers know they have rights too and encourage them to always do what's right, no matter what the cost," said Detective Brian Berg, formerly chief detective of the Tittabawassee Police Department in Michigan, in comments to Church Militant. "I also want my reputation I've worked my whole life for restored."
Berg led the investigation of Saginaw priest Fr. Robert DeLand, currently serving 2–15 years in prison for sex abuse. The priest was arrested in February 2018 after Berg's four-month covert operation, which included damning audio recordings of the priest's sexual grooming and assault of the male victim. The undercover sting led to DeLand's arrest in February 2018 and his conviction last year.
Church Militant first aired the audio recordings in a special report in May 2019, which revealed disturbing conversations by the priest encouraging the teen to watch gay pornography and engage in homosexual activity, as well as the priest's offer of cash, gifts, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs to the underage male.
Although Berg had been on track to be promoted to police chief, he was abruptly fired after his investigation, with no explanation.
"Brian Berg is a hero. And he should be treated as a hero for what he did," said Attorney Jon Marko, representing Berg in a civil rights lawsuit, in comments to Church Militant.
"The idea that rather than reward him as a hero for what he did, that the township and the police chief, the powers that be tried to silence him like so many victims were silenced who had been elected at the hands of the Catholic Church," Marko continued, "I think it's horrible, dangerous and not the type of culture that I want to live in 2020."
According to Berg's lawsuit, filed May 1, he accuses Tittabawassee Police Chief Dennis Green of retaliating against him because Berg "refused to acquiesce to violations of the law and circumvention of his job duties, as well as objected to illegal practices."
Those illegal practices included pressure from various members of the police department to drop the criminal probe into DeLand.
"Defendant Chief Green pressured Plaintiff to discontinue the investigation, and eventually ordered Plaintiff to terminate the investigation completely, despite the fact that Plaintiff had several active leads against Father DeLand," according to the complaint.
Other pressure was placed on him as well, Berg says, including from Tittabawassee Township Supervisor Rick Hayes, who approached Berg at a public function in January 2018, placed his arm around Berg's shoulder and said, "Everybody loves Father Bob [DeLand]," going on to say, "You know, you don't have to prosecute everyone."
It's unknown how Hayes had knowledge of the active investigation, as it was highly confidential and not meant to be known to anyone outside the prosecutor's office or police department.
Pressure was also applied by Judge Michael Talbot, who had served on the Michigan bench for 40 years. In 2018, Saginaw's Bp. Joseph Cistone appointed him independent delegate in the criminal probe, to serve as a liaison between the diocese, the prosecutor's office and the media.
But in May 2018, Talbot went to prosecutors and ordered them to shut down the ongoing DeLand investigation — and to remove Berg from the case.
Assistant Prosecutor Mark Gaertner, who led the prosecution of DeLand, ordered Talbot out of his office, later filing a grievance against him with the Michigan attorney general's office for his attempt at intimidation. The diocese of Saginaw eventually removed Talbot as independent delegate last year.
According to Berg, Tittabawassee Township Police Department has a long history of corruption.
"Tittabawassee Township's ex-township manager is currently in federal prison for bribery," Berg told Church Militant. "The ex-police chief (Kenneth Bluew) is serving life in prison for murdering his pregnant mistress while on duty as a police officer and in uniform."
"A couple of years ago a Tittabawassee Township police officer was forced to retire with a full retirement after stealing a deceased man's wallet during a death investigation," he added.
After Berg's sting operation ended with an arrest of DeLand in February 2018, locals rallied around the priest, who had been popular in the community and had a devoted following in the Saginaw diocese. DeLand was also frequently seen at Freeland High School, where he worked as a hall monitor and would target troubled students for sexual grooming.
This is where DeLand singled out his 17-year-old victim in 2017, at the time grieving the death of a friend, Michael Dennis, from suicide. Incidentally, Dennis had been spending a great deal of time with DeLand prior to his suicide.
Agreeing to allow himself to be wired, the male victim covertly recorded his encounters with the priest over the course of four months.
One of the ruses implemented by Det. Berg was for the teen to pretend to be confused about his sexuality. DeLand immediately took to the ruse, obsessively talking about gay sex in almost every conversation afterwards, even encouraging the victim to masturbate to gay pornography.
"Can you try it for me tonight and let's see what happens?" DeLand can be heard in one conversation speaking to the boy. "In fact, after you're done with it, get a hold of me and tell me how you're feeling."
At times the priest would get graphic in his questions.
"Would you see yourself doing anal sex or would you see yourself sucking?" he asks in another tape. "I think we've arrived at the moment when it's time to find that out."
He can also be heard offering the underage teen cigarettes, alcohol and what he believed to be the drug ecstasy, while repeatedly telling the boy he loved him.
DeLand even resorted to using Michael Dennis' suicide in an attempt to become sexually intimate with the victim: "Michael did a good thing in bringing us together. Didn't he?"
Based on the incriminating audio recordings, DeLand agreed to a plea deal in March 2019 that avoided a jury trial in exchange for a sentence of 2–15 years in prison.
"People looked up to Fr. DeLand," Attorney Marko told Church Militant, "and people don't want to think that the priest they trust on so many levels, whom they trust with their family, who they tell their kids, who they go with their family every week to go see, whom they hold up to as a man who is supposed to close to God in providing them guidance — people don't want to think that that person is doing something so evil and so wrong."
"This is not unique to this case," he noted. "If you look at all the scandals between the Catholic Church, the Larry Nassar case, where he was victimizing those young women for so long, Dr. [Robert] Anderson sex abuse at University of Michigan, what's the common theme? Why did it go on so long? It went on way longer than it ever should."
"I think it's due in part to a natural reaction of some people ... to protect, to cover up, to not want to face the reality that's painful," he went on. "It's very painful to face and admit what's going on. This is why sex abuse is often going on unreported for so long."
Berg is suing under several statutes, including the Whistleblowers' Protection Act and Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, both which protect against retaliation by employers for reporting wrongful conduct. He is requesting a trial by jury.
Church Militant contacted Chief Green for comment but received no immediate response as of press time.