One of the more perplexing controversies in the recent history of the archdiocese of Detroit — the July 5 suspension from ministry of Fr. Eduard Perrone for a single allegation of abuse dating back 40 years, based on a "repressed memory" — took a dramatic turn when an Associated Press (AP) reporter suggested that Fr. Perrone has been a protector and enabler of priests known to be abusers.
On a related note, Father Perrone recently passed a polygraph test administered by a polygrapher who specializes in testing alleged sex offenders and is routinely hired by the courts for his work. The results of Perrone's polygraph were so indicative of truthfulness that the polygrapher said it could be used in textbooks as a model test result for a "positive" outcome.
The July 29 AP report, "Priests accused of sex abuse turned to under-the-radar Michigan group," fails to mention that Fr. Perrone was exonerated by the Michigan attorney general of any wrongdoing with regard to the group Opus Bono. Perrone, who served as an occasional spiritual advisor, took no part in the running of the non-profit, and had no knowledge of Opus Bono's financials, which were kept from him by co-founders Pete Ferrara and Joe Maher.
AP also cites the presence of two priests who came to work at Assumption Grotto in the late 1990s as "evidence" that Fr. Perrone seemed to coddle abusers. The priests were Fr. Dem Houndjame, who came from Africa; and Fr. Richard Brown, who came from Dallas.
Father Houndjame was assigned to work at Grotto by Cdl. Adam Maida and lived in the parish rectory. Father Richard Brown came to work for Fr. John Hardon and was not affiliated with Assumption Grotto, but worked on the parish grounds, where Fr. Hardon had office space in the former school.
The AP makes much about the fact that Fr. Houndjame was accused of rape, but glosses over the crucial detail that he was acquitted and cleared of all charges by a jury after a trial in 2002.
Father Brown's abuse took place in Texas, years before he arrived to Detroit. Father Perrone did not know any of Brown's previous history, and nobody in the close-knit parish, including staff, likewise had any inkling about Brown's past.
But the diocese of Dallas was aware of Fr. Brown's previous abuse, as a Dallas Morning News investigative reporter explained in a 1997 article, "Other Priests in Abuse Cases Weren't Fired" — and, presumably, Cdl. Adam Maida of Detroit, who would've had to give Brown express permission to minister in Detroit, based on a letter of good standing from the Dallas diocese.
The Dallas Morning News reported that Fr. Brown remained on the "rolls of the diocese" of Dallas even after "[a]n abuse allegation forced him to resign three years ago as pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Rockwall, but he resumed nonparish duties elsewhere after undergoing therapy, diocesan attorney Randal Mathis confirmed."
Father Brown would not have been granted permission to minister in the Detroit archdiocese without the recommendation of Brown's bishop in Texas. It's unlikely the Dallas bishop would have failed to mention Brown's sexual misdeeds in his letter of recommendation; thus Cdl. Maida would have been made aware of them and granted Brown permission to minister in Detroit anyway.
We don't have the letter, so it's unclear whether Maida was informed. But these crucial facts are missing from the AP story, which chose to focus on Fr. Perrone as the alleged "protector" of an abuser, when in fact Perrone had no knowledge of Brown's history halfway across the country, nor did parishioners, as is made clear in this 2003 Dallas Morning News article.
Today Msgr. Michael Bugarin, the archdiocese of Detroit's hatchet man leading the effort to destroy Fr. Perrone, knows this information and could have no doubt clarified the timeline to the AP reporter. But Bugarin is seen as an aggressive prosecutor not prone to be swayed by facts or fairness in pursuit of political goals — think here about the Duke University LaCrosse team.
Perhaps in a future article the AP should publish this:
Cardinal Maida, as was common practice throughout his tenure until 2002, allowed known pedophiles to be assigned as pastors and other positions without letting the trusting laity know they were at risk. Ned McGrath, spokesman for the diocese, as was and is still his custom, routinely minimized any allegations and deflected so that the reporters inquiring had no idea they were being misled.
There is no question, absolutely no ambiguity whatsoever, that Cdl. Maida allowed other known molesters into the diocese, like Crozier priest Fr. Neil Emon (who had oral sex with a 10-year-old), and he even sent the worst of Detroit's priest-pedophiles, Fr. Gerald Shirilla, secretly to Alpena in the neighboring diocese of Gaylord in 2001.
Typically the Detroit archdiocese has been thoroughly silent and niggardly about providing information about priest pedophiles. I ran into this in 1993, when I was editor of The Michigan Catholic and reported about priests being removed for sex abuse. There was an obvious pattern at the Office of Communications of downplaying and even denying the proven abuse by politically connected priests who were allied with what Abp. Carlo Maria Viganò last year called the "homosexual current" in the Church.
For years since 1995 as a journalist I have requested information about known pedophiles who have been allowed to serve in the archdiocese of Detroit by Cdl. Maida: No response, never.
Like many other parishioners at Grotto and hundreds others who were involved with the organization Call to Holiness, I was around Fr. Brown frequently at various meetings, events and liturgical celebrations.
Nobody at Grotto had any inkling of his past.
The first time I met Fr. Brown was in Fr. Hardon's office in the basement of Loyola Hall at the University of Detroit in about 1997. I asked how he was given permission to work full-time for Fr. Hardon in Detroit. He replied that he asked his bishop to come here and the request was granted — simple as that.
In those days it was easy to presume that Fr. Brown may have simply ruffled too many feathers in Dallas, which was known as a hotbed of homosexual perversion and liberal liturgical mischief, and the diocese was happy to get rid of him. One need only read up on Fr. Rudy Kos to know the history of Dallas.
I asked several people who were in regular contact with Fr. Brown while he was in Detroit if they had any idea about his past.
Retired audio engineer Ed Wolfrum spent thousands of hours for the better part of a decade with Fr. Hardon, and thus also with Fr. Brown, who was Fr. Hardon's assistant. Wolfrum has a long and distinguished history in Detroit as an engineer who records professional musicians, some of whose work winds up being listened to by just about everybody. He worked in Motown for many years, including the night of the Detroit riot in 1967. Wolfrum recorded scores of lectures by Fr. Hardon in many locations.
"I had hundreds of interactions with Fr. Brown," said Wolfrum. "Nothing seemed strange."
Frank Lum likewise spent countless hours with Fr. Hardon and Fr. Brown, often driving into Detroit in the 1990s to serve Mass for either priest at Jesu Church near the University of Detroit, or at Grotto, and confirmed he was also kept in the dark about Brown's misdeeds.
Father Hardon had many volunteers who helped him with clerical tasks in his office. It was common to see as many as four or five people working for Hardon on any given day. Celia Dawson was one of the volunteers, and said she did not like Fr. Brown, a former professional pilot, all that much.
"Fr. Richard Brown was more of an acquaintance to me and I never found him to be friendly or approachable, although many liked him," she said. "I can assure you that no one knew of these accusations."
"I will say, however, that I know Father Perrone and Father Jack Baker, who are excellent priests, and I've been told multiple times by various people that not a single priest in this diocese who knows these two believe that they have ever done anything inappropriate," she said.
Much has been written in defense of Fr. Perrone, so that will not be repeated here.
But not much has been written about reasons why Fr. Perrone is an easy target for persecution in a diocese or Church that these days is controlled by those who oppose much of what Fr. Perrone stands for, since he is possibly the most "traditional" member of Detroit's presybyterate.
Father Perrone became well known as a strong, eloquent and traditional priest early in his priesthood, and he had some skirmishes with the chancery over the content of texts used at the school where he served as assistant pastor.
His main tormentor in the conflict was former priest Fr. Harry Benjamin, the only Detroit priest to serve jail time — a year in 2003 — for pedophilia. Benjamin also said Mass for Dignity, a homosexual group for priests, and was best friends with a still-prominent priest in the chancery and at Sacred Heart Seminary.
Perrone won his conflict with Fr. Benjamin, the Vatican siding with Fr. Perrone. As what seemed like punishment, Perrone was re-assigned to the outskirts of the diocese to a tiny parish in a little town called Capac, where he served until 1994, when he was assigned to Assumption Grotto.
On many occasions Fr. Perrone has written accurately in his parish bulletin and has been quoted in national publications about his preference for traditional styles of liturgical expression.
Michael Rose included Fr. Perrone in his book Priest: Portraits of Ten Good Men Serving the Church Today, which profiles 10 outstanding priests in the United States. Rose's profile includes the saga in which Fr. Perrone upended the whole diocese by informing a committee of cardinals from the Vatican about the awful homosexual culture at St. John's Provincial Seminary in 1982. That revelation deeply offended Cdl. Edmund Szoka, who was then forced by the Vatican to shut down St. John's in 1994.
In short, Assumption Grotto for many years has been one of the brightest lights for conservatives in the archdiocese of Detroit, and in political terms, Fr. Perrone is not a friend of liberals in the archdiocese. His more strident foes who would like to see a strong priest like Fr. Perrone sidelined have never been able to nab him on doctrine or any behavior in the ordinary course of his priesthood that could withstand any review by, say, the Vatican.
But an accusation of "sex abuse" that has the "semblance of truth"? In today's climate, that's a career killer for any priest targeted for extinction by enemies.
Thus it becomes easy to perceive his suspension from ministry July 5 as purely political, as I do and as does everyone I know who also knows Fr. Perrone. He is accused of groping an altar boy in 1978 at an annual outing for altar boys, a claim based on a "repressed memory" that only surfaced this past year during the accuser's psychiatric counseling sessions. The case is being investigated by the Vatican.
Long before there was a Fr. Eduard Perrone in the archdiocese of Detroit, there was Msgr. Clifford Sawher, a remarkable pastor well known for his staunch orthodoxy, jovial manner and wonderful sense of humor, who presided as pastor for nearly 30 years at Assumption Grotto.
"Grotto," as the parish is known to everyone familiar with the archdiocese, was once the largest in Detroit and has been a pilgrimage site for faithful who come to visit and pray at a life-sized replica of the grotto at Lourdes, made famous by the story of St. Bernadette.
Even today many thousands of people visit the parish — or "make a pilgrimage," to use the formal sense of what they are doing — for the Feast of the Assumption every Aug. 15, where the most unique annual parish festival gets underway without a beer tent, circus rides or gambling room.
Instead, "Grotto-ites," as they are known, attend one of the Masses scheduled every hour in the church or after sundown in the parish cemetery, following a dramatic candle-light ceremony. The parish fundraiser is drenched in holiness. Meals are in the gymnasium of the former school building, which closed decades ago but today offers classroom space to every manner of apostolate, including a book store, music rooms and classrooms for homeschooling.
By all appearances, Grotto is more than merely surviving in a burned-out section of Detroit on Gratiot Ave. By some measures (number of congregants, finances, etc.) the parish has been thriving because it was under Msgr. Sawher, who died in 1998, a center of no-nonsense orthodoxy and strict liturgical observance. No guitars or tambourines are allowed at Grotto, and recipients then and now still receive the Eucharist kneeling at the Communion rail.
Two years before he died, Msgr. Sawher wrote his life story at the insistence of his dear friend, Fr. Hardon. Titled An Autobiography of a Grateful Priest, Msgr. Sawher tells a fascinating story of his conversion to Catholicism. He was born exactly 100 years ago next week, was ordained in 1950 and never lost his devotion to the majesty and mystery of the Latin Mass and traditional liturgical styles.
The key point of Msgr. Sawher's autobiography for purposes of this article is his recounting of how life changed after Vatican II, and how he witnessed a remarkable division among priests over Humanae Vitae in 1968. Monsignor Sawher had worked many years in the chancery as head of the Family Life Office, and there was a strong sense of brotherhood and camaraderie among the many other priests who worked day-to-night in the chancery offices.
"Gradually, the priests working downtown became divided between liberals and conservatives," he wrote in his autobiography; Sawher was befuddled when some of his old, dear priest friends became hostile to him.
No doubt since he had become persona non grata in the chancery owing to doctrinal and political conflicts with his former friends, Msgr. Sawher was re-assigned in 1969 to become pastor of Grotto, where he served until the appointment of Fr. Perrone 25 years later, in 1994.
I first met Msgr. Sawher in about 1992 while I was editor of The Michigan Catholic and found him to be everything everyone said he was, liturgically and doctrinally. I had met Fr. Perrone during his seminary days and had periodic contact with him for several years before he was named to become pastor of Grotto in 1994, at which time my wife and I decided to join Grotto as our parish, even though it was a 40-minute drive away. We remained members for almost a decade until we moved almost an hour away to Ann Arbor.
Over time Fr. Perrone's influence grew in both the local church and nationally, as he welcomed Fr. Hardon to live and use office space at the parish.
Call to Holiness (CTH) was founded in 1996 by Fr. Perrone, Mother Angelica and Fr. Hardon, which certainly created headaches for Cdl. Maida and his whole chancery, since CTH's annual conferences were usually attended by at least 2,000 faithful Catholics who were often advised by speakers that open conflict on liturgical and doctrinal matters on the parish level was not such a bad thing.
In October Call to Holiness' annual conference will feature Cdl. Raymond Burke as its keynote speaker. Internationally, Cdl. Burke needs no introduction.
A fundraiser for Fr. Perrone's legal defense has been set up here.