Catholic Group Spotlights Sex Abuse Loopholes

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by Anita Carey  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  November 27, 2019   

Accuses Michigan diocese of violating US sentencing guidelines

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LANSING, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) – After being given the runaround by Church officials, a lay group is asking a Michigan diocese to close loopholes in diocesan policies that allow sex abuse to continue.

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Bp. Earl Boyea, diocese of Lansing, MI

On Thursday, the St. Mary MacKillop Coalition submitted a 20-page report to the Vatican outlining violations in canon law and federal law they believe the diocese of Lansing and its bishop, Earl Boyea, have committed. There were an additional 200 pages containing source documents that they claim prove their theory.

The coalition spent a year compiling "The Bishop's Guide for the Deterrence and Prevention of Corporate Sex Crime Against Adults and Priests." They worked with numerous professionals dedicated to bringing about sex abuse reform in the Church, including a canon lawyer and a fraud investigator.  

The report argues that Bp. Boyea has violated canon law and U.S. sentencing guidelines and that his diocese can be prosecuted under corporate sentencing charges for multiple sex crimes committed by agents of the diocese.

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Fr. Mark Inglot

According to their guide," the case of Fr. Mark Inglot, accused of sexually harassing a younger priest, exemplifies the weaknesses in the diocese's sex abuse policies.

The report also outlines the details of Fr. Jonathan Wehrle's alleged theft of $5 million from parishioners, which "reveals decades of federally illegal transactions approved by Lansing bishops." 

"Through these acts, the State of Michigan could argue that the Diocese of Lansing, as a corporation, participated in an estimated theft of between $5 and $13.7 million from United States citizens," it noted.

In 2015, Minnesota identified the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as "a Minnesota Corporation" and brought charges against the diocese for its failure to protect three children. Archbishop John Neinstedt and auxiliary Bp. Lee Piché resigned in disgrace, and the criminal charges were dropped only after the archdiocese admitted wrongdoing, settled and reformed its corporate policies to protect U.S. citizens from crime.


 

A statement from the St. Mary MacKillop Coalition provided to Church Militant notes:

By establishing a system that provides opportunities for repeat offenses of sexual abuse/sexual assault against adults and priests, the corporation of the Catholic Church is not meeting the expectations of the U.S. Federal Government and is open at any time to corporate charges for the actions of its agents.

Church Militant spoke with Nadja Tirrell, a survivors advocate for the St. Mary MacKillop Coalition, and with the local fraud examiner who worked on the report, who asked to remain anonymous. 

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Fr. Jonathan Wehrle, accused of

embezzling $5 million from his parish

Instead of using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) laws, which require the government to prove at least two instances of racketeering or corrupt business practices that affect interstate commerce, corporate sentencing charges can generally be applied any time an agent of the corporation — an employee, volunteer, priest, etc. — is charged with a felony.

According to the fraud examiner, "Federal criminal sentencing guidelines state that organizations can only act through agents and are generally vicariously liable for offenses committed by their agents as noted on pg. 509 of the 2018 USSC Guidelines Manual." 

Tirrell added:

Canon law allows all people to hold their local bishop accountable for behavior contrary to the Divine Law and the will of the Holy Father. Corporate Sentencing allows our State and Federal government to hold the Catholic Church, as a corporation, accountable for the policies and practices which harm the United States, or United States citizens.

She added, "By combining both, the entire system is held accountable, including the local bishop."

"Each of us have been personally harmed by the diocese of Lansing's exclusion of adults and priests from the 27 protections included in policy 2.1.9, which include basic charity, honesty and a resolution for victims," Tirrell said.

According to canon law, bishops can be held personally responsible by the Holy Father for negligence and lack of regard for the faithful. 

The decision by Catholic bishops to establish a corporate system that fails to protect adults and clergy from sexual abuse violates the requirements of canon 383 (the requirement to show concern for all) and canon 1389 (the requirement to be diligent). 

Their guide "identifies all corporate loopholes that we have found to be used to maintain abusers of adults and priests in 2018 and 2019," the fraud examiner explained.

The St. Mary MacKillop Coalition is asking the diocese and Bp. Boyea "to amend this corporate system to prevent and discourage both corporate charges and offenses by agents against United States citizens."

Simply adding new personnel to a broken system will not solve the problem.

In response, a spokesman for the diocese of Lansing provided a statement to Church Militant that reaffirmed the diocese's commitment to protecting the faithful. 

The diocese has been reviewing its policies with the assistance of the Daniel Coalition, "an external organization working within the Diocese to end clerical sexual abuse and misconduct." 

"Following these reviews, the diocese updated several of its policies, including its Code of Conduct and the Employee Handbook," the spokesman told Church Militant. "Other policies are presently being reviewed and revised."

The diocese is also looking to fill positions for a second lay-led review board to assist the bishop with allegations of clerical misconduct with adults, expected to start in early 2020. "That body will also assist the Bishop in reviewing diocesan policies regarding sexual abuse and misconduct," said the spokesman.

But the St. Mary MacKillop Coalition does not support the creation of a second diocesan review board, "because it does not correct policy gaps that negatively affect the safety of adults," Tirrell said.

"Without a mandatory step-by-step process for addressing policy and/or conduct violations, the system will remain broken," she noted. "Simply adding new personnel to a broken system will not solve the problem."

The diocese disagreed with several claims made by the St. Mary MacKillop Coalition with regard to the factual details in the case of Fr. Inglot and Fr. Wehrle.

"Fr. Inglot's actions disgraced the Holy Priesthood and betrayed the trust put in him by the clergy and lay faithful of the Diocese of Lansing," said the spokesman. "He is not permitted to minister publicly or celebrate the sacraments publicly."

Tirell provided email communications, however, that show Fr. Inglot is still permitted to offer Mass and the sacraments privately, with friends and family, as well as to hear confessions "in an emergency."

In the case of Fr. Wehrle, the spokesman said:

Further, it is claimed that the Diocese of Lansing corporately co-operated with Fr. John Wehrle who is alleged to have embezzled over $5 million from St Martha's parish in Okemos. This is false. The Diocese of Lansing and the parishioners of St Martha's are, in fact, the victims of the alleged fraud — a fraud which is being prosecuted with the Diocese's cooperation.

The St. Mary MacKillop Coalition noted that the diocese has been aware of these illegal transactions since 1990 and was notified of them at least two other times — in 2000 and 2007.

"If Fr. Wehrle is convicted of the six felonies he is charged with, the diocese of Lansing, a Michigan nonprofit corporation, can be subject to multiplied corporate charges per Sections §2B1.1 and §8B2.1 of the 2018 USSC Guidelines Manual," Tirrell said.

The diocesan spokesman said, "Despite such apparently obvious inaccuracies within the report, the diocese nevertheless believes it to be good practice to bring this report to the new lay-led Review Board and will do so upon its establishment in the coming months."

Tirrell said they are grateful for the diocese's acknowledgement of the seriousness of Fr. Inglot's actions and explained that their guide "was designed to help dioceses across the United States to take abuse against adults seriously with their policies, statements and diocesan culture."

"As lay persons, we encourage all people to download this report, share it and send it to your local bishop so that they will be encouraged to amend their corporate system to protect adults and clergy to both prevent abuses by agents, and charges by the State or Federal prosecutors," she added.

The full report can be found here.
 

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