When more than 50 reporters had the opportunity to question Michigan Attorney Dana Nessel about the investigation into what her office is calling "Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church" during a press conference Thursday, it was surprising, at least to this observer, how few questions the reporters asked about the investigation.
Nessel is the state's new attorney general and called her first press conference since taking office in January to discuss the three investigations her office is working on: clergy abuse, the Flint water crisis and Dr. Larry Nassar at Michigan State University (MSU).
Church Militant aired a video report about the event, explaining that "the investigation is far bigger than most know, involving not only all seven dioceses, where priests were shuffled from one diocese to another, but multiple states as well, since abusive clergy were also moved out of state."
It was a special treat for me to attend this rarest of press conferences, representing Church Militant with Niles. The press conference was a very big deal, but also in a sense anti-climactic.
First, one cannot underestimate the unprecedented scope of what is happening. Not only has the top prosecutor in Michigan said publicly that the Catholic Church is a "criminal enterprise," but this is the first time in history the Church has been under this kind of scrutiny.
Without any notice, at the same time one morning October last year, 70 officers with the Michigan State Police and 14 state assistant attorneys general raided all seven Michigan dioceses: Detroit, Saginaw, Lansing, Marquette, Gaylord, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. In addition to chancery headquarters, offices in multiple other diocese-related buildings, including Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, were raided.
It was the first statewide raid conducted on the Catholic Church in American history.
Nessel said her staffers are now poring over hundreds of thousands of pages from Church files and working on more than 300 tips from the public, many of them victims of clergy abuse.
So far, she said, there is evidence of cover-ups of clergy abuse in most Michigan dioceses, and there will likely be more than 1,000 victims identified.
She encouraged anyone who has been abused or who has witnessed or knows about clergy abuse to report that abuse to her office using the state's clergy abuse hotline, rather than going to Church officials, and has also asked each diocese to suspend its own internal review process until the state's investigation is complete.
"Every report will be analyzed factually and in-depth," Nessel said, adding that if abuse does not rise to the level of a crime, information gained from research into that particular event could be used to pursue other incidents. "You still might be able to help others," she noted.
She also indicated that non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) signed by some victims in the past to settle abuse lawsuits or complaints are not necessarily binding if they're part of a settlement for a crime: "NDAs will not protect the Church."
When asked by Church Militant when the final report will be issued, she estimated it will take about two more years. She declined to say whether prosecutions will take place before the close of the investigations, but her primary goal is to remove known priest-predators from ministry immediately, regardless of the statute of limitations.
When asked twice about how she anticipates dealing with priest-abusers who are elderly, Nessel was straightforward. "It doesn't matter who they are or how old they are; if we can show a crime was committed," she made clear they will be prosecuted.
Most telling, was her response to Christine Niles' final question of the whole press conference: What about bishops and others who enabled the predators? Will you also go after them?
Nessel carefully nuanced her response, saying that her staffers are going to examine every case carefully and "if we can show a crime was committed" every effort will be used to achieve justice: "Nothing is off the table."
Nessel challenged the dioceses to set up a fund for victims to be administered by the attorney general's office so that victims may receive help for trauma they have experienced.
Most of the Q&A period of the press conference dealt with the Flint water crisis, perhaps because at this stage of the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal, the outcomes of investigations have become predictable: the same basic storyline, only with different names of victims, bishops, priests, lawyers and the lay enablers who are invariably on the bishops' payroll.
Many are no doubt expecting the final report to be a kind of remake of some not-so-old old movies and updated local history.
As one who has covered the sex scandals in Michigan for local and national media for 39 years, here are only a few of the big Michigan abuse cases Nessel and her staff will surely research and provide information the Church refuses to provide:
St. Sebastian's Angels: Were there formal complaints about Fr. William Auth, who worked in the diocese of Lansing and sent a photo of himself with a 12-year-old boy in Mexico whom he said "is not my current lover?"
Fr. Neil Emon: This priest was among the five members of the Crosier order that are on the archdiocese of Detroit's list of credibly accused priests. They were removed only after the 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight series. One publication in the Detroit media described the nature of his offense as "oral sex with a 10-year-old boy" before he came to Detroit, but that comment cannot be found on the internet today. However, that report indicated that even after Detroit's Cdl. Adam Maida was informed of the offense, he allowed Fr. Emon to be pastor of St. Alfred Church in Taylor, which had an elementary school. Emon was also a local vicar, which means he was personally able to shut down a protest about rampant homosexuality at the local high school, Gabriel Richard, in Riverview. Multiple requests fom me for accurate information about Emon has been ignored for more than a decade by the Crosier order and by Ned McGrath, former director of communications for the archdiocese of Detroit. Nessel will be able to get answers to these questions.
Fr. Thaddeus Ozog: He was best friends with notorious pedophile Fr. Gerald Shirilla and died of AIDS in 1994. One month after the Michigan attorney general's raids, the archdiocese of Detroit suddenly announced that there was a credible allegation that Ozog molested a minor.
Fr. James Poman: One of the more curious cases involves recurring and persistent rumors from multiple sources (seminarians, priests, etc.) about Fr. James Poman, who died of AIDS in the early 1990s, and was a pedophile and reportedly part of a group of local priests that passed boys around for their amusement. Buried in my files is a news article about his death noting he died of AIDS, but his name is not listed on the Detroit archdiocese's list of "priests credibly accused of abuse." The archbishop informed me several years ago he will not even acknowledge any questions from me. But the attorney general's office should get answers.
For those new to the sex-scandals mess, the basic outline of the saga is revealed in several films and documents. Among the films, the best include The Boys of St. Vincent (1994), Calgary (2014) and Spotlight (2015).
Dozens of legal reports are out there, but the 2005 Philadelphia Grand Jury report is all you need to read to learn how the Catholic Church rolls.
In response to our query, Dan Olsen, spokesman for Attorney General Dana Nessel, told Church Militant her office must decline to answer the question whether a bishop or his staffers might be guilty of obstruction of justice for a crime of sex abuse if the individual predator who was protected is deceased or the statute of limitations has run out.
"We cannot give additional information as it might jeopardize the extent of any investigation," Olsen said.