Opus Bono Raising Money for Priest Charged With Gay Sex Assault

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by Christine Niles, M.St. (Oxon.), J.D.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  July 21, 2018   

The Michigan attorney general accuses the charity of using fraudulent tactics to raise funds

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SAGINAW, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A priest support group is being told to cease and desist fundraising efforts on behalf of two Michigan priests, one criminally charged with multiple counts of sexual assault and another accused of embezzling more than $5 million from his parish.

Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a group whose mission is to offer financial support for struggling priests, has been sending letters to locals asking to donate to pay legal fees for Fr. Robert DeLand, a Saginaw priest charged with sexual assault or misconduct towards three young men, including furnishing alcohol and drugs to a minor. The charity has also sent around letters for Fr. Jonathan Wehrle, accused of embezzling more than $5 million from his church in the Lansing diocese.

"Father Bob is in urgent need for your help at this time," the letter from President Joe Maher states on behalf of DeLand. "He is completely responsible for his own legal fees. Per Diocesan policy, the Diocese is not funding his defense."


 

Calling his costs "staggering," Maher admits he contacted the individuals "because of Fr. Bob's deep admiration for you, and because frankly, I have 'twisted his arm' to give me a short list of family and friends."

Explaining that DeLand's legal fees are $75,000, Maher explains that "100% of your donation will go to the legal defense monies needed for Father Bob's defense."

He ends with the note, "You can make your donation on-line through your credit card or via bank transfer at www.opusbono.org/donate."

The letter on Wehrle's behalf, dated June 11, speaks of the priest's trial as "an apocalyptic moment" requiring fundraising in the amount of $300,000 for his legal defense. It includes wording identical to that in the letter for DeLand: "We are contacting you because of Father Wehrle's deep admiration for you, and because frankly, I have 'twisted his arm' to give me a short list of family and friends."

Bill Schuette, attorney general for Michigan, has sent cease and desist letters to Opus Bono in both cases, accusing the charity of fabricating quotes from Wehrle in order to drum up donations and "using most of the funds raised for themselves."

Schuette claims the charity has violated Michigan's Nonprofit Corporation Act and Charitable Solicitations Act.

Opus Bono's mission statement reads, "To find solutions to the problems confronting priests in accordance with the authentic teaching of the Church and of the Holy Father and his predecessors."

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Fr. Jonathan Wehrle

Founded in 2002 by Maher and business partner Pete Ferrara in response to a wrongly accused priest, the duo has since offered financial assistance to "priests who are experiencing intense difficulties."

"Catholic priests along with bishops and the Vatican contact Opus Bono for their unconditional love and support," the website description reads. "On average, they receive three to five calls from new priests every week, that is in addition to all of the priests who Opus Bono continues to support since their founding in 2002." 

"Maher and Ferrara took what they wanted, when they wanted it," Schuette wrote in a public statement last week. Schuette is also accusing the non-profit of using "deceptive mailings" to solicit money; using the charity's assets "for their own benefit"; operating "without any meaningful oversight"; and withdrawing money from the account "on a near daily basis." 

Maher and Ferrara both make a salary of $120,000 a year, and were paid $1.7 million between 2014 and 2017.

Maher and Ferrara both make a salary of $120,000 a year, and were paid $1.7 million between 2014 and 2017.

Church Militant reached out to Maher and Ferrara for comment, but received no response as of press time.

DeLand, former judicial vicar and a judge on the marriage tribunal in Saginaw, was arrested in February after a months-long undercover investigation revealed he was grooming young men for sexual abuse. One victim, a 17-year-old male, cooperated with police in the covert operation, which resulted in DeLand's first arrest. He was arrested a second time in April over further charges of attempted sexual assault against another young male. He is awaiting criminal trial in August.

DeLand's arrest led to the launch of an official criminal probe of the diocese, resulting in raids on Bp. Joseph Cistone's home, the cathedral rectory and the chancery. Sources confirm raids uncovered several bags of shredded documents, as well as lists of names of alleged abuse victims who were never reported to law enforcement.

A crime unit is currently combing through electronics seized from the raids — including the bishop's cell phone, ipad, personal computer and other items — searching for evidence of potential cover-up of priestly misconduct.

Check out our complete Saginaw coverage

 

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