Whistleblower Sues Saginaw Diocese

News: US News
by Christine Niles  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  May 12, 2020   

Claims retaliation for reporting sex abuse

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SAGINAW, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) - An employee of the diocese of Saginaw, Michigan is suing after suffering retaliation for blowing the whistle on sex abuse.


Gabriel Villarreal testifying in a court hearing on April 28, 2018

(at the time of the photo the court did not allow

public disclosure of testifying witnesses)

Gabriel Villarreal has worked maintenance for the diocese for 26 years. In February 2018, his teenaged son informed him that Fr. Robert DeLand tried to sexually assault him at St. Agnes parish, where DeLand was pastor at the time.

DeLand is currently serving prison time for sexually abusing another young male victim. He was convicted in Sept. 2018 and is serving up to 15 years for his crimes.

Villarreal immediately reported DeLand's attempted sexual assault to the diocese, but suffered retaliation from his superiors, according to a lawsuit filed March 16 this year.

The complaint notes that after he reported the abuse, the diocese took a number of measures against him, including cutting his hours from full-time to part-time, taking away his medical and pension benefits and cutting his paid time off. It also alleges that for the first time in 26 years, the diocese took away his master key to the premises and limited his access to the grounds where he kept maintenance.

Villarreal also reports harassment from diocesan employees Tim Mueter and Scott Gelding, including:

  • Blaming him and his son for the bishop passing away, telling him that "the bishop would still be alive if it wasn't for your son"
  • When the police were present, telling Mr. Villarreal "the police are here, maybe they want to talk to you because you're the mole"
  • Referring to Mr. Villarreal as "the mole," a term used to describe a "spy" ...
  • Continually mock and harass Mr. Villarreal in retaliation for him and his son reporting DeLand's abuse and cooperating with the police

Bishop Joseph Cistone passed away suddenly in his home in Oct. 2018. At the time he was at the center of a criminal probe by state and local authorities investigating sex abuse cover-up. While the diocese claimed he passed away peacefully in his sleep, Church Militant confirmed with law enforcement and the coroner's office that Cistone had actually collapsed naked on his bathroom floor in the middle of the night, likely from a heart event.

Cistone had been suffering from advanced cancer at the time, but was well enough that week to keep his normal schedule, offering adoration at a local parish and maintaining visits with parishioners. The coroner never performed an autopsy, Cistone's body buried soon after his death, and thus the official cause of his death never investigated.


Gabriel Villarreal's son testifying to attempted sexual assault

by Fr. Robert DeLand, April 28, 2018

Villarreal is asking for a jury trial and award of compensatory and punitive damages for lost wages, medical expenses and economic harm suffered from the diocese's retaliation.

Church Militant reported on Villarreal's son's testimony in 2018. At an April 28, 2018 court hearing, Villarreal was among three alleged victims to testify against DeLand. He accused DeLand of attempting to grope him in the back coat room at a memorial service for suicide victim Michael Dennis in May 2017. Dennis was a student at Freeland High School, where DeLand was frequently a hall monitor and where he was accused of targeting troubled teens and sexually grooming them.

The alleged victim fled the church with his father, who contacted the diocese the next day to report the attempted assault. According to Villarreal's testimony at the time, nothing was ever done, and the diocese never contacted law enforcement.

Villarreal also took the stand, at one point becoming visibly emotional, choking back tears as he said of his reaction to the assault, "I wanted to confront him [DeLand]," someone he had trusted and known for 20 years. Only after the father learned about DeLand's arrest in February did he himself reach out to police, who arrested DeLand a second time in April on the new charges.

Fr. Robert DeLand mug shot

DeLand was eventually convicted on Sept. 4, 2018 after pleading no contest to charges of sex abuse against a 17-year-old male. Secretly recorded audio tapes revealed the priest grooming the victim with cigarettes, alcohol and drugs before sexually assaulting him in Feb. 2018.

The audio tapes also reveal DeLand's obsession with homosexuality, repeatedly questioning the young man about his sexuality, asking him to masturbate to gay pornography and call him the next day to describe his experience and encouraging the victim to explore same-sex relationships.

The investigation was spearheaded by Det. Brian Berg, who also claims to have suffered retaliation as a result of his work in helping to put the sexual predator behind bars.

DeLand was considered one of the most popular priests in Saginaw, at the time of his arrest serving on the diocesan marriage tribunal and as judicial vicar.

He is currently serving 2–15 years at Marquette Branch Prison in Michigan.

Read our complete Saginaw coverage


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