SAGINAW, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Only weeks after the abrupt suspension of a deacon over an alleged complaint of sex abuse, sources confirm the diocese of Saginaw, Michigan is removing the director of liturgy from his post — a reported homosexual accused of covering up sexual assault.
Although the diocese has kept the news quiet, multiple reliable sources have confirmed that Fr. James Bessert, director of liturgy in Saginaw, is being removed from his post, making way for Sr. Esther Mary Nickel, RSM, who will replace him.
Bessert, a prominent chancery official, has had his name taken off of the online staff directory [Bessert's name was removed in late May and remained off the list as of the time of this printing; his name was added back on without explanation shortly after publication of this report. -Ed.] for the Office of Liturgy. Church Militant also received news that the Vatican has been involved behind the scenes, and that high-ranking officials in Rome are aware of the ongoing scandals in Saginaw and have placed pressure on Bp. Joseph Cistone to remove various priests.
Bessert has claimed he is "on vacation," although still in Saginaw.
Bessert is linked to Deacon Jerome Green, abruptly suspended in May only days before his priestly ordination. Inside sources confirm it's an "open secret" that Bessert and Green have been in a homosexual relationship for years. Neither has publicly addressed the allegations, nor have they responded to Church Militant's queries.
Ordained to the diaconate in 2017, Green had been slated for ordination on June 1, in spite of the fact that he had never graduated from seminary. In another unusual move, he was going to be immediately named pastor of two parishes — St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Reese and St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Vassar — an uncommon step for the newly ordained, who are often first assigned a more temporary role. A number of existing Saginaw priests who have been around far longer have yet to be named pastor of any parish.
Speculation is that his relationship with Bessert explains the favoritism.
Church Militant reported in March that Bessert had allegedly been involved in sex abuse cover-up in 2009, after a maintenance man reported he was the victim of sexual assault by a deacon at St. Mary's Cathedral. Bessert was rector of the cathedral at the time, and instead of punishing the deacon, he ensured the victim, Troy Yaklin, was suspended without pay after he reported the assault.
The accused deacon, Juan Ignacio Velasquez, was a candidate for the priesthood at the time and lived in the rectory with Bessert. After the incident, he was sent away to Colombia, where he went on to be ordained a priest in 2011 for the Messengers of Peace, a religious community founded by Abp. Robert Carlson of St. Louis, Missouri, previous bishop of Saginaw.
"They humiliated me and shamed me," Yaklin told Church Militant. "I lost my job, I lost my friends, I lost everything I had; I almost lost my faith." Yaklin admits he has not been back to church since the assault.
The diocese has never responded to Church Militant's requests for comment.
Bessert also abruptly resigned as rector of the cathedral shortly after the 2009 incident. Multiple sources confirm Bessert's resignation was occasioned by another scandal at the cathedral: a drug-fueled homosexual orgy thrown by Bessert in the cathedral rectory.
When Bp. Cistone (installed in June of that year) learned about it, Bessert was forced to step down as rector. The matter was kept quiet, the public only being told he was leaving for reasons of "personal health."
"Father Bessert asked to meet with me and requested that he be relieved of his position as Rector of the Cathedral," reads a November 2009 newsletter issued by Cistone. "Also, at his request, I have granted Father Bessert a period of time for personal health leave."
Inside sources confirm Bessert spent six months at the St. John Vianney Center in Downington, Pennsylvania, a treatment center for clergy. In spite of the scandal at the cathedral and the alleged cover-up of sexual assault, Bessert was allowed to return to Saginaw and was named chaplain for the St. Francis Nursing Home.
Since that time he has held various positions, including his most recent high-ranking position as Director of Liturgy for the diocese. He has also served as diocesan chaplain to the Knights of Columbus and as sacramental minister at St. John Paul II Parish. (The immediate predecessor of St. John Paul II Parish was Fr. Ronald J. Dombrowksi, suspended from priestly ministry Saturday over claims of sexual abuse of a minor.)
The Saginaw diocese is currently under criminal investigation for potential sex abuse cover-up, after 71-year-old priest Fr. Robert DeLand was arrested in February on charges of sexual assault of a male minor. DeLand was judicial vicar, a judge on the marriage tribunal, and pastor of St. Agnes parish in Freeland, who frequently was seen at nearby Freeland High School, where testimony reveals he picked out and groomed his underage victims — often emotionally vulnerable or troubled males. A total of three male accusers have since taken the stand to testify against DeLand.
Sister Nickel, who is replacing Bessert, is a Religious Sister of Mercy, and will be living at the Saginaw convent located next to St. Mary Cathedral downtown.
"I have been asked to go to our convent, which is in the city of Saginaw," she told The Catholic Globe, the official paper of the Sioux City Diocese in Iowa. "I will be with three of my sisters working in that diocese in a capacity that is being developed."
Nickel has a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Institute for the Liturgy at St. Anselm's in Rome, and has taught at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Colorado.