SAGINAW, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a surprise move, Fr. Robert DeLand has pleaded no contest to sexual assault of a male minor.
Last week in his first trial, the Saginaw, Michigan priest was found not guilty of attempted sexual assault and criminal sexual conduct involving two male minors. Law enforcement told Church Militant that, because of the lack of evidence, they believed they only had a 50/50 chance of a conviction.
The current case involves a 17-year-old male, and unlike the previous case, has an abundance of evidence, with multiple audio recordings showing DeLand offering to buy illegal drugs for the minor, as well as offering him cigarettes and alcohol. Audio also reveals a sexual assault.
The no contest plea includes obtaining an illegal controlled substance, among other things.
The recordings were obtained through a four-month sting operation spearheaded by Detective Brian Berg, formerly of Tittabawassee Township.
The minor had met DeLand at Freeland High School in 2017, when he was in 10th grade; at the time, the boy was grieving the loss of his friend Michael Dennis, who had committed suicide in May. DeLand was a hallway monitor and took the boy under his wing, paid for his counseling sessions, gave him cash and gifts, including cigarettes and alcohol, even though he was under the legal age limit for both.
When the young man's parents went to police expressing concern over grooming behavior by the priest, the victim agreed to take part in a covert operation. The minor wore a recording device that captured incriminating evidence that the priest gave the boy $100 to buy ecstasy, an illegal drug — one of the incidents that led to DeLand's arrest in late February 2018.
Recorded conversations where the victim feigned he was homosexual also reveal that DeLand told him, "It's OK. This is how God created you."
"He would question me about how I felt about things sexually, what kind of porn I watched, asked how I felt about it a lot," the victim said during preliminary examinations in 2018. "He'd ask me to watch gay porn and masturbate to it and call him about it and tell him how it was."
According to Berg, "After he learned that [about the victim's alleged homosexuality], every single conversation thereafter focused on gay sex, anal sex. He instructed him to go home every day and to watch gay porn, to masturbate, and to call him and tell him how it was."
Conversations continued after that point "almost relentlessly involving gay sex and homosexuality," Berg continued. "It appears to me that Fr. Bob was encouraging homosexual behavior, not heterosexual behavior." Berg, a former Catholic, acknowledged that Catholic doctrine teaches that homosexual conduct is wrong and that he would expect a Catholic priest to live up to that teaching rather than encourage the opposite behavior.
Church Militant has learned that DeLand's attorney, Alan Crawford, spent a lengthy amount of time with the priest Monday persuading him to take a plea deal rather than face a jury trial with overwhelming evidence that could lead to a guilty verdict and a potentially harsh sentence.
With the no contest plea, Judge Darnell Jackson will likely sentence DeLand to 2–15 years in prison.
Last year, DeLand had originally foregone jury trial and accepted a one-year jail sentence. After the judge was inundated with requests from angry Catholics urging him to lengthen the sentence, DeLand changed his mind, insisting on going to trial.
A third trial was scheduled this week, involving a Mexican Catholic 21-year-old male raised in the foster care system who was reportedly groomed by DeLand, and given cigarettes and alcohol. The young man claims that the priest invited him to his apartment, where he laced one of his drinks with a drug, causing the young man to black out. When he awoke, he found his pants down around his ankles, and DeLand trying to sexually assault him. This charge was rolled into the current case, with DeLand pleading no contest to gross indecency.