This article is the first in a three-part series about how the Archdiocese of Detroit responds to, works to prevent and seeks to help victims of sexual abuse. 

DETROIT — In 2002, at the height of a national scandal rocking the Catholic Church over allegations of clergy sexual abuse, Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Michael Talbot received a call from then-Detroit Msgr. Walter Hurley.

The Archdiocese of Detroit, like most dioceses around the country, was working to implement the sweeping reforms of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which had just been adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a first — and long overdue — step toward addressing the scourge of clerical sexual abuse that had plagued the church in the United States.

“We had lunch, and he told me he had been tasked by Cardinal (Adam) Maida to take responsibility for the abuse issue, the various cases and the application of what was then a brand-new charter for particular Church law here in the United States,” Judge Talbot said recently in an interview with Detroit Catholic. “He wanted to know if I would serve as chairman of the Review Board and work with him.”

Seventeen years later, the recently retired judge is still serving in that role, helping lead the archdiocese’s response to cases of abuse, and ensuring the church in Detroit remains vigilant in protecting children and adults who are most vulnerable to predatory behavior.

Review Board investigations

The 2002 establishment of what is known as the Dallas charter — named for the location where it was adopted — was the beginning of concrete reforms to hold U.S. dioceses accountable for their actions addressing sexual abuse, but it wasn’t the start of reform in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

In 1988, the archdiocese became one of the first in the United States to establish a formal policy related to the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, which led to the creation of an independent, lay-led board that served as a precursor to the Review Board that exists today, reconstituted under the norms of the charter, Judge Talbot said.

“The (Dallas) charter was adopted in 2002 by the bishops, and it’s been modified ever so slightly over the years,” Judge Talbot said. “It calls for, among other things, the establishment of a review board in each diocese, which functions as an advisory body to the bishop, to the ordinary of the diocese.”

The function of the six-member board, as its name suggests, is to review any and all cases of alleged sexual abuse reported as having been committed by clergy or those in positions of authority in the local church, and to make recommendations to Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron regarding an accused priest or deacon’s fitness for ministry.

The board meets quarterly, unless circumstances or new cases require an immediate meeting, to discuss and review the archdiocese’s policies and to consider any cases that require attention.

Detroit’s Review Board is made up of six individuals, with expertise in various fields, capable of providing insight into the sexual abuse crisis. Besides Judge Talbot, who was instrumental in the drafting and adoption of Michigan’s first Victim’s Rights Act, the current independent board includes the former head of the child abuse unit for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office (Nancy Diehl), a certified school psychologist (Sharon Antczak), a high-ranking health care executive (Robert Asmussen), a local pastor (Fr. William Tindall) and the former archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools (Sr. Frances Nadolny, OP).

Cases are brought before the Review Board in a number of ways, including through the archdiocese’s toll-free victim assistance hotline and email address, as well as through verbal complaints. All complaints are considered regardless of when the alleged abuse took place.  

“When a case comes in, there are some people who are notified right away. No matter how it comes in, whether it be a letter or a phone call or email, it ultimately ends up with the victim assistance coordinator,” Judge Talbot said. “She then sees to it that Msgr. (G. Michael) Bugarin, who is the archbishop’s delegate for these matters, is notified. The attorney for the archdiocese in these matters is notified, and I’m notified.”

Before anything else takes place, the first responsibility of the Review Board is to ensure the claim has been reported to the proper civil law enforcement authorities. In 2002, the Archdiocese of Detroit signed voluntary agreements with the prosecutors of each county to turn over case files of priests previously accused of sexual misconduct, as well as to report all new cases.

“The first thing that happens — the very first thing — is that the attorney for the archdiocese sends the information on to the appropriate prosecutor for one of the six counties in the Archdiocese of Detroit. So right off the bat, before we consider credibility or anything like that, the first thing we do is we notify law enforcement,” Judge Talbot said.

“The first thing that happens — the very first thing — is that the attorney for the archdiocese sends the information on to the appropriate prosecutor for one of the six counties in the Archdiocese of Detroit. So right off the bat, before we consider credibility or anything like that, the first thing we do is we notify law enforcement,” Judge Talbot said. “It’s not uncommon that there’s a little bit of a pause [before our investigation begins], while we wait to make sure we’re not interfering with an investigation that might begin by civil authorities. As soon as the civil authorities allow us to do it, we, the Archdiocese of Detroit, will have an investigator — and we have three — pick up a pencil and do some inquiries.”

The purpose of the Review Board’s own investigations is not to duplicate the efforts of law enforcement, Judge Talbot said, but to ensure that the Church is doing all it can to protect and assist victims, even where secular legal proceedings might have limits — such as in the case of a deceased priest, a lack of evidence available for prosecution, or when the statute of limitations has run out.

When the Review Board considers a case, regardless of the timeframe or priest involved, the standard of evidence required to take action is considerably lower than the standard for secular authorities. In canon law, if a claim is considered to have a “semblance of truth,” meaning it appears to be or could be true, it’s enough for the priest or deacon involved to be removed from ministry.

If a claim is judged to be credible, the accused priest or deacon is immediately restricted from ministry. The archbishop then forwards the case to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which can authorize a canonical trial, said Msgr. Bugarin, the archbishop’s delegate and episcopal vicar for cases involving church personnel misconduct.

While only the Vatican can permanently remove a priest from the clerical state, a move known as laicization, the archbishop can authorize a temporary restriction of the priest’s ministry, Msgr. Bugarin said. This includes the inability to publicly celebrate Mass and the sacraments, publicly present oneself as a priest, or be near children and vulnerable adults.

When such a restriction is imposed, “the decree is written so that they can only celebrate Mass alone, with no members of the faithful present,” Msgr. Bugarin said. “They’re never allowed to wear the collar; they’re never allowed to use the title ‘Father.’ They’re not even allowed to do it with family. So if there’s a family funeral, they can’t participate as a priest at that funeral.”

Transparency and monitoring of accused clergy

No priest or deacon with a credible claim against him is allowed to return to ministry pending investigation, and any priest who is restricted or removed from ministry — regardless of whether there’s ever a criminal conviction — is monitored by a retired parole officer to ensure they comply with the terms of the restrictions, Msgr. Bugarin said.

“We’re one of the few dioceses that have a promoter of ministerial standards, [a woman named] Ina Grant, who watches to make sure these guys are living their life according to the penalty that’s been imposed on them,” Msgr. Bugarin said. “The ultimate penalty is dismissal from the clerical state altogether, but sometimes that dismissal might not be best for the common good, because then no one is watching over that individual. We can have someone watch them.”

“We’re one of the few dioceses that have a promoter of ministerial standards, [a woman named] Ina Grant, who watches to make sure these guys are living their life according to the penalty that’s been imposed on them,” Msgr. Bugarin said. “The ultimate penalty is dismissal from the clerical state altogether, but sometimes that dismissal might not be best for the common good, because then no one is watching over that individual. We can have someone watch them.”

Some of those removed from ministry are required to submit a written or oral report to Grant once a week, while others report monthly.

“Sometimes she makes surprise visits, and then she reports back to me and to the Review Board about what the men are doing,” Msgr. Bugarin said.

When a criminal conviction is made, the archdiocese also ensures the convicted priest or deacon is still monitored after their civil sentence has been served, Msgr. Bugarin said.

“When there is a criminal conviction, they’re going to follow whatever civil penalty has been imposed on them, whether it’s jail or probation or whatever the case may be. But even when their probation ends, they’re ours, and they may still have some obligations on our side,” Msgr. Bugarin said. “Probation could end in five years, but they’re still going to be required to report in to us for the rest of their life.”

When a priest is restricted or removed from ministry for reasons related to sexual misconduct, parishes and schools at which they’ve served are immediately notified, and their names are published on the Archdiocese of Detroit’s website. Names of credibly accused clergy have been published since 2002, and the list includes all clergy with known, credible allegations — including religious order and deceased priests. Local media are also notified whenever a new name is added.

While some might question posting the names of clergy accused of sexual misconduct without a criminal conviction, Judge Talbot defends the practice as necessary for safety and transparency.

“We have to be in a position where people can believe that we are doing what is right, rather than [doing things] secretly,” Judge Talbot said. “Second, it is out of respect and affirmation to the victims who came forward. And third, it is not uncommon that other victims come forward once they see that name posted. And very often, the manner of the abuse in the new cases will echo the manner of abuse in the older cases.

“I know that people invest a lot in their priest — either as the pastor of their parish or even as a personal friend. I know they invest a lot; we all do,” Judge Talbot continued. “But we also have to accept that they are very human, and some of them fail, and terribly so. So I understand it, and I’m respectful of that. But it’s not our job to keep things secret.”

“I know that people invest a lot in their priest — either as the pastor of their parish or even as a personal friend. I know they invest a lot; we all do,” Judge Talbot continued. “But we also have to accept that they are very human, and some of them fail, and terribly so. So I understand it, and I’m respectful of that. But it’s not our job to keep things secret.”

Since 2014, the archdiocese’s list has also included the names of deceased clergy with allegations of sexual misconduct that were deemed to be credible after the accused died.

When a report of sexual abuse is made against a deceased priest, the Review Board’s process remains the same, Judge Talbot said.

In November, the archdiocese publicized a report of abuse against a priest who died in 1994, Msgr. Thaddeus Ozog, after the Review Board determined an allegation against the former Sacred Heart Seminary rector contained credibility.

“We reported that case to the prosecutor’s office. And I know that sounds odd, but the prosecutor in every county needs to be confident that we’re not going to pick and choose cases. We’re going to report everything and not pre-select and cherry-pick,” Judge Talbot said.

“Second, we put an investigator on it, because there’s still a victim, and that victim deserves that the case be treated the same as any other case, whether the priest is dead or alive,” Judge Talbot continued. “Third, by evaluating it, if there’s enough evidence to really be satisfied that there is a credible claim, such that we can justify posting that priest’s name publicly, it’s an affirmation to the victim. But it also has the potential for bringing forward other people who were hesitant, who suddenly realize they’re not alone.”

Recognizing the need for healing

Though the makeup of the Review Board has changed some over the years — members are appointed to serve five-year terms — its essential structure and purpose has remained the same since 2002.

Having so many different voices and individuals with diverse expertise helps not only to ensure that cases are examined from a variety of perspectives, but also to signal to victims and the public that the Archdiocese of Detroit treats each complaint with the utmost seriousness, Msgr. Bugarin said.

“The various members bring some very challenging questions, and I think they each bring a different perspective: How do we reach out to the victim? How are we dealing with the process?” Msgr. Bugarin said. “Having multiple people take a look at it from the multiple disciplines, I think, brings a whole wealth of conversation to the table when we’re discussing a case. It also provides some necessary checks and balances that we’re all doing our job.”

As the archbishop’s delegate for cases involving clergy misconduct — a canonically established position — Msgr. Bugarin is not himself a member of the Review Board, but acts as a liaison between its members and the archbishop. He also coordinates the archdiocese’s staff and the rest of the team responsible for promoting safe environments and responding to allegations of abuse, while handling canonical and disciplinary actions with priests in addition to his regular responsibilities as pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish in St. Clair Shores.

Having a separate, independent board responsible for reviewing cases is important for maintaining transparency and accountability, Judge Talbot said. Its members also recognize their role in helping victims to heal, by ensuring they receive the justice they deserve from the Church.

Each time the board meets, it begins by reciting a prayer first used in the Archdiocese of Dublin in 2011: “Lord, we are so sorry for what some of us did to your children: treated them so cruelly, especially in their hour of need. We have left them with a lifelong suffering. This was not your plan for them or us. Please help us to help them. Guide us, Lord. Amen.”

Each time the board meets, it begins by reciting a prayer first used in the Archdiocese of Dublin in 2011: “Lord, we are so sorry for what some of us did to your children: treated them so cruelly, especially in their hour of need. We have left them with a lifelong suffering. This was not your plan for them or us. Please help us to help them. Guide us, Lord. Amen.”

“We really do care about the victims,” Judge Talbot said. “We care about what they have to say. We will listen very carefully, and then we will act when it is appropriate to do so. I think victims can feel confident that we will do the best we can, and we are open to hearing from them.”

Individuals wishing to report suspected sexual misconduct or child abuse within archdiocesan institutions and ministries are encouraged to report abuse directly to law enforcement. To speak to the Archdiocese's Victim Assistance Coordinator, please call (866) 343-8055 or email vac@aod.org