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Michigan AG Dana Nessel turns up heat with Catholic Church over sex abuse

Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel

Catholic churches that are “self-policing” allegations of sexual abuse by clergy need to stop, said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel Thursday, who urged victims to speak with law enforcement even if they’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement with the church.

Catholic dioceses are asking victims to report abuse to the church rather than law enforcement officials, Nessel said during the first update on the investigation started last summer by former Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Those victims are then encouraged to take settlements, sign non-disclosure agreements and told not to speak with police because the church will handle the issue through internal investigation, Nessel said. “Simply put, that’s just not true.”

If an investigator asks to speak with you, “please ask for their badge and not for their rosary,” Nessel said.

“If you signed an NDA you still have a right and I would say a responsibility to speak to law enforcement authorities. An NDA will not protect the church.”

The state has raided all seven dioceses around the state, gathered hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and received more than 300 tips of abuse since the investigation began, she said. The investigation is expected to take around two years to complete.

Related: Nessel to MSU: Cooperate more with Nassar investigation
Related: Michigan AG Nessel turns up heat with Catholic Church over sex abuse

Michigan and 12 other states are conducting statewide investigations of the Catholic church in the wake of a sweeping report by a Pennsylvania grand jury that showed extensive abuses within the state’s dioceses. Nessel said her office is working closely with other states.

“We ask the the dioceses step up and deal with these abusers and protect people from them when the statute of limitation keeps us from being able to do that ourselves, which is often the case,” Nessel said.

The statute of limitations for criminal sexual conduct in Michigan varies by the severity of the abuse. Michigan State Police director Col. Joseph Gasper said those who survived or witnessed sexual abuse by clergy should report it no matter when it happened — it may be able to be prosecuted, and if not, it could still help the investigation.

In a statement responding to Nessel's update, the Archdiocese of Detroit said it has not entered into any non-disclosure agreements since 2002 and does not self-police. It encourages victims to report directly to police and notify law enforcement when they learn of allegations of sexual abuse against minors, it said. 

Plus, Nessel's request to stop internal investigations came as a surprise: The Attorney General's Office had not asked the Detroit diocese to stop its internal review process, it said in the statement.

"The Archdiocese of Detroit looks forward to working with the Attorney General’s Office to clarify some of the broad generalizations made during today’s press conference," the statement said.

Several Michigan dioceses pledged full cooperation with the investigation when it launched last year, and many implemented reforms to increase transparency on sexual abuse cases in 2002 following the Boston Globe's investigation into the Boston diocese. 

Nessel compared the Catholic church’s response to sex abuse scandals to Michigan State University’s handling of the Larry Nassar case.

“Both institutions, when confronted with a public sex abuse scandal, publicly pledged their cooperation with law enforcement authorities but failed to deliver on those public promises,” she said.

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