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

Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel

Attorney General Dana Nessel has a message for Catholic Church sex abuse victims: talk to authorities. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

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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Thu, 02/21/2019 - 4:07pm

This behaviour is known to have taken place, with institutional acknowledgement and participation, despite legal actions. Why isn't the Catholic Church declared a criminal enterprise, their assets seized, leadership jailed and operations suspended?

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 11:46pm

Why, indeed. Maybe, because it's not a criminal enterprise, despite your calling it one.

Fri, 02/22/2019 - 9:48am

I wonder how Greg felt about Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy?

Jim tomlinson
Sun, 02/24/2019 - 1:20am

Really? You compare industrial scale child rape practised for centuries to clinton kennedy? Churches/religion enjoy favored status by government they do not deserve

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 12:23pm

Mary Jo and Monica weren't young enough relative for you?

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 11:50pm

Maybe, because it is not one, despite what you would like everybody to believe.

Paul Jordan
Fri, 02/22/2019 - 10:47am

The question of whether the Catholic Church meets the definition of a criminal enterprise is obviously both important and troubling. Its avowed purpose is obviously not criminal.
However, in some important ways it has acted as if it were a criminal enterprise. It has certified its priests as being 'agents of God', yet many of them throughout the world have used that status as a means to cow their victims into submission and to confuse them into remaining silent about their abuse.
The supervisors of these priests have--again, throughout the world--acted to cover up these crimes and, indeed, to have placed these criminals in positions where they have access to future victims. Where laws require that clergy report sexual (or other) abuse of children, agents of the Catholic Church have not done so. (This in itself is criminal.)
This pattern of enabling and covering up has occurred in a consistent fashion from state to state, and from nation to nation. I hope that AG Nessel and other legal authorities include in their investigation the question of whether the Catholic Church has ever published guidelines to tell bishops how to cover up child sexual abuse. (After all, it has recently been revealed that it has secret guidelines detailing how bishops should treat priests who father children.)
Given all of that, I think that it is very easy to argue that--despite its status as a religious organization--the Catholic Church has acted as a criminal organization.
Its mission at this point should be to transform itself so as to become worthy of its parishioners.

kathy swainson
Fri, 02/22/2019 - 12:40pm

Wish the AG would look into why a judge in St. Clair Co. is allowing a 4 yo child to be exposed to a 2 time convicted child sexual abuse offender. The child's father has been begging the court to keep this offender away from his little girl...to no avail. Reference "Justice for Oaklei," fb page.

Fri, 02/22/2019 - 12:46pm

Sexual abuse of minors has been going on and has been covered up by the Catholic Church in MI for decades. Priests have been moved from location to location having been credibly accused of this behavior only to repeat the behavior.

This is all about power, the patriarchal hierarchy of the church, and the lack of lay leadership in the church, especially women. I worked for a Catholic congregation of priests and saw first hand how dysfunctional these men were. They are insular, isolated from the real world and have no accountability for their actions. None of this will change until accountability structures are put in place and am glad to see Nessel doing something about it.

Al Churchill
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 8:35am

Isn't a non-disclosure agreement a deliberate continuation of a coverup? Have any of these clowns gone to jail?