In light of the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," which outlined reforms to the U.S. Church's response to the sexual abuse crisis, Detroit Catholic is updating and republishing this article originally published in 2019. 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. All materials related to the Archdiocese’s report on the 20th Anniversary of the Dallas Charter are available at www.aod.org/dallascharter.
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.
“He told me he had been tasked by Cardinal (Adam) Maida to take responsibility for…the application of what was then a brand-new charter for particular Church law here in the United States,” Judge Talbot said in an interview with Detroit Catholic, referring to the various requirements set forth by the Charter. “He wanted to know if I would serve as chairman of the Review Board and work with him.”
Twenty years later, the 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 vulnerable to predatory behavior.
Review Board investigations
The 2002 establishment of what is known as the Dallas Charter — named for the city in which it was adopted — was the beginning of universal reforms to hold U.S. dioceses accountable for their actions and inactions regarding 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; this policy 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 regularly to discuss and review the archdiocese’s policies and to consider any cases requiring attention, unless circumstances or new cases require an immediate meeting.
“Through COVID, we were able to meet via Zoom and continue without any impediment, so the work continued as needed,” Judge Talbot said.
Detroit’s Review Board is made up of six individuals with expertise in various fields, capable of providing insight into the handling of sexual abuse cases. In addition to Judge Talbot, who has been recognized for giving victims a voice with the drafting of Michigan’s landmark 1985 Crime Victims Rights Act, the current independent board includes the former Chief of the Trial Division and head of the child abuse unit for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office (Nancy Diehl); a certified school psychologist (Sharon Antczak); a local pastor (Msgr. William Tindall); and the former archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools (Sr. Frances Nadolny, OP). The death of high-ranking health care executive Robert Asmussen created a vacancy soon to be filled by an individual appointed by the archbishop.
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 happened.
“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. “He then sees to it that Msgr. (G. Michael) Bugarin, who is the archbishop’s delegate for these matters, is notified and that 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 of its six counties 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 archdiocese sends the information on to the state attorney general. 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 archdiocese then waits for direction and input from civil authorities.
“It’s not uncommon that there’s a little bit of a pause [before any Church review begins], while we wait to make sure we’re not interfering with an investigation that might begin by civil authorities,” added Judge Talbot. “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.”
One of those investigators is Jim Smith.
“I worked with him for years at the Prosecutor’s Office and his reports are just amazing. He doesn’t miss anything,” said Diehl. “I couldn’t imagine anyone better suited for that job.”
The purpose of the Review Board’s own investigations is not to duplicate the efforts of law enforcement, Judge Talbot said. Instead, the Church’s review comes second and is complementary to any decision by law enforcement. The goal is to ensure 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.
None of these are obstacles to a Church review.
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, a claim is “credible” if it has even a “semblance of truth,” meaning it appears to be or could possibly be true. That is 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, an action 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 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 any investigation, whether by the Church or civil authorities. And every priest who is restricted or removed from ministry — regardless of whether there’s ever a criminal conviction — is monitored to ensure he complies with the terms of the restrictions, Msgr. Bugarin said. Some of those removed from ministry are required to submit a written or oral report once a week, while others report monthly.
“We’re one of the few dioceses that have a promoter of ministerial standards, (retired parole officer Ina Grant), who watches to make sure these men are living their life according to the penalty that’s been imposed on them,” Msgr. Bugarin said. “Sometimes she makes surprise visits, and then reports back to me and to the Review Board about what the men are doing.”
When there is a criminal conviction, the archdiocese also ensures the convicted priest or deacon is monitored even after his civil sentence has been served, Msgr. Bugarin continued.
“When there are criminal convictions, 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 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 lives.”
When a priest is restricted or removed from ministry for reasons related to sexual misconduct, parishes and schools at which they’ve served are 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.
“First, 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.”
“I know that people invest a lot in their priest — either as the pastor of their parish or even as a personal friend. They invest a lot; we all do,” Judge Talbot said. “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.
“First, 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. “Second, 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 over the years — members are appointed to serve five-year terms (and can be re-appointed) — its essential structure and purpose have 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.
Sr. Frances Nadolny said the Review Board’s workload is lighter in recent years, due in part to the effectiveness of the national VIRTUS Protecting God’s Children training program. The mandatory program provides training for all Church personnel — including paid staff and volunteers — and is designed to prevent abuse by surrounding children and vulnerable adults with a community of people trained to spot dangerous situations and cultivate a safe environment for all.
“VIRTUS sends updated bulletins regularly. They keep people apprised of new insights that are being gained about child predators,” Sr. Nadolny said. “There’s lots of emphasis now on how people are groomed through the internet, and what parents, teachers, and clergy can be looking out for. I continue to find those extremely valuable.
“Awareness helps to cure lots of things,” added Sr. Nadolny. “The number of accusations has come down considerably. The issue has been brought to the forefront and people are much more aware.”
“The reason the VIRTUS program is so valuable is that it’s important to train everyone dealing with kids, as best you can, to be alert about child abuse, know the warning signs and report,” said the former assistant prosecutor. “The law is set up to report. You just have to have reason to suspect. It’s a very low standard. It’s then turned over to the proper authorities to investigate. We want everyone to be the eyes and ears to protect children.”
Among the archdiocese’s first Review Board members, Diehl has witnessed a sea change.
“Back when it all started, there were so many different cases to review. We were meeting frequently, on a regular schedule. Of late, we don’t need as many meetings,” she said. “We’re getting fewer and fewer reports of abuse by priests. Most of the cases are very old allegations that happened a very long time ago when victims of the abuse were not talking about it. I’d say that is the good news story.”
Diehl also credits archdiocesan leadership. As Review Board chairman, “Judge Talbot really focuses in on our mission. We get the work done. He is an exceptional leader – Msgr. Bugarin as well – and people should be aware of that,” Diehl said.
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.”
While the archdiocese remains vigilant, “we’ve done a solid job for 20 years now by way of our education programs,” said Judge Talbot. “The key to prevention is education. You educate particularly young people, moms and dads, and you do background checks. We’ve given young people the tools to say no, to push away, and to speak to their parents or persons in authority about anything that is inappropriate. We are now into multiple decades, having trained hundreds of thousands of kids, many of whom are now adults.
“We did it because we had to do it; we had a duty to do it, and we’re doing it more than any other institution,” Judge Talbot added. “Young people are not as reticent about speaking out. Parents will listen to them, teachers will listen to them, institutions and the Church will listen to them.”
“We really do care about the victims,” Judge Talbot continued. “We care about what they have to say. We will listen very carefully, and then we will act. I think victims can feel confident that we will do the best we can, and we are open to hearing from them.”
Individuals with knowledge of sexual abuse by clergy or other Church representatives are urged to contact local law enforcement and/or the Michigan Attorney General’s Office at (844) 324-3374 or [email protected].
Individuals also may contact the Archdiocese of Detroit by visiting protect.aod.org or by calling the 24/7 victim assistance line at (866) 343-8055 or by emailing [email protected]. There are no time limits or restrictions on individuals wishing to report abuse.
For more information on the Archdiocese of Detroit’s response to abuse and commitment to preventing future incidents from occurring in our communities, please visit protect.aod.org.