AG releases report on abuse allegations at Catholic Diocese

Dana Nessel, Attorney General of Michigan, listens to a question from reporters in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

By Michigan Advance

January 9, 2024

BY STEVE NEAVLING, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—Attorney General Dana Nessel said Monday that her office investigated sexual abuse allegations against 26 priests and two deacons from the Diocese of Gaylord in northern Michigan.

The 130-page report details allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy between 1951 and 2021.

Despite the numerous accusations, no charges have been filed as part of the report, largely because of the statute of limitations, which requires charges to be filed within a certain period of time after a crime occurs.

Nessel said the report is intended to shed light on a dark corner of the Catholic church and to provide assurances to the victims that the allegations were fully investigated.

“Our promise to the victims was that every case of sexual abuse and assault would be thoroughly reviewed and that the results of the investigation would be transparent,” Nessel said in a statement. “I especially want to thank the survivors who have shared their stories, sometimes for the first time after decades of silence. Their willingness to come forward has helped bring attention to an issue that has affected so many in our state and our country, especially children.”

Of the 28 clergy listed in the report, 16 are believed to be dead. Three of them are still active in the diocese, one as a pastor and the two others in retired ministry.

A vast majority of the cases stem from allegations prior to 2002.

For the investigation, the Attorney General’s Office seized more than 20 boxes of records and reviewed more 700,000 digital documents.

In some of the cases dating back decades, the diocese allowed alleged abusers to remain in the ministry, a practice that was common nationwide until 2002, when The Boston Globe exposed the Catholic church in a series of bombshell reports that gave way to thousands of new allegations.

One priest, Ronald Vincent Gronowski, was allowed to remain in the ministry until May 2002, despite what the diocese admitted were “credible” accusations that he sexually abused three teenagers from 1969 to 1981 while at the Diocese of Gaylord. One of the victims received a settlement for $50,000 in 1995. A condition of the settlement was that he never reveal the alleged abuse.

Nevertheless, Gronowski continued his ministry.

In a letter to the diocese’s bishop in April 2002, one of the alleged victims wrote, “I am disgusted that you have allowed him to live the good life in Hawaii, then return to the Diocese of Gaylord to serve the church and find this to be totally irresponsible on your part as Bishop. You swept me under a rug, and you brought the perpetrator back to serve as a priest. You covered this up by hiding him in a small town, and from what I observe right now, you should no longer be serving in the church.”

Gronowski resigned a month later “to avoid further scandal.”

In response to Nessel’s report, Jeffrey J. Walsh, bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord, said at a news conference Monday that he wanted to express “deep sorrow and shame” to the victims.

“I humbly offer an apology to each victim survivor who has been violated by anyone affiliated with the Catholic Church,” Walsh said. “Many of you have suffered in darkness for years, and I am truly sorry for that.”

Walsh said the diocese “fully cooperated” with Nessel’s office and has taken steps to prevent abusers from remaining in the diocese.

Of the 28 priests and deacons in Nessel’s report, the diocese acknowledged that 14 of them were “credibly accused of abuse of minors.”

They are Gronowski, Patrick Barrett, Lionel Harnish, James Holtz, Fr. Benedict Marciulionis, Fr. Raymond Pilarski, Terrence Raymond, Fr. Robert Gordon Smith, Fr. John Tupper, Theophane (William) Goett, Denis (Joseph) Hall, Wilbert (Norbert) Hegener, Leo Olschaysken, and Laurus (Raymond) Rhode.

Although most of the cases are decades old, some of them are more recent.

In January 2017, Fr. Sylvestre Lincoln Obwaka, of Kenya, was a pastor at St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rogers City when he invited a man to celebrate mass for children at the church. According to prosecutors, Obwaka sexually assaulted the man while both of them were inebriated.

“He started to position himself with my legs over his shoulders and he kept saying ‘fuck me,’” the alleged victim recalled. “The other thing he kept saying was “you voted for Trump, you want me deported, don’t you?”

He continued, “He penetrated me and I was frozen. I didn’t say anything or try to run away. I should have tried to run away. But he stayed awhile.”

According to the report, Obwaka claimed he had “blacked out” and did not remember what had happened.

In February 2017, Obwaka was charged with criminal sexual conduct and suspended from the diocese. While prosecutors were preparing for the trial, another alleged victim from Africa told the Diocese of Gaylord that Obwaka “sodomized” him in 2003. The victim said sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was rampant in Kenya.

A jury acquitted Obwaka in July 2017.

One of the most recent cases involves Fr. Bryan W. Medlin, who was pastor of the National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods in Indian River. A group of teenagers said he used social media to send them “profane, inappropriate, embarrassing, and racist comments.”

In one message in 2021, Medlin allegedly said he had recently attended a wedding and saw “at least 17 pairs of full blown Cleavage in my face.”

“It was beautiful, fought back the temptation to bury my head in them,” Medlin wrote. “I’m a man of true celibacy.”

He continued, “Hell I wanted to motorboat everyone of them. If there were three more pairs of tits in my face I would have had no choice but to use my two hands afterwords, if you get my drift. But I fought back.”

Saying there were Muslims at the wedding, he quipped, “At least the Muslims didn’t blow up the shrine.”

The diocese placed Medlin on administrative leave, and he was released from ministry in March 2023.

Prosecutors did not file charges because he wasn’t accused of committing a crime.

The sole clergyman still serving as a pastor is Donald Robert Geyman, who was accused of inappropriately touching a woman in 2012 and exchanging sexually graphic text messages with another woman in 2021. After receiving a photo of a woman’s breasts, Geyman allegedly responded, “Man I want to feel them” and “I would be so gentle.”

No charges were sought in that case.

Nessel said the report was an important step toward helping victims heal and preventing future abuses.

“We must break down the walls of silence that so often surround sexual assault and abuse,” Nessel said. “In the end, we hope this investigation provides a voice to those who have suffered in silence for so long and shines a light on those alleged offenders whose actions allowed them to evade true accountability.”

READ MORE: Here’s where the Michigan AG’s sweeping Catholic clergy sex abuse investigation stands

This story first ran in the Detroit Metro Times and was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license.

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