Nessel: More charges coming in Catholic clergy sexual abuse probe

By: - June 6, 2019 3:05 pm

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Attorney General Dana Nessel told the Michigan Advance on Wednesday that her department will issue more charges in its ongoing investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic church.

Last month, Nessel announced 21 charges of criminal sexual misconduct against five Michigan priests after receiving more than 450 tips on the clergy abuse hotline, which made national news. She declined to share details on future charges or timing.

Updated: Nessel announces sexual assault charges against 5 Catholic priests

In an interview last week on Mackinac Island, Nessel said, “I can’t foresee a scenario where we don’t have further charges. The fact that all of our cases came in, all the ones that we just charged — they were all just from the tip line.”

Nessel has received death threats over the investigation, as the Advance first reported.

Attorney General Dana Nessel at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 29, 2019 | Andrew Roth

The Democratic AG has chafed with the GOP-controlled Legislature about the investigation, which began last year under GOP now-former Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked in her budget proposal for the Legislature to appropriate $2 million in funding, which comes from a Wells Fargo settlement, as Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rosssman-McKinney noted. But Republicans have stripped money for the probe in their proposed budget plans.

State Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) has accused Nessel of being “anti-Catholic,” although she has spoken out against anti-Catholic bigotry in her hometown of Plymouth and her wife, Alanna Maguire, comes from a Catholic family.

Nessel said that the Legislature is taking “partisanship too far” and is showing it “doesn’t believe that this investigation is important.

“That deeply upsets me,” she said. “… I was elected, maybe all of these folks were elected, to help residents be safe and to protect people. And to say that victims of sexual assault are not worthy of our attention, I think, is a very sad statement and one that I do not subscribe to.”

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: You’ve also taken heat for your investigation into Catholic clergy sexual abuse that you took that over from Bill Schuette. You’ve had the Republican Legislature zero out your funding for it. You’ve had a Republican House member call you ‘anti-Catholic.’ With your recent charges against five priests, do you feel vindicated?

Nessel: Well, I don’t know if it’s a matter of vindication. I mean, what I knew when I took over the cases were that there were some incredibly disturbing matters that were contained in the hundreds of thousands of documents that were seized from all seven dioceses and I knew that we were getting a steady stream of tips in from people who had been victims.

… I would say that [this is] the second-biggest investigation ever performed by the office of Michigan Attorney General, second I can only think of Flint [over the water crisis].

… But, so in my mind, given the fact that I believe there are likely hundreds and hundreds of victims, maybe even thousands, and that there are sexual predators still out there victimizing people [there’s a] great importance of ensuring that this investigation is done properly and gets done in a timely manner.

And quite honestly, it’s more important in some ways than some types of investigations, because we have the statute of limitations. … And when that occurs, how do you not provide justice to someone who has already been victimized, but you’re leaving other potential victims to be victimized in the future?

One of the things that I wanted to make clear during the course of the press conference was that, on one hand, you can say that you can’t put a price on ensuring people’s safety and make them certain that people are not victims of a sexual predator.

But in another way, you can put a price on it. And I say that because we know what the repercussions are for a person who is the victim of a sexual assault, especially as a child. And we know the toll it takes on a person — so whether or not it’s the fact that a person may never obtain certain educational degrees that they otherwise would have, if they require more in terms of psychiatric care or emergency visits, if the rates of absenteeism are high, that they’re more likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol or to be incarcerated one day or they’re more likely to have attempted suicide.

These are all things that actually affect our state, not just the individual — not just on a humanitarian basis just hearing about people and their treatment and how a crime affects them. If we can put an actual financial figure on it. …

I mean, look at the fact that the Legislature doesn’t believe that this investigation is important. That deeply upsets me; they haven’t appropriated a single penny to assist us in this.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

… And not to mention the fact that I was elected, maybe all of these folks were elected, to help residents be safe and to protect people. And to say that victims of sexual assault are not worthy of our attention, I think, is a very sad statement and one that I do not subscribe to. And I am committed to utilize the position of Michigan attorney general to assist sexual assault victims — whether they are victims of clergy members, victims of the cavalier attitude Michigan state university took, or anybody else.

These are important cases and they deserve to be treated with respect.

Michigan Advance: Can we expect further charges, because you still have mountains of evidence to go through?

Nessel: I can’t foresee a scenario where we don’t have further charges. The fact that all of our cases came in, all the ones that we just charged, they were all just from the tip line. We corroborated those with documents that were filed, but we didn’t even get to the files themselves, because these are just from the tips that came. And now we’ve got another — what? — couple dozen since the news conference on [May 24].

And in fact … the first charges, that story leaked out [May 23] — and we were getting calls [that] evening. I think it’s a matter of just the victims knowing that we care and that there is somebody out there that’s pursuing this is enough sometimes to inspire people to want to share their story. Because they know something’s going to be done about it. And it gives them the courage to do so, to come forward because they see that other people are doing that.

Attorney General Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

Rossman-McKinney: Could I just clarify on the cost of the clergy case investigation? That’s $2 million dollars that we already have received as part of a totally unrelated settlement. It’s money that if we already had; we simply need the Legislature to earmark it for this. … We’re not asking for new money.

Nessel: … My understanding was that last fall, the office was set to be appropriated $2 million dollars for this investigation. … You’re already supposed to be appropriating it, but once I became the new attorney general, as opposed to somebody else, it was retracted.

And if that’s the case, I need to say that it is the most heinous kind of partisanship I can possibly imagine to say that pursuing sexual predators is a worthy cause — but only if it’s done by a person of a particular political party. Because the people that we are protecting, I don’t know if they’re Republicans; I don’t know if they’re Democrats; I don’t know if they’re independents. And I don’t care.

Attorney General Dana Nessel and staff at press conference on clergy sexual abuse | Michael Gerstein

I just want to make certain that people don’t become victims of sexual predators, irrespective of their political partisanship, if they have any at all. And the thing is, the people who are working on our staff are the same exact people who were working there under Bill Schuette.

The only difference is that I brought in the person who was widely considered to be the best sexual assault prosecutor in the state. She was working for the Prosecutors Attorneys Association [of Michigan] and her job was to train other people on prosecuting sexual assault cases. So I brought her in. ‘Oh, is she a Democrat? Oh, is she a Republican?’ I don’t know. …

Michigan Advance: Is it Danielle Hagaman-Clark?

Nessel: Yeah. I don’t know what she is; I just know she’s the best. And I wanted the best person possible to handle this, so the fact that this is a partisan issue, it just saddens me and disappoints me. This is an example of … taking partisanship too far.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.