The author is a Detroit freelance writer and former Detroit Free Press reporter.
By Michael Betzold
In a potentially groundbreaking case, an ex-priest accused of sexually assaulting a man in his 20s in 2013 in a church office in Westland pleaded guilty Tuesday to a lesser charge of aggravated assault.
After the Wayne County Circuit Court jury deliberated Monday afternoon without a verdict, ex-Priest Patrick Casey decided to plead guilty to the misdemeanor. He had faced a felony charge of third-degree criminal sexual conduct.
Casey had faced up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of the felony. The misdemeanor plea carries a maximum sentence of one year and a $1,000 fine. Sentencing is set for Nov. 20.
The gay victim, who asked to remain anonymous, was converting to Catholicism and feared going to hell for his homosexual thoughts and deeds when he asked Casey to hear his confession. The priest agreed but then immediately asked him to stand, pulled down his pants and performed oral sex.
In the days just before the assault in January 2013 at St. Theodore in Westland, the man, who suffers from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, had broken up with a boyfriend of six years and attempted suicide.
A Position of Authority
Assistant State Attorney General Danielle Hagaman-Clark told the jury that Casey was in a position of authority and exploited a vulnerable adult “without regard to victim’s wishes” to remain a chaste gay Catholic.
Casey did not take the stand in his own defense. His attorney, Stephen Rabaut called only three character witnesses, all of whom had worked with him in parishes in west-side suburbs.
In his closing argument, he said the sex acts “were 100 percent consensual” and Casey, who was defrocked in August 2018 after an internal investigation by the archdiocese of Detroit, had sinned but didn’t violate any state law. He told the jury the victim “not only voluntarily consented, he kept pushing the envelope forward” by suggesting other sex acts.
But Judge Wanda Evans told the jury the law covering “force and coercion” in sexual assault cases doesn’t require that the victim of a nonconsensual act take any further steps.
Prosecutor Hagaman-Clark argued it would be like if someone stuck a gun to your head and asked for your money but you turned over your car keys too -- meaning cooperation beyond the initial demand doesn’t make the assault any less a crime. For his part, the victim testified he was in a state of shock and was hoping to “get it over with” by giving Casey what he thought the priest wanted.
'It's especially praiseworthy'
Before jurors got the case Monday morning, Hagaman-Clark won a key ruling when Judge Evans allowed jury instructions to include consideration of whether Casey was acting as the victim’s spiritual counselor when the incident occurred.
The prosecutor cited two prior Michigan cases, including a 2008 appeals court ruling, that said a psychiatrist could be held liable for criminal assault against an adult patient under the guise of treatment, and argued that a priest serving as a spiritual counselor was an analogous situation.
Mike Finnegan, with the Jeff Anderson firm in Minneapolis, which specializes in lawsuits against clergy for abuse, says such an argument in a criminal case could set a new precedent. Though some states have laws on the books saying priests are similar to therapists, Michigan doesn’t.
Despite its mixed resolution, the case could open new avenues for prosecuting priests who victimize adults.
“Abuse by a priest is maybe even worse than a doctor with a patient or a therapist with a client because priests are the only professionals who claim they can save your soul for all eternity,” said David Clohessy, national spokesman for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). He added: “It’s especially praiseworthy for Dana Nessel to go after a case involving abuse of an adult, because law enforcement tends to minimize the harm done to such a victim, and we know that’s not the case.”
Nessel has cases pending against a half-dozen other priests in various jurisdictions, but Casey’s was the first to go to trial after more than a million documents were seized in a raid last October from all seven Michigan dioceses.
In a statement, Nessel said:
“While this is the first conviction resulting from our investigation, I can assure you it is still only the beginning of an aggressive pursuit of justice for all those who have been victimized by priests or members of the clergy.”