Sacred Heart Seminary: Ground Zero for Catholic Abuse Scandal in Detroit

February 25, 2019, 10:00 PM

The author, a freelance writer and former Detroit Free Press reporter, attended Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit in the 1960s. 

By Michael Betzold

“If an investigator knocks on your door, ask to see their badge, not their rosary.”

That’s what Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told Catholics last week, warning them not to trust the church to self-police its abuse scandal. She said that, like Michigan State University investigating Larry Nassar, the Catholic Church is more interested in protecting itself than serving its flock. I share her suspicions.

Sacred Heart Seminary on Chicago Boulevard. (Facebook photos: Detroit Archdiocese)

Self-policing didn’t work well when I was a high school student boarding at Sacred Heart Seminary in the 1960s. From the close of evening prayers until we sat down to breakfast in the refectory the next morning, Grand Silence was in force.

You were supposed to be praying for discernment about your vocation, not joking around with your classmates. Talking was punishable with demerits, and enough demerits could get you expelled. But any time the proctor was out of the dorm, teenage taunts and tricks would erupt. For some of the less pious among us, our seminary years were spent learning how to defy arbitrary rules that were enforced by a larger patriarchal code of Grand Silence.

I didn’t learn about what that code protected at Sacred Heart until decades later, when a close friend finally revealed that he’d been assaulted by a faculty priest during his senior year. He was not the only victim.

Not surprisingly, seminarians targeted were intimidated and ashamed to speak out. Some were threatened with expulsion or deliberately flunked in classes taught by the perpetrators or their friends on the faculty. Our class size dwindled from over 200 entering freshmen to just 88 graduates. I always thought the attrition was due to the same loss of vocation I was experiencing — or just poor grades. Now I wonder whether some departing classmates were fleeing from abuse.

The criminal misbehavior of a disturbingly sizable minority of priests toward small children is not the whole picture in the Catholic Church. And the key role that seminaries have played in grooming, enabling and protecting perpetrators isn’t widely known.

The #MeToo movement has focused on how politicians and celebrities and bosses have used their power over subordinate females to engage in many levels of sexual harassment and abuse. Similarly, the church has protected and covered up not just pedophilia, but also clerics who have preyed on teenagers and young adult aspirants to the clergy. Among other victims are adults beneath them in the hierarchy -- including many nuns, as has recently been widely reported.

Secrets and silence

Bishop Accountability, a group chronicling the scandal, notes that “the culture at some seminaries seems to have facilitated abusive behavior, and seminaries also fostered a silence about abuse, even among seminarians who were not involved in molestation.”

That was certainly the case at Sacred Heart. For decades, it appears, the Gothic Revival institution on Chicago Boulevard was both a training ground for abusers and a safe place for transgressors -- even a prominent nun, -- to be protected by the men in charge.

To this day Grand Silence shields many long-held secrets. My classmates still don’t know who among us were victimized, who were aware but silenced, which older seminarians or priests may have been complicit, and who turned a blind eye. Some have spent a lifetime trying to deal with the impact of being abused.

The subculture existed at Sacred Heart for decades before and after I was a student there.

Gumbleton's revelation 

In 2006, at a hearing in Columbus on a bill to reform Ohio’s statute of limitations, Tom Gumbleton became the first American bishop to reveal he had been abused himself during his seminary years in the 1940s. When a Sacred Heart faculty priest invited him and another boy to his cabin for a weekend and put his hand down his pants, Gumbleton told me, “I was completely oblivious, so I didn’t think of it as sexual assault. I never said anything about it” — until 60 years later in Columbus.

Within days of his testimony, the papal nuncio sent an urgent missive to Detroit. Gumbleton agreed to resign as a bishop, and Cardinal Adam Maida forced him to leave St. Leo’s parish in Detroit, where he was a beloved pastor.

Abuse of seminarians by priests, of teenage seminarians by some college seminarians, and of young boys by some seminarians and priests was an open secret among those who knew — but others were completely unaware. And “nobody has ever apologized for what they’ve done to us,” said another classmate, John O’Brien, who got no response a decade ago when he openly asked for an accounting at a seminary awards dinner.

My classmate Karl Wizinsky, who went on to college at Sacred Heart, says Fr. Thaddeus Ozog, the rector, gave him a written evaluation that characterized him as “unapproachable.” When Ozog died of AIDS in 1994, his brother said he'd contracted the disease from a blood transfusion — yet many found that improbable. Finally, this past November, the archdiocese announced a new allegation of child abuse by Ozog, who had also worked at seven parishes. It seemed very little and very late. Of 63 local clergymen listed as “credibly accused of abuse” by the Archdiocese of Detroit, 30 are deceased.

Ozog often would vacation with another seminary faculty member, Fr. Gerald Shirilla. After the father of one seminarian reported Shirilla for abusing his son, Shirilla was quietly dismissed from Sacred Heart, but he remained an influential priest. In 1983, Cardinal Edmund Szoka named him director of the archdiocesan department of worship. In that capacity, he organized Pope John Paul II’s mass at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1987. That’s right — a perp was in charge of welcoming the pope to Detroit.


In 1993, a victim named Declan DeMeyer sued Shirilla and the archdiocese, but the case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. Shirilla was eventually sent to a secret “desensitization” treatment center in Maryland run by the church to try to reform its predators — who were usually said to be on “sick leave.” Then he was reassigned to a parish in northern Michigan. In 2002, former pro baseball player Tom Paciorek revealed how Shirilla, while in a prior post as pastor of St. Ladislaus in Hamtramck, would take him and his brother to the seminary and molest them.

The Face of the scandal 

In 1988, Fr. John Nienstedt was put in charge of Sacred Heart. Gumbleton, who at the time supervised parishes for the archdiocese, told me that Nienstedt’s activities at Sacred Heart were “never openly talked about” in meetings at the chancery. But Gumbleton recalls Msgr. John Zenz, one of my classmates who had become Cardinal Maida’s right-hand man, urging he be removed from Sacred Heart. In 1994, half the seminarians sent the archdiocese a letter complaining about Nienstedt’s regime. 

Maida sent him to a suburban parish then named him an auxiliary bishop, and he remained on the seminary faculty until 2000 — and after that became infamous in Minnesota.

As the archbishop in Minneapolis-St. Paul from 2007-15, Nienstedt became a lightning rod in the widening church abuse scandal. Nienstedt faced multiple misconduct allegations, including sexual harassment of priests and seminarians in Detroit and Minnesota. Prosecutors accused his regime of mishandling abuse claims and filed charges against the Twin Cities archdiocese. Parishioners there marched in protest, demanding he resign.

The archdiocese hired a law firm to do its own investigation, and it collected affidavits from six Catholic priests and ex-priests (three from Detroit). Zenz told the investigators to interview a former seminarian at Sacred Heart, James Heathcott, who testified that Nienstedt had expelled him after he refused an invitation to join him for a weekend at a ski chalet. Another Sacred Heart seminarian, Joseph Rangitsch, alleged that Nienstedt touched his buttocks and warned him if he told anyone he could “make things unpleasant for you very quickly.” Eventually, a plea deal was reached, and criminal charges were dropped, but the settlement was so costly the archdiocese declared bankruptcy.

In 2016, a former seminarian at Sacred Heart, Fr. John Fleckenstein, let Nienstedt minister at his church in Battle Creek. Local Catholics protested until Nienstedt left the state. In October 2018, Jeff Anderson, whose Minnesota law firm specializes in working for clerical abuse victims, filed a lawsuit against the Vatican on behalf of two alleged victims of abuse during Nienstedt’s tenure in the Twin Cities. The lawsuit included new allegations that Nienstedt had covered up charges against a priest said to be his lover. The suit demanded the Vatican release its files on thousands of priest abusers.

That same month, it was announced that Nienstedt had returned to his old home in the Detroit area. Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who succeeded Nienstedt as the Sacred Heart rector from 1994 to 2003 and in 2009 took over the archdiocese, “asked him to refrain from public ministry,” according to an official statement. Despite all the allegations, Nienstedt maintains his innocence. Gumbleton, now 89, said he’s seen him in a bar frequented by older priests, shaking hands all around.

'The club of priests'

Former Bishop Thomas Gumbleton

“No one wants to speak out against the club of priests,” said Gumbleton, who knows you can be punished if you do. In his retirement, which began in 2006, Gumbleton has worked often with SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. One church lawyer told Gumbleton the survivors were just in it for the money. Gumbleton said the survivors he’s met wanted only to keep others from being abused: “They were not in it for the money.”

Theresa Camden and her friend weren’t either, but they were paid $20,000 by the head of the religious order of the Home Visitors of Mary after complaining about Sister Mary Finn’s treatment of them during their training in the HVM novitiate. On the eve of my story about that, Finn retired from the Sacred Heart faculty; she had lived and taught at the seminary for 50 years. Vigneron issued a bizarrely opaque statement saying that he had learned “partial details” about Sister Finn’s misconduct when he succeeded Nienstedt as rector in 1998 but thought “the matter had been resolved” back then. He would not answer my follow-up questions about whether he was referring to the $20,000 payment —  and has refused all requests for interviews.

The Catholic News Agency followed my report a day layer, quoting ex-seminarians saying Finn was “handsy,” used words like “hot” and “horny” as prompts for student writing assignments, and would walk into dressing rooms where students were half-naked. Another ex-student said that any complaints about her were dismissed out of hand.   

Camden’s story about Finn taking the two young women on weekend retreats where they were alone together and portraying physical closeness as “a deep and wholesome spiritual relationship” is very similar to many told by victims of abuse by priests. Bill Bouie, a student a few years behind me at Sacred Heart, said his parish priest, Robert Burkholder, would invite him and his brothers to a cabin and announce at bedtime there weren’t enough beds so that one kid would have to sleep with him. Bouie would respond that he’d sleep on the floor. Burkholder, who is deceased, was eventually prosecuted for pedophilia.

With Sacred Heart a safe sanctuary for abusive clergy, it’s not surprising that some seminarians mimicked the grooming process. The archdiocese operated two summer camps where seminarians would volunteer as counselors. Bouie called Camp Ozanam a “breeding ground” where older seminarians would “play tickle” with young campers. 

Is all that firmly in the past now that the church has said it has safeguards in place to protect minors? Nessel and other law enforcement officials don’t believe it is. Last year, after Pennsylvania’s attorney general opened a horrific new expanse of abuse, other states followed suit. In Illinois, the attorney general in early January announced an additional 500 priests were being investigated as abusers.

More than $4 million paid

The Detroit archdiocese has paid about $4.5 million in settlements and counseling costs to victims over 40 years, according to spokesman Ned McGrath. That’s far less than other, much smaller U.S. dioceses.

Here, the church has long had a friendly legal landscape. “Michigan has a horrific statute of limitations law, one of the worst in the country,” said David Clohessy, former director and now spokesman for SNAP. “When a victim calls me and tells their story and then says they’re from Michigan, my heart sinks. The overwhelming majority of disclosures come only when they are forced, and that usually means going to court.” But going to court in Michigan is usually a dead end, he said.

Anderson, the Minnesota attorney, said “the bishops have used the statute of limitations as a sword and a shield to protect themselves from being accountable for the horrors they were complicit in.”

In the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, reform bills in Lansing were countered by what Anderson called “the usual suspects” — the Catholic Church, insurance companies, and chambers of commerce, joined by the Michigan Association of State Universities. Last March, one month after bills to change the statute of limitations were introduced in Lansing, the Archdiocese of Detroit began quietly transferring the assets of hundreds of parishes to a new entity it created, Mooney Realty. Terry McKiernan of Bishop Accountability called it a move in a “shell game,” similar to actions taken elsewhere to protect institutional assets from potential liability.

Laws that eventually passed in Michigan were watered down from a proposed 30-year reporting window for abuse crimes to 15 years for a criminal complaint and 10 for a civil complaint. In other states where statutes of limitations have been relaxed, there’s been a flood of revelations. Anderson contends that “a lot of abusers’ identities are still yet to be revealed, including bishops.”

Michigan's seven Catholic dioceses. (Graphic: Archdiocese of Detroit)

The nationwide total of identified perpetrator priests, as reported by the National Catholic Conference of Bishops, has grown to 6,275 — a hundred times more than the Archdiocese of Detroit has identified.

Action from Lansing

The attorney general's office raided all seven dioceses in Michigan in October, Nessel says, and seized hundreds of thousands of documents. It’s following up on more than 300 tips and cooperating with 12 other states to track down criminals in the clergy.

“There are still predators in the priesthood,” she said, adding that church lawyers have been trying to get victims to sign non-disclosure agreements and agree to settlements. And if that is true, there are still authorities in the church who are shielding them.

In a pastoral letter last August, Vigneron called for “an accounting for the failures that have occurred” in the church. Msgr. Zenz, who is still a part-time faculty member at Sacred Heart, told me he knew nothing about abusive local priests until he read it in the newspapers. “I was as much in the dark as you were,” he said. Asked about his efforts at the chancery to get Nienstedt removed from Sacred Heart, Zenz stated “I didn’t have any influence in those things… It was not my place to be involved.” Then he refused to answer any more questions, saying: “I have nothing else to tell you.”

Recently our class held its 50th reunion at Zenz’s parish. When the mic was passed for a round of reminiscences, one classmate spoke about the need to discuss the painful secrets of our years at the seminary. Once again, no one responded.

Last Friday in Rome, Nigerian-born Sister Veronica Openibo told the pope at the current Vatican summit on the scandal: “Too often, we want to sit silent until the storm has passed. This storm will not pass by.”

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