Officials in the Catholic Diocese of Lansing said Monday they believe at least a half-dozen boys were molested in the 1950s and early 1960s by a Laingsburg priest.
They also urged any others who may have been abused by the Rev. John Martin to come forward so they can get counseling.
"I pray to God there are no more victims," said Bishop Earl Boyea, leader of the diocese that serves more than 200,000 Catholics in 10 counties, including Ingham, Eaton, Clinton and Livingston counties. "Think about these men carrying that burden all these years."
Boyea said he learned of the abuse claims on June 10 after two men told their stories to the Rev. Duaine Pamment, current pastor of St. Isidore Catholic Church in Laingsburg.
The men told Pamment they had been abused by Martin, pastor of St. Isidore from 1941 to 1966. Martin also was pastor at St. Mary parish in Morrice from 1938 to 1941 and was in Battle Creek, Yale and Detroit prior to that. He died in 1968. Pamment immediately reported their claims, according to Boyea.
"We realized from their comments that there might be more people involved," Boyea said.
Notices were placed in church bulletins at St. Isidore, St. Mary and Battle Creek's St. Phillip parishes asking anyone with concerns about Martin's pastorate to contact Monsignor Steven Raica, chancellor of the diocese. The additional victims then came forward.
Boyea and Raica said the men were interviewed individually and their stories were consistent. He said he believes the allegations are true.
Raica said the victims were between the ages of 11 and 17 at the time the incidents occurred.
Jack and Julie Risch started attending St. Isidore in 1962 and raised their eight children - the first few of whom were baptized by Martin - in the church. Both were surprised to hear of the allegations against him.
"We would never guess that," said Julie Risch, 72. Jack Risch, 75, said he did a lot of volunteer work in the church and had a good relationship with Martin.
"Personally, I don't have any recollection of anything improper," he said.
Jack Risch said Martin loved the outdoors, fishing and gardening. Both of the Risches recalled that a 1966 fire that burned the church to the ground devastated Martin and prompted his retirement.
In 2002, then-Bishop Carl Mengeling made it public that the Diocese of Lansing and the De La Salle Christian Brothers of the Midwest had paid for psychological counseling for a man who claimed he was assaulted in 1966 by a Christian brother who taught at the former Gabriels Catholic High School and by the Rev. James Steven Sullivan.
Sullivan, former pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in East Lansing, denied the allegation and was never charged. He left the Lansing area in 1985, served as Bishop of the Fargo, N.D., diocese and died in 2006.
Two other priests who served at Lansing-area churches and were later accused of abuse were permanently removed from ministry. The Rev. James Novak had served at St. Therese of Lisieux in North Lansing and at St. Mary in Westphalia. The Rev. Alphonsus Boardway, who belonged to a Franciscan order, served at Holy Cross on Lansing's west side. His order settled in 1994 for about $100,000 with the man who accused him.
Out of about 700 priests who have served the Lansing diocese since its founding in 1937, nine have been removed from ministry or have had claims made against them after their death. All claims related to any of them occurred at least 10 years ago, said Michael Diebold, director of communications for the diocese.
Boyea said the diocese has put many safeguards in place to reduce the possibility of abuse by clergy, church staffers or volunteers.
Some are simple: Windows have been added to classroom and office doors. Staffers and volunteers double up on most assignments, so kids are never alone with one adult. All must undergo training on how to interact appropriately with kids.
The Diocese of Lansing also has a victim assistance coordinator, Adrienne Rowland, who listens to any allegations of or concerns about abuse and can refer victims for counseling and to a review board.
Retreats for victims of sexual abuse also are conducted at St. Francis Retreat Center in DeWitt. During those retreats, Boyea apologizes to victims on behalf of the church.
"The level of awareness has been raised among all in the church," Boyea said. "Everybody's on board, and so is watching."