Four Catholic priests are facing trial in closed-door church courts in a major new effort by the Archdiocese of Detroit to resolve 26 cases in which clergy are accused of sexually abusing minors.
Until now, most of the accused men have been forbidden to work as priests, but they remain in a legal limbo without any immediate avenue for appeal or any final order to leave the ministry.
"Our hope is to resolve all of this by the end of 2004," Bishop Walter Hurley, the coordinator of the archdiocesan effort, said Thursday. He released summaries of the system, the first public glimpse of the church's legal strategy.
Over the past year, the archdiocese has asked the Vatican to make an initial ruling on the 26 cases, Hurley said. Thirteen cases were returned to Detroit for action; and the Vatican is expected to send back instructions on the other cases soon, he said.
Among the 13 cases that were returned by the Vatican to Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida, the majority called for further action against the priests.
The 13 responses included two men ordered to leave the priesthood entirely, four to be put on trial in the new church courts to determine their final status and six priests' cases that were handed back to Maida for a review by a team of legal advisers, most likely leading toward the priests' permanent removal from ministry.
The other case in this group of 13 was reported earlier and involved a loophole in church law: In February, charges were dropped against the Rev. Brian Bjorklund, a former Detroit priest and U.S. Navy chaplain who now lives in California. The case against him was rejected, because he was accused of abusing a 16-year-old boy in the 1970s, which was not considered a crime under church law at that time.
Although Hurley declined to identify most of the men on the list until their cases are completed, the Vatican orders concerning at least two priests were made public earlier this year. One of the priests facing a trial is the Rev. James Wysocki, who was removed as pastor of Holy Cross Church in Marine City last year. And one of the men ordered to leave the priesthood entirely, a process called laicization, is the Rev. Joseph Sito, who once served parishes in Warren and Detroit.
The men could not be reached Thursday for comment.
By bringing final resolution to all the cases, "we hope this process will bring healing to all the people involved," Hurley said.
That goal was welcomed by Pat Hallman, 75, a former church secretary at St. Suzanne Catholic Church in Detroit and a friend of the Rev. Dennis Duggan, one of the first priests accused and removed in March 2002.
"I worked for Father Dennis Duggan. If he's innocent or guilty -- that I don't know. I can't believe that he's guilty. But this guy's been in limbo for two and a half years already. Tell him if he's a priest or if he's not a priest," Hallman said.
However, the closed-door nature of the process concerned David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "This is an untested system; we need to watch it closely."