DETROIT — Taking advantage of a provision in Michigan's statute of limitations, authorities charged four Roman Catholic priests who once worked in the Detroit Archdiocese with sex abuse in cases dating back decades.
None of the priests is still active, and all live in other states--which is the main reason prosecutors were able to charge them Tuesday, Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan said.
Prosecutors used an exception in the old statute of limitations law that allows charges to be brought if the suspect left the state before the six-year statute ran out.
The charged priests are: Robert Burkholder, 82, who lives on the island of Oahu, Hawaii; Jason E. Sigler, 64, of New Mexico; Harry Benjamin, 60, of Vienna, Va.; and Edward Olszewski, 67, of Key Largo, Fla. Each man is accused of criminal sexual conduct involving a boy 14 or younger.
"The magnitude of this is astonishing," Duggan said.
Cardinal Adam Maida said the charges were "serious and sobering news for the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Detroit."
At least 300 priests have been suspended or have resigned since the abuse crisis erupted in January with the case of a former Boston priest who was shuffled between parishes despite evidence he molested children.
Prosecutors nationwide have been reviewing diocesan personnel records to see whether criminal charges should be brought against priests accused of sexually abusing minors.
But civil authorities have so far found only a few that fall within the statute of limitations.
American bishops agreed at a meeting in June to remove all errant priests from public ministry and to turn more information over to prosecutors.
In Detroit, the archdiocese released internal records in May about abuse allegations made against priests over the last 15 years.
Church officials then gave Duggan's office files with accusations that went back further.
Duggan said 15 of those priests would have been charged if not for the statute of limitations.
He also said that Burkholder admitted in a 1993 letter to the archdiocese that he had molested 23 boys, going as far back as the 1940s--though he is charged in a case dating from the 1980s.
"Father Burkholder's means of seduction was to tell these young boys, many of whom were altar boys, that their bodies were gifts from God and therefore were to be shared" with the priest, Duggan said.