Judge rejects former Catholic priest's sentencing agreement after hearing victim impact statements

Daniel O’Brien, a Circuit court judge, rejected former Catholic priest Gary Berthiaume's plea agreement after hearing victim impact statements. The jurist sentenced Berthiaume to 20 months to 15 years in prison, instead of the 366-day sentence accepted by the prosecution, saying that the punishment did not fit the crime. The former priest subsequently exercised his right to withdraw his plea. The prosecution will proceed, and Berthiaume may now be charged with the two additional counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and another count of gross indecency that were dropped as part of the plea deal.

We know that impact statements provide an opportunity for survivors of sexual abuse to express in their own words what they, their family, and others close to them have experienced because of the crime. Many victims also find that it helps provide some measure of closure to the ordeal the abuse caused. Judge O'Brien heard from several survivors, including two men who described how they were "too scared as kids to report the assaults, which led to shame, guilt, and problems with social interaction — some of which continue still, nearly 50 years later." The men also expressed anger, not only at Berthiaume but also at leaders of the Catholic Church who protected priests suspected of or known to have sexually abused young parishioners. One of the victims went so far as to call Berthiaume “a demon who disguised himself as a man of God.”  We applaud the survivors who offered their statements and painted a clearer picture of the true depth of the harm caused by Berthiaume and the Church that protected him. 

Berthiaume was convicted in 1978 of the abuse of two children in Detroit. He served only six months in jail, then was transferred to the Diocese of Cleveland, where he was again accused. In 1987, Berthiaume was moved to the Diocese of Joliet. Despite his 1978 conviction, he was allowed to work as a Catholic priest until 2002. He was finally removed from ministry following the Boston Globe's series on the cover-up of criminal behavior by officials in the Archdiocese of Boston. In 2007, Berthiaume was finally removed from the clerical state.

For victims of sexual abuse, 1978 can seem like yesterday. It is extremely disturbing to survivors to map the trail of terror Berthiaume left in his wake. From Detroit to Cleveland and then to Joliet, this predator priest was accused on multiple occasions and even convicted, yet the Church continued to return him to unsuspecting communities until this despicable practice was finally exposed by secular journalists. 

Enough cannot be said about the work of Michigan's Office of the Attorney General under Dana Nessel.  The ongoing excavation of the truth is not only identifying criminals that can still be prosecuted, but it is also unveiling the network of enabling bishops who allowed the abuse to continue, a crime itself even if it apparently cannot be prosecuted.

We feel it is imperative that the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops create a department dedicated to launching and maintaining a database of known Catholic abusers, their current whereabouts, their photos, and their complete work histories. If it were up to us, the bishops, auxiliary bishops, vicars for clergy, and seminary officials who set known perpetrators loose in unsuspecting communities would also have a place in this database. 

CONTACT: Mike McDonnell, SNAP Communications Manager ([email protected], 267-261-0578), Zach Hiner, Executive Director (517-974-9009, [email protected]) Michigan SNAP Leaders Nadja Tirrell, 947-247-0143, [email protected] Nancy Crabbs, 616-514-7973, [email protected]

(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)

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