FREELAND, MI — The criminal probe into a Freeland priest accused of sexually assaulting two men could expand to encompass nearly a half dozen other area clergy, if sexual abuse allegations police are hearing prove credible, investigators say.
“We are getting tips on other priests,” said Tittabawassee Township Detective Brian Berg. “I would imagine when we verify some of the information we’re getting, that other priests will be under investigation.”
Berg stressed the allegations of sexual abuse involving five to six other area priests haven’t been verified. If they are, an official investigation will launch, the detective said.
Erin Looby Carlson, a spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, reiterated the diocese will cooperate with law enforcement investigations.
Tips and allegations of sexual abuse have flooded Berg’s department following the arrest of 71-year-old Rev. Robert DeLand Jr.
DeLand, a longtime area priest, was charged Monday, Feb. 26, with three felonies on accusations he sexually assaulted a 21-year-old man and 17-year-old boy in his Saginaw Township condominium.
Nearly half a dozen more people have told investigators stories of alleged sexual abuse, attempted or otherwise, at the hands of DeLand, Berg previously said.
Alleged victims tell police Freeland priest had history of sexual abuse
FREELAND, MI — Investigators say nearly half a dozen people have come forward with stories of alleged sexual abuse, attempted or otherwise, at the hands of a Mid-Michigan priest charged this week with sexual assault.
Some of the new allegations against the Rev. Robert DeLand Jr., 71,date back nearly three decades, and all of them involve people who were minors at the time and accessed through DeLand’s role as a priest, said Tittabawassee Township Detective Brian Berg.
Apart from one female, most of the alleged victims are male, Berg said.
“We want to encourage these victims to know that we’re going to hear them, we’re going to listen and we’re going to leave no stone unturned,” Berg said. “No one is going to stand alone in this anymore.”
In addition to victim statements, Berg said police are receiving “dozens and dozens” of tips about the Freeland pastor since his arrest Sunday night, Feb. 25, at his Saginaw Township condominium on Mallard Cove.
“We’re trying to get our hands around the enormity of it and put it into some kind of logical order,” the detective said.
Saginaw Township Police Chief Donald Pussehl said his office has since received five calls regarding DeLand’s “questionable behavior” in the past.
“Throughout the years, some of the things he would do with young boys, such as inviting them to his home, was somewhat strange,” Pussehl said, relaying the callers’ concerns.
Chris Pham, a spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, said the diocese is unaware of any past accusations against DeLand.
“To the best of our knowledge, Father DeLand has not been subject to disciplinary action or accusations of priestly misconduct,” Pham said.
After the criminal proceedings against DeLand concludes, Pham said the diocese will conduct their own investigation.
DeLand’s arrest, and subsequent charges of sexual assault, came after Tittabawassee and Saginaw townships finished their months-long investigations into allegations of sex crimes involving alcohol, drugs and underage boys.
Separate cases, similar situations
Although the cases were separate, one involving a 21-year-old man and another a 17-year-old male, they were similar in DeLand’s alleged predatory tactics, said Saginaw County Assistant Prosecutor Mark Gaertner.
“There was a number of grooming techniques that were used to befriend the victim, to prey on the victim’s weaknesses and to lure the victim to the residence on Mallard Cove,” Gaertner said Monday. “That was quite similar to the same techniques used in the case where he was arrested last night.”
That incident involved the 17-year-old victim.
The alleged criminal acts involve attempted or actual, unwanted sexual contact.
DeLand, known to some as “Father Bob,” held a variety of positions at numerous parishes and Catholic schools in the Saginaw and Bay City areas since he was ordained in 1973, according to Pham.
DeLand’s tenure at St. Agnes in Freeland began in July 2011. Before that, Pham said, he served as pastor at St. James Parish in Bay City from July 2005 until July 2011. During that time, he was chaplain of All Saints High School.
Following the criminal accusations, DeLand was placed on administrative leave, according to a diocese statement.
Police officials in Saginaw and Tittabawassee townships, as well as authorities at the Saginaw County Prosecutor’s Office, say the recent sexual assault complaints against DeLand are the first they’re aware of.
Saginaw Township’s investigation began after a 21-year-old man reported in August that DeLand made unwanted, sexual advances on him while the pair were together at the pastor’s Mallard Cove condominium.
“Because of alcohol use, it did go further than what the victim had ever thought it would go,” Pussehl said.
Pussehl said the pair became acquainted through secular circumstances.
In November, parents of a 17-year-old male doing court-ordered community service with DeLand voiced concerns about the pastor’s behavior to Tittabawasee Township police.
“His parents were very concerned that he was grooming their son and touching him inappropriately and buying things for him and spending a tremendous amount of time with him,” Berg said.
Some of the alleged instances took place at the condominium, and others in DeLand’s residence in the church rectory, Berg said.
Berg took those concerns to the Saginaw County Prosecutor’s Office, where he learned of the Saginaw Township investigation. The 17-year-old agreed to help investigators by going undercover, ultimately leading to DeLands arrest.
DeLand was charged with attempted second-degree criminal sexual conduct and gross indecency between males in the Saginaw Township case. Both are five-year felonies.
In the Tittabawassee Township case, DeLand faces a single count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct causing injury, a 15-year felony.
DeLand was released on GPS tether. His next court appearance is March 12 for a pre-examination conference.
DeLand’s lawyer, Alan Crawford, could not be reached for comment.
Anyone with information about DeLand is asked to call Tittabawassee Township police at 989-695-9623 or Saginaw Township police at 989-791-7226.
Berg, who is also reachable by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, urged those who filed complaints against DeLand in the past to contact him.
The detective urged anyone who filed past complaints with the church, or elsewhere, to call the Tittabawassee Township Police Department at 989-695-9623.
Because of the amount of tips, Berg cautioned it might be a week or more before he is able to follow up.
“I assure you, we’ll leave no stone unturned,” the detective said.
Verifying sexual abuse claims from decades ago is like working a cold case, in that physical evidence is not always available, Berg said.
In lieu of documented records, testimony from relatives and others proves invaluable.
“We’re going to look for records and talk to people,” he said. “A lot of times, older cases can be resurrected because people talk.”
Anyone with information about DeLand or other tips is asked to call Tittabawassee Township police at 989-695-9623 or Saginaw Township police at 989-791-7226.
DeLand’s next court appearance is March 12 for a pre-examination conference.
He remains released from custody on GPS tether. Because he’s court-ordered to have no contact with anyone under 21, he is prohibited from going on school properties and attending church functions.