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Lansing diocese deems credible abuse allegations against deceased Catholic Bishop of Fargo

CNA Staff   By CNA Staff

Bishop James Sullivan (Image: Diocese of Lansing)

Lansing, Mich., Jul 2, 2021 / 08:10 am (CNA).

The Diocese of Lansing released a statement this morning announcing  that two allegations of sexual abuse leveled against the late Bishop James Sullivan (1929 – 2006) are deemed “credible.”

Bishop Sullivan was Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Lansing from 1972 to 1985 before becoming Bishop of Fargo from 1985 to 2002.

“Following investigation and review, the Diocese of Lansing has found two allegations against the late Bishop James Sullivan to be credible,” said David Kerr, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Lansing. Both accusations stem from the mid-1960s when then-Father Sullivan was in residence at a parish in Lansing. Both victims were boys who were subject to sexual grooming and inappropriate contact by Sullivan.

“Bishop Sullivan’s actions were gravely immoral, deeply scandalous and betrayed both the trust of the Catholic community within the Diocese of Lansing and, more significantly, the faith placed in him by the victims and their families to whom we say: ‘This should not have happened to you and we are profoundly sorry that it ever did,’” the statement said.

According to the statement, the first victim was approximately 12-years-old in 1964 when then-Father Sullivan subjected him to inappropriate touching and uninvited sexualized conversations. This pattern of behavior continued over the next two years. The second victim was approximately 11 to 12 years-old in 1966 when Sullivan inappropriately touched him. All incidents occurred at the Church of the Resurrection Parish in Lansing where Bishop Sullivan resided at the time.

The investigation was launched in July 2020 after receiving an allegation of abuse against Sullivan from the Michigan Department of Attorney General. In the course of the diocesan investigation, led by a private investigator with law enforcement experience, the second allegation against Sullivan emerged.

The Diocese of Lansing previously received an allegation against Bishop Sullivan in 2002. At the time, the diocese deemed the allegation to be “not credible.” In light of the recent allegations, the Diocese asked its private investigator and the Review Board to reconsider that allegation. The Review Board concluded that there is insufficient evidence to determine whether the allegation appears to be false or true.

“We are grateful to Bishop Sullivan’s victims for coming forward and sharing their stories. They have displayed great courage and dignity throughout the entire process – they have our gratitude, admiration and prayers,” said William Bloomfield, General Counsel of the Diocese of Lansing.

A native of Kalamazoo, James Stephen Sullivan was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Lansing in 1955. Following parish assignments in Flint, Lansing, and St. Joseph, Father Sullivan served as private secretary to Bishop Joseph Albers (1891 – 1965) and also his successor, Bishop Alexander Zaleski (1906 – 1975). Father Sullivan was ordained as Auxiliary Bishop of Lansing in 1972. In 1985 he was appointed Bishop of Fargo.

The credible claims will no doubt come as a shock to those who followed the bishop’s public career. During his sixteen years as the sixth Bishop of Fargo, Sullivan was known for his pastoral zeal, his administrative abilities, and his staunch pro-life ministry.

As bishop, he launched the “Opening Doors, Opening Hearts” evangelization program, established the Fargo Catholic Schools Network, created and funded the Priest Pension Plan, and started the annual Walk with Christ for Life to protest abortion.

He also served as president of the World Apostolate of Fatima, and as a member of the advisory board for Catholics United for the Faith.

In 1993 he was chosen as one of the speakers for English language pilgrims attending World Youth Day in Denver.

He resigned on March 18, 2002 because of Alzheimer’s disease, and died of complications from the disease in 2006 at age 76.

According to the statement from the Diocese of Lansing, neither the Diocese of Lansing nor the Diocese of Fargo are aware of any allegations of abuse stemming from Bishop Sullivan’s years spent in North Dakota.

But both the Diocese of Fargo and the Diocese of Lansing will now add Bishop Sullivan’s name to their respective lists of clergy with credible accusations of sexual misconduct with a minor.

Paul Braun, Director of Communications of the Diocese of Fargo, informed CNA that Sullivan Middle School, part of the St. John Paul II Catholic Schools network in the North Dakota diocese, was named after Bishop Sullivan. “Due to this situation, Sullivan Middle School has been renamed Sacred Heart Middle School,” he said.

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  1. “Credible” in what sense?

    There’s corroborating evidence? Or it’s not impossible that it could have happened?

    • Credible accusations allegations to gratitude for the ‘victims’ coming forward is a big leap.

      There is no determination of wrongdoing here, thus there is no certainty that there are truly ‘victims’.

      The fact the Bishop Sullivan is not able to defend himself is another important consideration.

  2. Vaguely described Incidents that supposedly occurred over fifty years ago. The alleged perpetrator is conveniently long dead. How could anything like this possibly be considered proven based upon what has been disclosed? The McCarrick case this ain’t.

  3. I too am concerned that the deceased Bishop Sullivan is essentially considered “guilty” based on a private investigation where he has no opportunity to defend himself. That investigation should not be considered equivalent to a conviction in a court of law (though the legal process can and has been abused as well). The diocese should at the least have issued a far more nuanced statement that makes a clear distinction between a “credible” accusation– whatever that slippery, nebulous term means– and a verdict of guilty in open court.

  4. The Bishop resigned in 2002 due to complications of Alzheimer’s. So when he was first accused, he already had Alzheimer’s. There were no accusations from anywhere else where he served. It sounds like a perfect setup for $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

  5. What is the point of accusing a now-deceased bishop who can no longer defend himself against any accusations? Is it money? A ploy to smear the Catholic church? Or to uncover other victims who have not come forward? We must pray for the soul of this bishop, and also for the accusers, that if their accusations are credible, they get the help they need to resolve this and continue on in good mental health. I pray this very dark chapter in the history of our Church is resolved.

  6. I think pedophiles are disgusting and should be punished. However I question what exactly could be “investigated” when the alleged perpetrator is long dead? Is this a case of “he ( the accuser) said”, strictly?? Are there any actual records of complaint being issued at the time? If the accuser is going to be paid out cash, I find that problematic under the circumstances given the number of years that have elapsed. This stuff has become a cash cow for accusers and the financial impact is inhibiting the ability of the church to do real work in schools, hospitals, among the poor,etc.

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