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Spotlight Report

Charges lodged in Detroit vs. 4 priests

Prosecutors say abuse cases date back to the '60s

By Alexandra R. Moses, Associated Press, and Pat Bigold, Globe Correspondent, 8/29/2002

DETROIT - Four Roman Catholic priests who formerly worked in the Archdiocese of Detroit have been charged with sexually abusing boys in cases that date back to the 1960s.

The priests - who now live in Hawaii, New Mexico, Virginia, and Florida - face counts of first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct involving boys 14 and younger.

''This is serious and sobering news for the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Detroit,'' Cardinal Adam Maida said Tuesday.

Though authorities nationwide have so far found only a few priest abuse cases that fall within each state's statute of limitations, Michigan prosecutors were able to take advantage of their state's law.

Wayne County prosecutor Mike Duggan used an exception in the law that allows charges to be brought if the suspect left the state before the six-year statute of limitations expired.

The charged priests are Edward Olszewski, 67, of Key Largo, Fla.; Jason E. Sigler, 64, of New Mexico; Harry Benjamin, 60, of Vienna, Va.; and Robert Burkholder, 82, who lives on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.

Oleszewski is charged with eight counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving an 11-year-old boy at St. Cecilia's in the early 1970s. He was serving in a parish in Key Largo until March, when he resigned after the allegations surfaced.

Sigler faces four counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and four counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a 12-year-old boy at the child's River Rouge home in the 1960s.

Benjamin is charged with four counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly assaulting a 14-year-old boy in the 1980s.

Burkholder faces two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly assaulting a boy from Redford Township. The alleged incident took place in 1986 in Hawaii, where Burkholder has lived since 1981.

Duggan said Burkholder admitted in a 1993 letter to the archdiocese that he had molested 23 boys, going as far back as the 1940s.

''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.

Church spokesman Monsignor Walter Hurley said the archdiocese first became aware of the allegations against Burkholder in the 1960s. He was banned from wearing a Roman collar and presenting himself as a priest in 1993.

Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Burkholder said he may have been sexually involved with boys ''probably back in the old days before I was retired.'' He added, ''I think there's a lot of things they're making up.''

He said he admitted the assaults in the 1940s and 1950s to the church and went through a treatment program. He said he wasn't aware of the accusations from the 1980s.

''I can't keep track of those things. There were certain kids who liked to be fondled or something,'' he said.

''There are priests who are attracted to young people. ... But the average priest was very straight-laced, sincere,'' he said. ''I would say the same thing about myself, but a weakness for a boy about 12 years old.''

''But I didn't go out looking for anyone. I wanted affection. That's what I was really after.''

Burkholder said he had not been contacted by the Wayne County prosecutor's office as of Tuesday night.

''Why should I be? I think the whole thing is a farce actually. They go after people. It's like a game,'' he said.

To bring back the misconduct from more than 50 years ago is ''cruel'' and a ''bunch of nonsense,'' he said. ''It's been atoned for.''

Globe Correspondent Pat Bigold reported from Honolulu.

This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 8/29/2002.
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