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Report out on abuse allegations in Gaylord Diocese

The diocese formerly employed a Kenyan priest who during his time in Michigan allegedly raped two other Catholic clerics.

(Diocese of Gaylord)

by Steve Neavling, Michigan Advance
January 8, 2024

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Monday that her office investigated sexual abuse allegations against 26 priests and two deacons from the Diocese of Gaylord in northern Michigan.

The 130-page report details allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy between 1951 and 2021.

Despite the numerous accusations, no charges have been filed as part of the report, largely because of the statute of limitations, which requires charges to be filed within a certain period of time after a crime occurs.

Nessel said the report is intended to shed light on a dark corner of the Catholic church and to provide assurances to the victims that the allegations were fully investigated.

“Our promise to the victims was that every case of sexual abuse and assault would be thoroughly reviewed and that the results of the investigation would be transparent,” Nessel said in a statement.

“I especially want to thank the survivors who have shared their stories, sometimes for the first time after decades of silence. Their willingness to come forward has helped bring attention to an issue that has affected so many in our state and our country, especially children.”

Of the 28 clergy listed in the report, 16 are believed to be dead. Three of them are still active in the diocese, one as a pastor and the two others in retired ministry. A vast majority of the cases stem from allegations prior to 2002.

For the investigation, the Attorney General’s Office seized more than 20 boxes of records and reviewed more 700,000 digital documents.

In some of the cases dating back decades, the diocese allowed alleged abusers to remain in the ministry, a practice that was common nationwide until 2002, when The Boston Globe exposed the Catholic church in a series of bombshell reports that gave way to thousands of new allegations.

In response to Nessel’s report, Bishop Jeffrey J. Walsh of Gaylord said at a news conference Monday that he wanted to express “deep sorrow and shame” to the victims.

“I humbly offer an apology to each victim survivor who has been violated by anyone affiliated with the Catholic Church. Many of you have suffered in darkness for years, and I am truly sorry for that.”

Walsh said the diocese “fully cooperated” with Nessel’s office and has taken steps to prevent abusers from remaining in the diocese.

Fr Sylvestre Lincoln Obwaka at trial in 2017. A member of the Gaylord Diocese at the time of his alleged abuse, he was acquitted by the courts but not reinstated to ministry. (910 Media Group)

Of the 28 priests and deacons in Nessel’s report, the diocese acknowledged that 14 of them were “credibly accused of abuse of minors.”

They are Frs Ronald Gronowski, Patrick Barrett, Lionel Harnish, James Holtz, Benedict Marciulionis, Raymond Pilarski, Terrence Raymond, Robert Gordon Smith, John Tupper, Theophane (William) Goett, Denis (Joseph) Hall, Wilbert (Norbert) Hegener, Leo Olschaysken, and Laurus (Raymond) Rhode.

Although most of the cases are decades old, some of them are more recent.

Fr Sylvestre Lincoln Obwaka became a seminarian for the diocese in 2004, following time as a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Hope (Lyke Community)—a religious community founded in his native Kenya and named after the second Black archbishop in the United States, James P. Lyke, OFM. Obwaka was ordained in Gaylord in 2010.

In January 2017, Obwaka was a pastor at St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rogers City, Michigan, when he invited another priest to celebrate Mass for children at the church. According to prosecutors, Obwaka sexually assaulted the man while both of them were inebriated.

“He started to position himself with my legs over his shoulders and he kept saying ‘f**k me,’” the alleged victim recalled.

“The other thing he kept saying was, ‘You voted for Trump; you want me deported, don’t you?’”

The alleged victim continued: “He penetrated me and I was frozen. I didn’t say anything or try to run away. I should have tried to run away. But he stayed awhile.”

According to the report, Obwaka claimed he had “blacked out” and did not remember what had happened.

In February 2017, Obwaka was charged with criminal sexual conduct and suspended from ministry. While prosecutors were preparing for the trial, a man from Africa—also a priest at the time of the alleged incident—told the diocese that Obwaka “sodomized” him in 2003. He said sexual abuse was rampant among Kenyan Catholic priests.

A jury acquitted Obwaka in July 2017, but he was not reinstated to the diocese.

Nessel said the report was an important step toward helping victims heal and preventing future abuses.

“We must break down the walls of silence that so often surround sexual assault and abuse,” Nessel said.

“In the end, we hope this investigation provides a voice to those who have suffered in silence for so long and shines a light on those alleged offenders whose actions allowed them to evade true accountability.”

Editor's note: Information has been added concerning Fr Sylvestre Lincoln Obwaka.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

From the Diocese of Gaylord: Individuals with knowledge of sexual abuse by clergy or other Church representatives are urged to contact local law enforcement and/or the Michigan Attorney General’s Office at 844.324.3374. Individuals may also contact the Diocese of Gaylord Victim Assistance Coordinator Larry LaCross at 989.705.9010. There are no time limits or restrictions on individuals wishing to report abuse.

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