In the wake of Attorney General Dana Nessel’s recent report, another Catholic diocese in Michigan finds itself mired in a sexual abuse scandal. This time, the allegations arose in Kalamazoo County, MI, where accusations of sexual misconduct, grooming, and misuse of authority stretch back decades. Nessel’s report is part of a long-term investigation into the Diocese of Kalamazoo, where the earliest instance of sexual abuse may have occurred as early as January 1950. The report names 19 clergy members with credible accounts of sexual misconduct and at least 14 accused of crimes against children.

The Diocese of Kalamazoo, in southwest Michigan, covers nine separate counties (Allegan, Barry, Van Bruen, Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph, and Branch). Within those counties are 59 parishes, missions, and 21 Catholic schools. In other words, the diocese covers a large area. And yet, Nessel’s 144-page report shows that no jurisdiction was spared, with accusations of misconduct from all nine counties.

Together, these revelations paint a haunting picture—one deeply rooted in historical patterns of long-term abuse perpetuated by trusted church leaders.

Defining Sexual Abuse in Michigan

Michigan law defines sexual abuse as any behavior that forces or pressures another person into unwanted sexual contact. This includes penetration and rape but also encompasses many other harms, such as:

  • Touching someone’s private parts without consent.
  • Masturbating in front of someone without their consent.
  • Exposing private parts to someone without their consent.
  • Having sex in front of someone without their consent.
  • Forcing someone to view pornography without their consent.
  • Recording a sexual encounter without the other person’s consent.
  • Having sex with someone who can’t give consent (such as a minor).
  • Sexual harassment.

Sexual misconduct also includes things like pressuring someone to have sex with you, making sexually explicit comments, sharing inappropriate material, stalking, grooming, and unwanted advances. When a bishop, rabbi, priest, or other ecclesiastical leader engages in these behaviors—as in the Diocese of Kalamazoo—lawmakers refer to it as “clergy sexual misconduct.”

A Culture of Silence and Coverup

As allegations of clergy sexual misconduct continue to unravel, many Michigan residents wonder how such systemic and untethered abuse could go unchecked for so long. The answer primarily lies with the culture of silence that surrounds sexual abuse crimes, where guilt, shame, fear of retribution, and victim-blaming tactics work in tandem to keep survivors from coming forward and tormenting those who do. 

Morally bankrupt religious leaders are particularly adept at exploiting these tactics, leveraging faith, fear, and divine authority to pressure congregants into serving their needs. These predators often target children, who don’t always comprehend what’s happening to them. In the aftermath, clergy abusers use gaslighting and manipulation to pressure survivors into silence.

This toxic dynamic often leaves emotional and psychological scars that take years—if not a lifetime—to heal. And while we celebrate the courage of these Michigan survivors in sharing their stories, we are furious so few of them may ever see justice.

A Problem With Time

Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming evidence outlined in Nessel’s report, only two Kalamazoo clergymen (Father Jacob Vellian of Benton Harbor and Father Brian Stanely of Otsego) face charges. The remaining 17 priests and clergy are either deceased or “off the hook” since the statute of limitations has expired.

A statute of limitations is a time limit for filing a particular claim. Each crime has a statute of limitations, and once outside that window, you can no longer bring charges. In Michigan, most sexual abuse claims must be filed within ten years of the crime—or 10 years after the survivor turns 18, whichever is later.  However, delayed disclosure of sexual abuse is widespread among survivors—especially children—making Michigan’s limits almost laughable, relieving perpetrators of accountability before survivors can feasibly be expected to press charges.

In response, many states have enacted a “Lookback Window Act,” which temporarily suspends the statute of limitations for sexual abuse crimes, allowing any and all survivors to bring their claims within a limited time window.  Of course, these states have also expanded the underlying statute of limitations as well so that going forward new survivors have sufficient time to bring their claims. Last year, Michigan legislatures finally proposed similar bills, but they were never put up for a vote in the House of Representatives. Until these reforms are passed, we wonder who the current statute of limitations protects, because it certainly is not survivors.

Were You Sexually Abused by Clergy in the Kalamazoo Diocese?

At Sommers Schwartz, personal injury attorneys Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller and Jay Yasso are committed to fighting for your rights. Our firm has successfully prosecuted high-profile sexual predators such as Dr. Larry Nassar—Michigan State University and USAG team physician—and Robert Anderson, who sexually abused students, athletes, and other patients for over 35 years at the University of Michigan. If you experienced sexual misconduct from clergy in the Diocese of Kalamazoo or any other ecclesiastical leader, we want to hear from you. Contact Sommers Schwartz for a free consultation, and let our team of highly experienced attorneys help you pursue justice with the compassion and sensitivity your story deserves.

Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller

View all posts by
Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller

Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller represents injury victims in personal injury and medical malpractice claims. She also represents individuals in cases against those who have committed horrific acts of sexual assault.

VIEW BIO

POPULAR

Sorry, we couldn't find any posts. Please try a different search.