DETROIT – After 41 years in the priesthood, Father Eduard Perrone wasn’t prepared for the hellfire that tore through his parish last summer: He was accused of molesting an altar boy decades earlier, and ousted from his church.
The sex abuse claim blindsided the pastor’s loyal flock, though they believe he is innocent – and have launched an unorthodox crusade to clear his name.
In an unprecedented lawsuit in Michigan, and possibly the country, 20 parishioners from Assumption Grotto are suing the Detroit archdiocese for $20 million, claiming it caused them emotional distress by taking away their priest.
The lawsuit alleges church officials “fabricated” a rape charge against Perrone because they didn’t like his conservative views and wanted him out, and because they wanted to avoid bad press. Perrone was removed from the clergy one month after reporters started asking questions about a fondling claim against him.
According to police reports, the claim involved a 54-year-old man who alleged that Perrone started grooming him when he was 13 while he was an altar boy at St. Peter Catholic Church in Mount Clemens.
The man alleged that Perrone groped him during swim parties at the Perrone family lake house, that he served minors wine, had boys stay overnight in the rectory and took him and another boy on a private camping trip, police and church records reviewed by the Free Press say. The church learned of these allegations in 2018, after the man’s wife called an archdiocese hotline and said that her husband had been abused by his priest 40 years earlier. An investigation followed.
Perrone has denied the allegations.
“It seems like it’s all a nightmare,” Perrone said in a recent interview with the Free Press. “I can’t believe this is happening to me. Forty-one years of priesthood … and this has happened? It seems not possible … I know this didn’t happen.”
The parishioners’ lawsuit raises questions about the credibility of the accuser, who, according to police reports, suffers from mental health issues and has changed his story multiple times: He started out saying he was raped, but for reasons unknown, he took back that claim and has said there was groping and fondling only.
The lawsuit alleges that the accuser eventually denied to church officials that he was ever sexually abused by Perrone, though police reports tell a different story – one of a traumatized and devout Catholic who struggled with guilt and shame, feared his disclosures would lead to retaliation, so he shut down at times, then opened back up with the help of therapy.
In the eyes of the Catholic Church, the man’s inconsistencies didn’t matter as it concluded that there was a “semblance of truth” to what the accuser was saying, and it couldn’t afford to look the other way. So on July 5, the archdiocese stripped Perrone of his collar pending further review from the Vatican.
Then came accuser No. 2.
Two weeks after Perrone’s ouster from Assumption Grotto, another former altar boy from St. Peter’s came forward with an allegation that Perrone “rubbed his genitalia” in 1981. According to a police report, the two were riding around the city of Detroit in a Volkswagen Rabbit, looking at the architecture of various Catholic churches, when Perrone reached his hand over and rubbed the accuser’s private parts. He said he pushed Perrone’s hand away, and that Perrone acted like nothing happened and drove him back to the church in silence. The boy said he then took a bus home, and after that day, he quit being an altar boy.
Perrone has denied the allegation, saying he doesn’t know the second accuser and doesn’t recall him ever being an altar server at St. Peter’s. The lawsuit also challenges the credibility of the second accuser: a recovering drug addict who did time in prison for theft, according to police records.
Both accusers, through their attorney, have declined to speak to the Free Press. Both are now 54 and said they first disclosed the sex abuse allegations in therapy sessions long before contacting the authorities, according to police and church records.
They are not seeking money or pursuing lawsuits against the archdiocese, church officials have said. They have received therapy from the church since coming forward.
Perrone’s supporters, meanwhile, believe the 71-year-old pastor, who has passed two polygraph tests, has been caught up in mass hysteria because of scores of clergy sex abuse reports in recent years. The first allegation against Perrone surfaced just months before the explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report, which detailed child sexual abuse and cover-ups by more than 300 clergy members.
Multiple states launched clergy abuse investigations of their own, including Michigan, whose attorney general charged five Catholic priests with criminal sexual conduct last year.
The Detroit archdiocese also weighed in with letters from Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who offered prayers for the Pennsylvania victims and affirmed the need for accountability among clergy.
Against that backdrop, Perrone’s supporters say, falsely accused priests don’t stand a chance.
“Nobody cares about a wrongfully accused priest. So if the parishioners don’t stand up, who will?” said Christopher Kolomjec, a Grotto parishioner and Perrone’s lawyer who has spent months trying to exonerate his priest.
At issue for Perrone’s supporters is the official church document that was used to remove Perrone. It contains the rape allegation, stating that the alleged victim reported that Father Perrone “penetrated him anally,” even though the accuser has said that didn’t happen.
The lawsuit claims that church officials fabricated the rape claim to justify Perrone’s removal and “browbeat” and “manipulated” the accuser into saying something salacious to satisfy the church review board overseeing the case.
“(R)ight now it’s time to tell us exactly what happened,” a detective told the accuser in an interview four days before Perrone’s removal. “Not fondling, not sodomized. … You have to describe the act. … It has to be penis. It has to be hand. It has to be body parts, and you have to tell us that Eduard Perrone did this. That’s it. … And we’re going to be on our way to peace.”
This was according to interview transcripts obtained by the Free Press.
“There’s been a dark cloud over our parish since it happened. I have yet to meet a single person who wonders if it could be true,” Kolomjec said. “He really is like a member of everyone’s family. The parish has been crushed, devastated.”
‘We’re not overzealous’
The parishioners’ lawsuit names two defendants: the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit, and Monsignor G. Michael Bugarin, who oversees sex abuse allegations for the archdiocese. Bugarin declined comment and referred questions to the archdiocese.
Ned McGrath, spokesperson for the Detroit archdiocese, declined comment on the parishioners’ lawsuit, saying only that it takes all sex abuse allegations seriously, no matter what nature, degree or how old, and that Perrone’s fate will be decided in Rome.
“We’re not doing anything different here. We’re not being overzealous. We’re doing what we have to do,” McGrath said. “It does not matter if the alleged abuse occurred five, 15 or more than 50 years ago. … We treat serious all complaints that are brought forward – in this case from two individuals – and have the utmost concern to protect their privacy and personal safety.”
McGrath explained the rationale behind removing a priest for alleged sex abuse:
“If the allegations are deemed to have ‘a semblance of truth,’ that is, the allegation is neither manifestly false or frivolous, and there is sufficient evidence to establish reasonable grounds, to believe that the alleged abuse could have occurred, the priest or deacon is restricted in his ministry until the issue is resolved by the Vatican.”
McGrath added: “Throughout the Church law process, the accused enjoys the presumption of innocence.”
Under church law, clergy sex abuse investigations must begin with church officials contacting local law enforcement, which happened in Perrone’s case. The Michigan State Police and Macomb County Sheriff’s Office investigated the sex abuse allegations against Perrone and found them credible, though no charges were filed because too much time had passed.
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the merits of the case.
McGrath said the church’s goal is to help all those who come forward to heal and become whole.
“We’re trying to help those folks,” McGrath said. “The majority of the people who come forward just want to get it off their chest. They’ve read about another case and they finally get the guts up to do something about it.”
But when they do finally open up, psychology experts say, the memories that have been blocked out for years may come out haphazardly.
“When someone has severe history of trauma, it doesn’t come out in a linear fashion because the brain isn’t processed that way,” said Dr. Bob Geffner, president of the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego. His institute has evaluated more than 100 clergy sex abuse cases, he said, noting it’s common for victims to struggle with painful memories and give confusing accounts.
“They’re not remembering distinct events at this point. They’re just getting flashes or flashbacks,” he said, adding when the flashbacks are too painful, they block them out. This may be why a rape victim says they don’t remember divulging a rape allegation, he said.
And with clergy sex abuse, Geffner said, there’s the added sense of guilt and shame, particularly for those who are deeply religious and fear they did something to deserve this, or that “this is what God wants.”
For David Clohessy, the former longtime director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the lawsuit carries a troubling message.
“These well-intentioned but horribly misguided churchgoers are inadvertently scaring and depressing other victims into keeping quiet, and that helps other predators,” Clohessy said. “No matter how charming this priest is, remember: He faces two accusers. Law enforcement apparently finds the allegation ‘credible,’ as do his own Catholic supervisors.”
A wife calls for help
On May 24, 2018, church records show, a woman called an archdiocese hotline “crying, angry, furious,” alleging that her husband had been abused by his priest 40 years prior. The husband was experiencing significant mental distress at the time, records show, and he broke down and told his wife about the alleged abuse.
According to police and church records reviewed by the Free Press, initially, the man was uncooperative. He refused to give his name or disclose details to the hotline intake worker. He said he was afraid.
“He wasn’t emotionally capable of handling what was coming,” a police report states, “and had only recently started to come to terms with the disclosure of abuse to his therapist.”
The man said that he had disclosed his abuse to his therapist almost three years before he confided in his wife.
After that phone call, another 14 months would go by before any action was taken against Perrone. By then, the accuser had been subjected to multiple interviews by a church investigator, a State Police detective and a Macomb County Sheriff’s detective.
Investigators also interviewed four other altar boys who were the accuser’s age and served Mass for Perrone. None disclosed any knowledge of Perrone abusing children, though two described the accuser as being the “vulnerable type.”
The accuser talked about this vulnerability in his interviews, telling investigators that his father was seriously ill and incapacitated during this time of his life, and that Father Perrone was aware of this. He also discussed why he said he hid the abuse.
“He never told his parents because his own father was very ill and his mother would not have believed him. His parents were very active in the church and never questioned Father Perrone,” states one police report.
In his police interviews, the accuser sometimes broke down and had to compose himself. He answered questions by nodding his head. He had panic attacks and his accounts varied. For example, one detective stated in her report that the man said he was sexually abused by Perrone during a camping trip, while another detective said the man made no such statements to him. Rather, he “only” stated that he, Perrone and another altar boy “slept in a very small tent, causing them to touch.”
That other altar boy is James Fortenberry, a nurse who now lives in Huntsville, Alabama, and believes his childhood priest has been done wrong.
The camping trip
“I was on the camping trip. There was no abuse there,” Fortenberry said in a recent telephone interview with the Free Press, alleging a church investigator tracked him down and tried to suggest that he, too, was abused by Perrone.
“I’d definitely know if I was abused. There was nothing remotely abusive about our relationship,” said Fortenberry, who remembers Perrone teaching him how to drive a stick shift on the camping trip.
According to police records, Perrone took the two altar boys on a camping trip to the Upper Peninsula in the summer of their 11th-grade year. They shared a three-man pup tent and Perrone, who was then 29, slept in between the two boys. One of the boys alleged he was fondled by Perrone.
Fortenberry believes investigators have manipulated his friend into making such allegations, claiming they also tried to coerce him into saying negative things about Perrone.
“I made it really clear to them that nothing ever happened,” said Fortenberry, who has not lived in Michigan for 30 years. “(Perrone) was a great influence and a great priest in my life.”
After investigators called him about Perrone, Fortenberry said he called his old classmate, the accuser, to tell him about the inquiry.
“He tried to get me to say that it was weird for Father Perrone to take the two of us camping,” said Fortenberry, who recalled telling him, ” ‘Nothing happened.’
” ‘Are you sure? People are telling me that things could have happened, ‘ ” Fortenberry recalled the man answering back.
Fortenberry believes Perrone was set up.
“I’m not saying our church hasn’t had problems with pedophiles,” Fortenberry said. “But I think the church needs to stand up for our good priests. And Father Perrone is a good priest.”
‘I want it to stop’
It was last June when Perrone got a knock on his condo door.
It was some reporters with the Associated Press. They had stopped by, he recalled them saying, to talk about Opus Bono Sacerdotii – a nonprofit that Perrone co-founded in 2002 that supports Catholic priests facing sexual abuse allegations and other problems.
Perrone invited the reporters to sit on his deck. A conversation started when out of nowhere came a bombshell question: “What about the allegations that have been made against you?”
“I said, ‘What? What allegations?’ ” he recalled telling the reporters.
He had been accused of groping boys, the reporters told him. A former altar boy had come forward with allegations that decades ago he invited altar boys to his family lake house, wrestled with them for hours in the water, at times inappropriately grabbing and groping them.
“I had no idea this was coming,” said Perrone, stressing the allegations are “absolutely not true.”
“This is such a terrible insult to me. Why would I damn a soul, and my own, by committing a crime like that? It’s incomprehensible to me,” said Perrone, who agrees with his parishioners: That he was set up for being too conservative.
For 25 years, Perrone has made a name for himself as a straitlaced, old-school pastor who preaches and practices strict Catholic doctrine: Assumption Grotto parishioners kneel to receive Holy Communion – the wafer never touching their hand, but placed directly in their mouth. There’s a dress code for brides – nothing too short or revealing. He will not give Communion to divorced parishioners who have remarried unless they have had the first marriage annulled. And no one can get Communion if they are in a “state of sin,” which, in Perrone’s eyes, includes practicing homosexuals.
“This is an attempt to get me out,” said Perrone, who believes there’s an ideological strife in the Catholic Church, with liberals aiming to get rid of conservatives like himself.
“Isn’t it outrageous that neither the accusers nor law enforcement have been my problem?” Perrone said. “The one causing my problem is the Archdiocese of Detroit.
“That is pathetic.”
Perrone denies harming his accusers or any child. He says he’s “never” touched anyone inappropriately and believes “there’s been a terrible mistake.” He remembers his accuser as a good kid and good altar server who wanted to become a priest when he was in high school. He said he was close with the boy’s family, visited their home and took an interest in their son because of his interest in the priesthood, and he wanted to help him “in any way I could.”
Perrone said his relationship with the boy was pure, and that he often imagines what he’d tell him if he could talk to him.
“I would forgive him,” Perrone said. “This was a terrible mistake. Nothing happened. Nothing criminal at all.”
Perrone defended the camping trip, saying it was part of pastoral life back then, when priests were encouraged to connect with young people so that they could bring them into the faith.
“I just wanted to be good and close and friendly with our kids, in those days the understanding of that was much different from what it is today,” he said.
Perrone explained why he took two boys camping: “I love to be outdoors. I had never been camping. I thought this would be a great experience … and where are you going to find adults who want to rough it. To sleep on the ground. To light their own fires, cook their owns meals, go on hikes … but kids, kids love that kind of thing,” Perrone said.
But times have changed, he conceded.
“By today’s standards, this would not be the thing to do,” Perrone said of camping with boys with no supervision. “Not because of any fear of what I would do. But because sensitivities have been so raised by all the scandal that has been caused by priests who have done criminal things. Sad to say, we have to be very careful.”
As for why Perrone is speaking publicly about the accusations he is facing, he said he wants to clear his name, vindicate his supportive parish, and help other falsely accused priests.
“I want it to stop, not just for myself, (but) there other priests who have been accused who have been innocent … this has happened to them, and it will likely happen again,” he said. “I owe it to them who are coming up, who may be the next victim of this kind of process.”
Meanwhile, the parishioners at Assumption Grotto have been prohibited from having any contact with Perrone, who has to wear civilian clothes now. He can’t call his parishioners. They can’t call him. They can’t even organize a rosary prayer for him.
For Perrone, the allegation has been soul-crushing. He has spent years taking care of priests in crisis. He housed them. Prayed for them. Counseled them. And now he is one of them.
Contact Tresa Baldas: [email protected]