A small nonprofit group with alleged ties reaching all the way to the Vatican has quietly aided hundreds, if not thousands, of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse for nearly two decades, according to an Associated Press report published Monday.
The nonprofit, Opus Bono Sacerdotii, has reportedly provided money, shelter, and legal aid to accused priests since 2002, setting up meetings in unmarked buildings with the clergymen in the tiny town of Dryden, Michigan. One of the organization’s founders, Rev. Eduard Perrone of the Archdiocese of Detroit, was reportedly removed from ministry earlier this month due to an allegation that he sexually abused a minor decades ago, which he denies.
Two of Perrone’s fellow co-founders, Opus Bono President Joe Maher and Treasurer Peter Ferrara, were forced out of the organization after Michigan’s attorney general ruled that they were engaging in deceptive fundraising practices and had lined their own pockets with Opus Bono assets. (RELATED: Priest Accused Of Sexual Abuse Found Shot To Death In Presumed Homicide)
Opus Bono was conceived as an organization dedicated to helping illegitimately accused priests and, by extension, the Church on the whole, according to the AP.
“All of these people that have made allegations are very well taken care of,” Maher said in a radio interview, according to the AP, seemingly referring to the help offered to victims of alleged abuse by groups like the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Accused priests “are not at all very well taken care of,” argues Maher, despite some allegations appearing to ultimately be flimsy or false.
Child sex abuse allegations against Catholic priests have periodically garnered substantial amounts of media attention since the 1990s, with the Boston Globe‘s 2002 investigation into widespread sex abuse thrusting the issue into the national spotlight. The Church fielded 1,051 new “credible allegations” of abuse in the U.S. from June 2017 to June 2018 alone, according to a report released by U.S. bishops last month.
False accusations of sexual abuse by priests are rare. From June 2017 to June 2018, seven allegations the U.S. Church investigated were found to be “obviously false” and 18 were found to be “unsubstantiated,” meaning that they were “deemed not credible/false.” Forty-three were unable to be proven.
Opus Bono has worked as a “rapid-response team for the accused,” in the words of the AP. When a pedophile priest was imprisoned for abusing dozens of minors, officials from the group visited him regularly in jail and provided him with commissary funds. When a priest admitted to sexually abusing boys under the age of 14, the organization raised money for his defense. Opus Bono made a San Francisco priest charged in 2003 with abusing a 15-year-old one of its advisors on canon law. (Criminal charges against the man were dismissed when California’s extended statute of limitations was ruled unconstitutional.)
The group’s promotional brochures claim Opus Bono has helped more than 8,000 priests, though the Michigan attorney general argues that the number is likely closer to 1,000. (RELATED: Most Senior Catholic Cleric Convicted Of Sex Abuse Goes To Prison)
Opus Bono is not officially associated with the Catholic Church. It has, however, won support from a number of influential Church leaders. Cardinal Avery Dulles, an influential theologian, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of the conservative religious journal First Things and an unofficial advisor to former President George W. Bush, both became theological advisors to the organization.
“The demand that a person ‘must be punished,’ no matter how long ago the offense or the repentance and transformation of the offender is nothing more than a demand for vengeance,” Neuhaus wrote to Maher in a letter unearthed by the AP.
It is unclear what the future holds for Opus Bono Sacerdotii. Maher, who was booted from the group and who has been ordered by the state to never again run a nonprofit in Michigan, has started a new nonprofit, Men for Melchizedek, with a very similar mission.
“We turn no priest away,” the new organization’s website says.