Discreetly arriving day and night, the visiting priests came to a tiny Midwestern town. Stripped of their collars and cassocks, they blended unnoticed into the community, even dining at local restaurants, without their neighbors suspecting that some of them might have been accused sexual predators.
A small nonprofit group named Opus Bono Sacerdotii had brought these priests to town. Operating out of unmarked buildings in rural Michigan for almost two decades, Opus Bono provided financial, shelter, transportation, legal aid, and other forms of support to hundreds, or possibly thousands, of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse across the United States.
Opus Bono consistently acted as a rapid-response team for the accused clergy, offering assistance in various forms. They visited and supported a serial pedophile convicted of abusing numerous minors during his time in jail, raising funds for a priest who admitted sexually assaulting young boys under 14, and even turning another accused priest into their legal adviser after he faced criminal charges for abusing a teen.
Despite public pledges by powerful clerics to hold the church accountable and support abuse survivors, some of these same figures secretly aided Opus Bono with meetings, blessings, and financial contributions, further enabling the organization’s support of alleged abusers.
Although Catholic leaders disavow any official ties with Opus Bono, the group has managed to establish networks that extend all the way to the Vatican.
The Associated Press uncovered the ongoing story of Opus Bono through extensive interviews with experts, lawyers, clergy members, former employees, and the examination of hundreds of documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests.
In recent months, due to allegations of misusing donated funds and misleading contributors, two of the group’s founders were ousted after Michigan’s attorney general intervened. Additionally, a third co-founder, a priest, was suddenly removed from ministry when the AP began inquiring about an allegation of sexual abuse from decades ago.
Since 2002, Opus Bono has played a relatively unknown role within conservative Catholic circles that view the abuse scandal as a media and legal frenzy, maligning the priesthood and the Catholic faith. It positioned itself in opposition to groups like the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which accused the church of concealing the scandal and neglecting victims of clergy misconduct. Instead, Opus Bono focused on what they perceived as the neglected victims: priests and the church itself.
In a radio interview, co-founder Joe Maher claimed that most abuse allegations against priests were false, asserting that while those making allegations were well taken care of, the priests were not.
Nearly two decades ago, Opus Bono’s origins were entwined with a sex abuse scandal that rocked The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, a grand stone structure surrounded by the decay of Detroit’s crumbling brick buildings.
The church’s longtime pastor, Reverend Eduard Perrone, played a significant role in Opus Bono as its co-founder and spiritual guide. A stern and conservative figure, Perrone was known for his refusal to marry couples if he deemed the bride’s dress too revealing. However, his parishioners were shocked when he was recently removed from ministry after a church review board found some credibility in allegations of child abuse from decades ago, to which he vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
Before Perrone’s involvement with Opus Bono, Assumption Grotto had taken in at least two priests accused of sexual misconduct from other states. One of them later admitted to molesting around 50 children during the 1980s and 1990s in Texas.
In 1999, Perrone welcomed another accused priest, Komlan Dem Houndjame, a West African clergyman, to work at Assumption Grotto. However, after learning of sexual misconduct accusations against him in Detroit and a prior posting in Florida, Detroit Archdiocese officials requested him to return to Togo, his home country.
Instead, he sought treatment in St. Louis, and in 2002, he was charged by Detroit police with sexually assaulting a member of Assumption Grotto’s choir. Despite the allegations, Perrone’s response was to protect the church and urged the congregation to support the priest during the crisis.
Joe Maher, moved by Perrone’s plea for help, became a central figure in supporting Houndjame during the case. Maher, who had worked in California producing live entertainment, returned to Michigan with his family and took in Houndjame, even acting as the media spokesperson for the accused priest. Maher’s experiences with desperate priests seeking assistance led to the founding of Opus Bono.
Opus Bono became a 24/7 operation, with Maher and fellow co-founder Peter Ferrara responding to calls from priests in need, providing them with shelter and support, sometimes in risky situations.
In a video on Opus Bono’s Facebook page, Maher mentioned the challenges they faced without detailing the potential dangers involved in their mission; “we’re on our way to help a priest in need, in the Midwest, so it’s going to be a long trip and not much sleep and it could be potentially a dangerous situation.”
Opus Bono keeps its client list confidential, although their promotional materials claim to have assisted more than 8,000 priests. However, the Michigan attorney general estimates that the actual number is closer to 1,000.
One of those priests was Rev. Gregory Ingels from San Francisco’s archdiocese, who faced charges in 2003 for allegedly abusing a 15-year-old boy in the 1970s. Although the criminal charges were dismissed due to California’s extended statute of limitations being ruled unconstitutional, the archdiocese later settled a lawsuit from another accuser of Ingels.
Opus Bono enlisted Ingels as an adviser on church law, but he denied the allegations against him and minimized his involvement with the group, claiming he only answered canon law questions before his retirement.
Opus Bono also provided support to Jason Sigler, a former Detroit priest convicted of molesting numerous children in New Mexico and Michigan. In a lawsuit, one former altar boy described numerous incidents of sexual abuse by Sigler, each constituting criminal sexual penetration.
Maher, from Opus Bono, visited Sigler in prison regularly, funded his commissary account, and maintained contact with him even after his conviction. Maher’s daughter, Mary Rose, recalled spending time with accused priests and engaging in various activities with them during her teenage years.
Accused priest Dennis Druggan, who had been involved with a Catholic high school for Native American teens in Montana and later removed from public ministry, found employment with Opus Bono after leaving the order. He occasionally visited the organization’s office, performed Mass, and conducted other business.
Robert Kealy, a former priest from Chicago, was sent to Opus Bono for “monitoring/therapy” in 2003 after admitting to abusing teenagers. Kealy had previously handled sex-abuse cases for the church. Opus Bono played a role in his monitoring, and the group described him as an adviser on church law.
From the outset, the group garnered support from influential members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy who were eager to advocate for the rights of accused priests.
In 2002, Maher shared a news article about Opus Bono with Father Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of a conservative Catholic journal who acted as an unofficial adviser to President George W. Bush. Maher informed Neuhaus that some priests suggested reaching out to him to share their work.
In response, Neuhaus expressed his approval in a letter found in the archives at the Catholic University of America. He argued against a demand for punishment, emphasizing the importance of considering repentance and transformation.
Through Neuhaus, Maher was introduced to Cardinal Avery Dulles, a prominent conservative Catholic theologian at Fordham University. Both Neuhaus and Dulles became Opus Bono’s theological advisers, paving the way for Maher to connect with powerful Vatican officials.
Opus Bono proudly displayed photographs of American cardinals Raymond Burke and Edmund Szoka in their promotional materials, alongside other high-ranking church officials who supported the group either through visits or donations.
While Cardinal Edwin O’Brien occasionally supported Opus Bono financially in the past, he clarified that he had not done so recently. He had never met the founding members and intended to request the removal of his photo from the group’s Facebook page.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti confirmed receiving promotional materials from Opus Bono in the past but was unaware of any further contact between the Vatican and the group.
Detroit’s auxiliary bishop, Don Hanchon, expressed surprise at seeing his images on Opus Bono’s materials and clarified that he might have sent a donation, but he did not consider himself a major supporter.
The group’s leader, Perrone, stated in 2013 that Opus Bono intentionally maintained an arms-length relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. However, the group also sought to portray itself as closely connected to the Church, as indicated by its name, which means “work for the good of the priesthood” in Latin.
Apart from seeking support from religious leaders, Opus Bono benefited from ties with affluent U.S. Catholics. The Ave Maria Radio network, founded by billionaire Tom Monaghan, interviewed Maher and Perrone and promoted the group’s work. Monaghan’s Ave Maria Foundation sponsored a community talk by Maher in Detroit, and a former chaplain from Ave Maria School of Law served as an Opus Bono adviser.
During their operation spanning 17 years and four locations, including three rural towns in Michigan, the group deliberately avoided displaying any signs.
In 2005, in Oxford, Michigan, Opus Bono transformed one side of an old metal-casting facility located near a high school into their headquarters. At noon, the noisy metal workers would pause their work to allow Opus Bono staff to observe Mass and occasionally participate in prayer, as recounted by two former employees.
The group’s subsequent move in 2014 took them 20 miles away to the village of Dryden. Local authorities were perplexed when they learned that Maher and Ferrara intended to establish a Hollywood-style production studio in a run-down warehouse near Main Street, which happened to overlook an elementary school playground. Interestingly, nothing was disclosed about the group’s involvement with priests.
“They were very tight-lipped and never talked about anything having to do with priests,” revealed Gyrome Edwards, a building and zoning official in Dryden. “They were just trying to go unseen.”
Watch the video below:
Since its establishment in 2002, Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization aiming to assist priests accused of sexual abuse, has utilized various means to seek support and disseminate its message, such as direct mail, its website, and social media. Remarkably, the group managed to raise over $8 million from 2002 to 2016.
Inside the warehouse, the office workers diligently sent out appeals to potential donors, enclosing the appeals in envelopes adorned with images of the pope. These mailings and the testimonials featured on the group’s website recounted the alleged experiences of priests who had encountered dire crises, including false allegations of sexual misconduct.
For instance, one testimonial from May 2018 recounted the case of “Father David,” who reportedly faced stalking by a mentally unstable parishioner after rejecting her gifts and financial offers, leading to false accusations of sexual misconduct.
“Even when a priest has done absolutely nothing wrong,” the testimonial asserted, “the Church will sometimes go to the nth degree, including subjecting some priests to unwarranted psychological trauma, and a very long wait to return to active ministry, all to appease a terribly aggressive accuser.”
An inquiry conducted by Michigan’s attorney general revealed that the testimonials provided by Opus Bono were deceptive. The organization’s legal representatives admitted to state investigators that Maher had fabricated these testimonials by amalgamating stories from different priests.
The state’s investigation was initiated following contact from a former devoted employee of Opus Bono, who happens to be Maher’s daughter, Mary Rose, currently aged 27. In February 2017, she penned a letter to the state attorney general, accusing the group of engaging in financial impropriety.
“A simple investigation into the Michigan non-profit charity Opus Bono Sacerdotii would bring to light the millions of embezzled dollars, years of mail fraud, and the constant systemic abuse of donations,” she wrote.
The tip reached Assistant Attorney General William Bloomfield, a devoted Catholic and Ave Maria law graduate.
The investigation extended over a year, and the findings showed that Opus Bono’s fundraising appeals were misleading. State investigators discovered that Maher and Ferrara violated charity laws by using donated funds for personal expenses, including sushi lunches, chiropractor visits, and home improvement tools. Michigan’s attorney general filed a cease and desist order to address these violations.
As the organization’s finances flourished, with donations escalating from $73,000 in 2002 to $1.3 million in 2016, Maher’s salary increased from $40,500 to $212,000, while Ferrara’s rose from $16,300 to $316,000. The attorney general’s office demanded the repayment of over $500,000, accusing Maher and Ferrara of taking funds for personal use.
Former board member J. Michael Carrigan, a former director of the Smithsonian Institution, defended the co-founders, stating that their compensation was merely reimbursement for the substantial personal expenses they incurred in supporting priests during Opus Bono’s early years.
Assistant Attorney General Bloomfield eventually reached a settlement in December, requiring Opus Bono to pay $10,000 for the state’s investigation expenses and resulting in Ferrara and Maher being ousted from their positions. The entire board of directors was also replaced.
After the settlement, Bloomfield left his job at the attorney general’s office and took on the role of general counsel for the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, Michigan. Bloomfield asserted that the investigation did not pose a conflict of interest because Opus Bono is a separate nonprofit entity from the church.
However, four years before overseeing the state’s investigation of Opus Bono, Bloomfield attended a service led by Perrone and the Assumption Grotto choir, which moved him deeply and filled him with joyful praise of God. Bloomfield clarified that his parents knew Perrone, and he occasionally attended services at Assumption Grotto during his youth.
Additionally, Bloomfield sells religious texts through his imprint, Sacred Art Series, which could be found for sale at Assumption Grotto’s gift shop, according to a clerk. While Bloomfield denied selling books directly there, he mentioned the possibility that his mother, who served on a nonprofit board with Perrone, might have dropped off copies.
Following the settlement, the developments surrounding Opus Bono continue to unfold.
The Archdiocese of Detroit has requested the Vatican to review the sexual misconduct allegations against Father Perrone.
Mary Rose Maher recently established her own nonprofit organization. She intends to support survivors of sexual abuse, positioning her group in direct opposition to her father’s organization while incorporating some of its methods, such as providing shelter, legal representation, and emotional and financial aid. Mary Rose is actively seeking donations to build a “safe haven house” and is also raising funds by selling tickets to a banquet to be held on a yet-to-be-determined date.
On the other hand, her father, who is prohibited from running a nonprofit in Michigan, has launched a second nonprofit with a seemingly identical mission of helping priests in need.
The new organization is named Men of Melchizedek, referencing an Old Testament figure who was believed to be both a king and a priest. Though registered in Indiana, the group’s website designates its “principal office” in Michigan, with Maher serving as its president.
In a letter to the Michigan attorney general in March, Maher’s attorney described him as performing the role of a case worker, considering it a corporal and spiritual work of mercy and an embodiment of his Catholic faith.
The letter stated that the new group, Men of Melchizedek, would offer the same services as Opus Bono, but warned of potential risks, mentioning that more vulnerable beneficiaries might be at risk of suicide during the transition.
Both Opus Bono and Men of Melchizedek now have the same canon lawyer, the Rev. David Deibel, serving as their chairman.
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