AP News, by Martha Mendoza, Juliet Linderman, and Garance Burke: The visiting priests arrived discreetly, day and night.
Stripped of their collars and cassocks, they went unnoticed in this tiny Midwestern town as they were escorted into a dingy warehouse across from an elementary school playground. Neighbors had no idea some of the dressed-down clergymen dining at local restaurants might have been accused sexual predators.
They had been brought to town by a small, nonprofit group called Opus Bono Sacerdotii. For nearly two decades, the group has operated out of a series of unmarked buildings in rural Michigan, providing money, shelter, transport, legal help and other support to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse across the country.
Again and again, Opus Bono has served as a rapid-response team for the accused.
When a serial pedophile was sent to jail for abusing dozens of minors, Opus Bono was there for him, with regular visits and commissary cash.
When a priest admitted sexually assaulting boys under 14, Opus Bono raised funds for his defense.
When another priest was criminally charged with abusing a teen, Opus Bono later made him a legal adviser.
And while powerful clerics have publicly pledged to hold the church accountable for the crimes of its clergy and help survivors heal, some of them arranged meetings, offered blessings or quietly sent checks to this organization that provided support to alleged abusers, The Associated Press has found.
Though Catholic leaders deny the church has any official relationship with the group, Opus Bono successfully forged networks reaching all the way to the Vatican.
Opus Bono’s roots reach back almost two decades to a sex abuse scandal that convulsed The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, a grand stone structure set amid Detroit’s crumbling brick blight.
For 25 years, the Rev. Eduard Perrone presided there. Inside the church, commonly known as Assumption Grotto, glossy Opus Bono brochures tout the pastor’s role as the group’s co-founder and spiritual lifeblood. Stern and imposing, the 70-year-old Perrone is a staunch conservative; he refused to marry couples, for example, if he thought the bride’s dress was too revealing.
Earlier this month, his parishioners were shocked when Perrone was removed from ministry after a church review board decided there was a “semblance of truth” to allegations that he abused a child decades ago. Perrone told the AP that he “never would have done such a thing.”
In the years before Perrone helped start Opus Bono, he and Assumption Grotto took in at least two priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct at dioceses in other states. One of them later admitted to molesting as many as 50 children in the 1980s and ’90s, according to court documents in Texas.
In 1999, Perrone welcomed the other priest — a West African clergyman named Komlan Dem Houndjame — to come work at Assumption Grotto. Two years later, Detroit Archdiocese officials say, they asked Houndjame to return to his home country, Togo, after learning of accusations of sexual misconduct against him in Detroit and at an earlier posting in Florida.
Instead he went to a treatment facility in St. Louis.
In 2002, Detroit police charged him with sexually assaulting a member of Assumption Grotto’s choir.
The 48-year-old parishioner who accused Houndjame of rape said Perrone’s response was to protect the church, testifying in court that he told her, “Just walk by him and ignore him.”
Perrone responded to the charges against Houndjame by asking the congregation to support the priest in his time of crisis.
Joe Maher was among those who were moved by Perrone’s plea for help.
Maher grew up Catholic in the Midwest, and then headed to California, where, he said in a podcast, he found work producing live entertainment for Hollywood award shows and other events. “I had access to all the studios,” Maher said. He told a radio interviewer he found his faith again in California before moving his family back to Michigan.
Maher led the effort to support Houndjame, serving as media spokesman for the accused priest during the case. Maher even brought the priest home to live with his family, according to his daughter Mary Rose, who was about 10 at the time.
In court files, the AP found two other women at Assumption Grotto also had told police about sexual misconduct by Houndjame. But their testimony was never heard in court.
When the case went to trial, “it was essentially her word against the priest,” said then-prosecutor Maria Miller. Houndjame was acquitted and moved to Las Vegas. He told the AP that Perrone had been “a real friend.”
Joe Maher, meanwhile, was inundated with calls from other desperate priests, begging for help.
Out of those pleas, Opus Bono was launched.
The state’s investigation began after it was contacted by a once-loyal Opus Bono employee — Maher’s own daughter, Mary Rose, now 27.
In February 2017, she wrote a letter to the state attorney general accusing the group of financial misconduct.
The investigation lasted more than a year.
Investigators concluded the group’s fundraising solicitations had been deceptive. They also found that Maher and Ferrara had violated state charity laws by using donated funds to cover such personal expenses as sushi lunches, chiropractor visits and power tools to work on their homes, according to a cease and desist order filed by Michigan’s attorney general.
Ultimately, Bloomfield oversaw a settlement last December that required Opus Bono to pay $10,000 to cover the costs of the state’s investigation and forced Ferrara and Maher from their jobs at the nonprofit. The group’s entire board of directors was replaced.
[Maher], who was required by the state to never again run a nonprofit in Michigan, has launched a second nonprofit that seems to have the identical mission of helping priests in need.
The new group is called Men of Melchizedek, a reference to an Old Testament figure who was thought to be both a king and a priest. It is registered in Indiana, but its website says its “principal office” is located in Michigan. The group lists Maher as its president.
On its website, the new group promises “non-judgmental support and life-time accompaniment for our priest-clients who are so very much in need.”
“We turn no priest away,” it says.
“So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth.” Revelation 17:3-5.