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Abuse Suspects Find Help in Nonprofit

By Patricia Montemurri, Detroit Free Press
November 14, 2010

Don Smith, 63, left, Pete Ferrara, 44, and Joe Maher, 50, recite the rosary at the Opus Bono Sacerdotii office in Oakland County. Maher runs the nonprofit legal defense and support fund for priests accused of sexual abuse.

The cause Joe Maher champions is unpopular. Some might even call it unfathomable.

But the 50-year-old metro Detroit father of five says he's doing what Jesus would do -- reaching out to sinners. In this case, he is helping once-exalted Catholic priests accused of sexually molesting minors.

Maher runs a nonprofit legal defense and support fund for priests accused of sexual abuse. He estimates the organization has taken calls from 8,000 priests worldwide, about 5,000 of whom have been removed because of sexual abuse allegations.

"Christ never distanced himself from the murderers, the thieves and rapists, and he sat with them at the table," Maher said. "We have to do it, whether we like it or not. We can do it without condoning their activities."

Maher has raised close to $3 million for the nonprofit organization Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a Latin phrase that means "Work for the Good of the Priesthood." He founded it in 2002. According to Opus Bono's required IRS filing for charities, it spent $425,000 on grants to priests from 2006 to 2008.

As publicity erupted in Europe this summer over allegations that the Vatican mishandled the sex abuse scandal, the organization has been as busy this year as it was nearly a decade ago during the first fury of priest abuse allegations, said Maher, whose organization is based in Oakland County.

Maher's work has taken him to prisons where he meets with priests convicted of heinous crimes. Still, he asks these men to bless him.

"God does not take away a priest's ability to give Christ's blessing, even if he may have abused that gift in some way," he said. "I believe this, so I kneel."

Maher's mission is lauded by some and decried by others.

Victims' advocate David Clohessy, co-founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said predator priests aren't helpless outcasts, but more likely "shrewd, popular, charismatic men who have been able to molest for decades." When accused, they "enjoy every benefit of the doubt," he said.

Clohessy said Opus Bono's vigorous public support of these men makes "it harder for deeply wounded men, women and kids to expose predators."

"A more caring approach is to support suspended and suspected sex offender priests privately so that others who see, suspect or suffer clergy sex crimes aren't intimidated into staying silent," he said.

Maher contends that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven. He also says he believes it's better to allow the men accused of abuse to remain as priests, rather than seek laicization for them. Minors, he believes, are at greater risk if a priest, guilty of abuse, is stripped of his status and returned to society without the safeguards the church can provide.

In addition to Maher, who has no other job, Opus Bono Sacerdotii has three staffers. They operate from a rehabbed factory north of Detroit; they do not disclose the organization's location because of threats made against them.

Maher's salary has fluctuated over the years from $137,000 in 2006 to $99,000 in 2007 to $151,000 in 2008, according to the group's required IRS filing for charities. Maher said his current salary is about $109,000. He said the variations occur from year to year to compensate him for unreimbursed out-of-pocket expenses and personal money he has used to provide service.

When a priest calls, Maher said the first thing he and his staffers do is listen. They assess whether the priest needs immediate legal help. They also make sure the priest has necessities such as food and shelter. And they try to evaluate the caller's physical, spiritual and psychological health.

Maher embarked down the path he has taken in 2002, when a visiting priest from Africa assigned to Assumption Grotto parish on Detroit's east side was charged with raping a woman in the church choir loft. He started Opus Bono Sacerdotii by sending out fund-raisings letters, soliciting money for the Rev. Komlan Dem Houndjame's defense and living expenses during his rape trial.

Maher raised $100,000 for Houndjame's defense -- $15,000 from parishioners and the rest bankrolled by an anonymous donor, Maher and another colleague. A Wayne County jury acquitted the priest, who no longer works in the archdiocese.

Shortly after Houndjame was acquitted, Maher was faced with the ouster of his own pastor because of sex abuse allegations.

Maher's 1990 marriage was officiated by the Rev. Ron Williams, pastor of St. Mary of Redford Catholic Church. Over Labor Day weekend in 2002, Williams was removed because of abuse allegations.

Maher has paid a personal price for his commitment to disgraced priests. He said he has had feces smeared on his car, and a trio of menacing men once approached his wife in their former Redford Township home to voice their complaints about Maher's work. He has been accosted by picketers when he spoke to a priests' group on Long Island, N.Y.

"Some people are really wounded, and you can understand it," said Maher. "But some people get violent in their manner and resentment, and I'm the one whose picture has been in the paper standing next to a convicted pedophile."



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