The Diocese of Lansing has deemed as credible two allegations of sexual abuse leveled against the late Bishop James Sullivan (1929 – 2006). Bishop Sullivan was Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Lansing from 1972 to 1985 before becoming Bishop of Fargo in North Dakota from 1985 to 2002. Both accusations stem from the mid-1960’s when then-Father Sullivan was living in residence at a parish in Lansing. Both victims were boys who were subject to sexual grooming and inappropriate contact by Sullivan.
“Following investigation and review, the Diocese of Lansing has found two allegations against the late Bishop James Sullivan to be credible,” said David Kerr, spokesman for the Diocese of Lansing, July 2, 2021.
“Bishop Sullivan’s actions were gravely immoral, deeply scandalous and betrayed both the trust of the Catholic community within the Diocese of Lansing and, more significantly, the faith placed in him by the victims and their families to whom we say: ‘This should not have happened to you and we are profoundly sorry that it ever did’.”
The Diocese of Lansing launched its investigation in July 2020 after receiving an allegation of abuse against Sullivan from the Michigan Department of Attorney General. In the course of the diocesan investigation, led by a private investigator with law enforcement experience, a second allegation against Sullivan emerged.
The results of these investigations were then forwarded to the Diocese of Lansing Review Board, a seven-person committee who advise the Bishop of Lansing in his assessment of allegations of the sexual abuse of minors. The membership of the committee is drawn from a range of professional backgrounds, including law enforcement, education and psychology, while also including representation from the clergy and victims of abuse.
“The Review Board concluded that these two allegations against the late Bishop Sullivan appear to be true,” explained William Bloomfield, General Counsel of the Diocese of Lansing.
“We are grateful to Bishop Sullivan’s victims for coming forward and sharing their stories. They have displayed great courage and dignity throughout the entire process – they have our gratitude, admiration and prayers.”
The first victim was approximately 12-years-old in 1964 when then-Father Sullivan subjected him to inappropriate touching and uninvited sexualized conversations. This pattern of behavior continued over the next two years. The second victim was approximately 11 to 12-years-old in 1966 when Sullivan inappropriately touched him. All incidents occurred at the Church of the Resurrection Parish in Lansing where Bishop Sullivan resided at the time.
A native of Kalamazoo, James Stephen Sullivan was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Lansing in 1955. Following parish assignments in Flint, Lansing, and St. Joseph, Father Sullivan served as private secretary to Bishop Joseph Albers (1891 – 1965) and also his successor, Bishop Alexander Zaleski (1906 – 1975). Father Sullivan was ordained as Auxiliary Bishop of Lansing in 1972 with the primary task of assisting Bishop Zaleski and his successor, Bishop Kenneth Povish. Bishop Sullivan served in the Diocese of Lansing until 1985 when he was appointed Bishop of Fargo in North Dakota. He died in 2006 and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo.
Neither the Diocese of Lansing nor the Diocese of Fargo are aware of any allegations of abuse stemming from Bishop Sullivan’s years spent in North Dakota. Both the Diocese of Fargo and the Diocese of Lansing will now add Bishop Sullivan’s name to their respective lists of clergy with credible accusations of sexual misconduct with a minor.
In September 2019, the Diocese of Lansing published the names of 17 priests who have been subject to a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor since the establishment of the diocese in 1937. That’s approximately 2.8% of all clergy who have served in the diocese. The publication was based upon a review of diocesan files. Over 90% of allegations stem from a three-decade period beginning in the 1960’s. All priests credibly accused are now dead or no longer in active ministry. The alleged victims include 66 boys, four girls, and three whose sex was unreported.
* The Diocese of Lansing employs a Victim Assistance Coordinator to provide support and assistance to individuals who have been abused by clergy, even if the abuse happened many years ago. The Diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator is Lisa Veenstra, LMSW. Lisa can be contacted toll-free at 888-308-6252 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Individuals are also encouraged to report clergy sexual abuse of minors directly to law enforcement, even if the abuse happened many years ago.
1. For a cleric to be placed on the list of clerics with a "credible allegation" of sexual abuse of a minor means that one or more of the following existed:
- With the assistance of the expert Diocesan Review Board, the Bishop of Lansing determined that the allegation was credible, i.e., that the allegation appeared to be true.
- The accused admitted the allegation;
- The allegation resulted in a criminal conviction;
- The allegation resulted in the accused's removal from ministry or laicization;
- Or the allegation resulted in a civil settlement with either the accused or the Diocese.
2. When an allegation is made against a deceased cleric, it should be noted that the deceased cleric has no opportunity to defend himself. The Review Board always weighs that fact with the other evidence before reaching its conclusion.
3. The Diocese of Lansing previously received an allegation against Bishop Sullivan in 2002. At the time, the Diocese deemed the allegation to be "not credible." In light of the recent allegations, the Diocese of Lansing asked its private investigator and the Review Board to reconsider that allegation. The Review Board concluded that there is insufficient evidence to determine whether the allegation appears to be false or appears to be true. Should additional information be found, the Review Board will re-assess.
4. An “auxiliary bishop” is appointed to assist the work of a diocesan bishop. It is the diocesan bishop, however, and not the auxiliary, who is the pastoral and legal head and representative of a diocese. Bishop Sullivan was an auxiliary bishop under the leadership of two Bishops of Lansing: Bishop Alexander Zaleski (in office from 1965 – 1975) and Bishop Kenneth Povish (in office from 1975 – 1995). In 1985, Bishop Sullivan became the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Fargo.
5. More on the Diocese of Lansing's Review Board regarding allegations of sexual abuse against minors can be found here.
6. Details of Bishop Sullivan’s life and career: Born, July 23, 1929. Ordained to Priesthood, June 4, 1955. Assigned to: Saint Luke, Flint, July 1955 – June 1958; Saint Mary Cathedral, Lansing, June 1958 – Sept 1960; Secretary to the Bishop, Sept 1960 – June 1961; St. Joseph, St Joseph, June 1961 – June 1965; Resurrection, Lansing, June 1965 – Aug 1966; In residence, Resurrection, Lansing, Aug 1966 – 1978; Secretary to the Bishop, Aug 1966 – July 1969; Vice Chancellor, Aug 1968 – Sept 1972; Auxiliary Bishop of Lansing, Sept 1972 – April 1985, Temporary Administrator of Diocese of Lansing, May – Dec 1975; Pastor, Saint Thomas Aquinas, East Lansing, Feb 1978 – 1985; Installed as Bishop of Fargo, North Dakota, May 30, 1985; Died: June 12, 2006 at Fargo, North Dakota. Buried Holy Cross Cemetery, Fargo, North Dakota.