Lansing diocese deems credible abuse allegations against deceased Catholic Bishop of Fargo

Bishop James Sullivan Bishop James Sullivan. | Diocese of Lansing.

The Diocese of Lansing released a statement this morning announcing  that two allegations of sexual abuse levelled against the late Bishop James Sullivan (1929 – 2006) are deemed "credible." 

Bishop Sullivan was Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Lansing from 1972 to 1985 before becoming Bishop of Fargo from 1985 to 2002. 

“Following investigation and review, the Diocese of Lansing has found two allegations against the late Bishop James Sullivan to be credible,” said David Kerr, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Lansing. Both accusations stem from the mid-1960s when then-Father Sullivan was in residence at a parish in Lansing. Both victims were boys who were subject to sexual grooming and inappropriate contact by Sullivan. 

“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 statement said.

According to the statement, 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. 

The investigation was launched 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, the second allegation against Sullivan emerged. 

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 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 true. 

“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,” said William Bloomfield, General Counsel of the Diocese of Lansing.

Bloomfield told CNA that the diocese "recognizes that it can be very difficult, and can take time, for victims to come forward with an allegation of this sort. Even if the accused cleric is deceased, the Diocese investigates and forwards the allegation to the Review Board. This is for the good of victims — for their healing and so they can be heard. When the accused is deceased, and hence unable to defend against the allegation, the Review Board factors this into its deliberations."

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. In 1985 he was appointed Bishop of Fargo. 

The credible claims will no doubt come as a shock to those who followed the bishop's public career. During his sixteen years as the sixth Bishop of Fargo, Sullivan was known for his pastoral zeal, his administrative abilities, and his staunch pro-life ministry. 

As bishop, he  launched the “Opening Doors, Opening Hearts” evangelization program, established the Fargo Catholic Schools Network, created and funded the Priest Pension Plan, and started the annual Walk with Christ for Life to protest abortion.

He also served as president of the World Apostolate of Fatima, and as a member of the advisory board for Catholics United for the Faith.

In 1993 he was chosen as one of the speakers for English language pilgrims attending World Youth Day in Denver. 

He resigned on March 18, 2002 because of Alzheimer's disease, and died of complications from the disease in 2006 at age 76.

According to the statement from the Diocese of Lansing, 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.

But 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.

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Paul Braun, Director of Communications of the Diocese of Fargo, informed that Sullivan Middle School, part of the St. John Paul II Catholic Schools network in the North Dakota diocese, was named after Bishop Sullivan. “Due to this situation, Sullivan Middle School has been renamed Sacred Heart Middle School,” he said.

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