While Catholic churches nationwide handle the criticism of everybody from Pope John Paul II to local churchgoers, two local churches are facing the music. Both St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church on Elizabeth Street and the First Presbyterian Church on Washtenaw Avenue have, in the past nine years, terminated the positions of pastors who allegedly sexually abused members of their congregation.
At the First Presbyterian Church, Rev. Michael Lindvall chose to openly respond to the barrage of questioning, which started after the New York Times ran an article earlier this month about sexual abuse allegations at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J. There, officials publicly announced the sexual abuse allegations toward Donald Bryant, a former director of both the church’s choir from 1970-1994 and the University Musical Society’s Choral Union from 1969-1990.
A student at the American Boychoir School accused Bryant, who also directed their choir before he moved to Ann Arbor, of sexually abusing him in 1968.
In an e-mail to his congregation dated last Friday published by the Ann Arbor News, Lindvall said there was at least one sexual abuse allegation against Bryant stemming from his time spent at the church. “In 1993, in my first year as your pastor, I received a note from a former member of our church who no longer lived in the area,” Lindvall wrote in the e-mail. “The note indicated that he had been sexually abused by Donald Bryant decades earlier when he was a teenager at our church.” Lindvall said the member of the congregation asked him to remain silent on the issue and not reveal his identity.
As a result of the accusation, Bryant was relieved of his position with the First Presbyterian Church in 1994. “Donald was not at all eager to retire,” Lindvall said.
Bryant has never been charged in either case, but at a public forum held Wednesday, Lindvall said he still felt the need to address the issue openly and honestly while trying to maintain Bryant’s reputation.
“I have observed that there is no desire to evade responsibility. There is no attempt at any kind of cover-up,” said Edward Kosher, the church’s lawyer, at the forum. Kosher added that, as part of the church’s investigation, he has made many calls to members of the congregation. “In all those interviews, I’ve started with the same question: Are you surprised by what you have heard about Mr. Bryant? In every case, the answer has been, ‘yes, absolutely.'”
University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said though many of Bryant’s records have been removed from University files, there is “no record of any issues like the ones heard about in the News.”
“We feel pretty confident in saying that in the time he was here, we did not receive, or find any evidence of, complaints against him,” she said. “We are not aware of anything like that.”
Lindvall said that although he is personally deeply saddened by Bryant’s alleged actions, it was important for church members to remember the importance of forgiving.
“(Bryant) brought incredibly beautiful music to this congregation. This allegation … is not all a person is,” Lindvall said. “No one is outside the limits of God’s grace.”
Neither the University nor the First Presbyterian Church used strict hiring policies during the years Bryant was hired, in 1969 and 1970, respectively.
“There is no sort of across-the-board policy about doing background checks on possible employees,” Peterson said.
Bryant is not the only Ann Arbor pastor connected to sexual abuse allegations. The Ann Arbor News reported Sunday that St. Thomas Rev. Timothy Crowley was removed from the church in 1993 after a church member accused him of sexual abuse. Crowley is now an administrative assistant in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Ala. Like Bryant, Crowley has never been charged.
Both Crowley and Bryant have denied all allegations.