The visiting priests arrived discreetly, day and night. Stripped of their collars and cassocks, they went unnoticed in the tiny Midwestern town of Dryden, Mich., as they were escorted into a dingy warehouse across from an elementary school playground. They had been brought to town by a small nonprofit group called Opus Bono Sacerdotii. For nearly two decades, the group 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. The AP unraveled the continuing story of Opus Bono in dozens of interviews with experts, lawyers, clergy members, and former employees, along with hundreds of pages of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. Standout findings:
- Opus Bono established itself as a counterpoint to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and other groups that have accused the church of trying to cover up the scandal and failing to support victims of clergy misconduct. Opus Bono focuses on what it considers the neglected victims: priests, and the church itself.
- Opus Bono's client list is confidential, but its promotional brochures say it has helped more than 8,000 priests. The Michigan attorney general estimates the real number is closer to 1,000.
- 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. 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 AP 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.
- In 2002, co-founder Joe Maher sent a news article about Opus Bono to Father Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of a conservative Catholic journal who served as an unofficial adviser to President George W. Bush. "Some priests have suggested I write to you and let you know what we're doing," Maher told Neuhaus. "More power to you!" Neuhaus replied in a letter the AP located in archives at the Catholic University of America. "The demand that a person 'must be punished,' no matter how long ago the offense or the repentance and transformation of the offender, is nothing more than a demand for vengeance."
- Neuhaus introduced Maher to his friend Cardinal Avery Dulles, the son of former US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. The cardinal was a preeminent conservative Catholic theologian in his two decades at Fordham University. Both men became Opus Bono's theological advisers. Correspondence shows they forged critical connections for Maher in Rome with at least three powerful Vatican officials. Photographs of American cardinals Raymond Burke and Edmund Szoka were displayed in the group's promotional materials, along with pictures of other high-ranking church officials who paid calls to the group's Michigan headquarters. Others sent donations.
- Cardinal Edwin O'Brien, the former archbishop of Baltimore and now a Vatican official, said he occasionally sent money to Opus Bono over the years but has not done so in at least a year. He said he never met Maher or other founding members and never visited Michigan.
- Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said the only contact between the Vatican and the US group that he was aware of was the receipt of some promotional materials from Opus Bono years ago. He wasn't aware of a response.
- But the group also presented itself as deeply entwined with the church, right down to its name, which means "work for the good of the priesthood." "Use of the Latin, which is the official language of the Church, helps to identify OBS with the Catholic Church in Rome and the Papacy," the group's founding documents note.
- In recent months, Maher and another co-founder were forced out after Michigan's attorney general found that Opus Bono had misused donated funds and misled contributors. A third co-founder, a priest, was abruptly removed from ministry earlier this month after the AP began asking about an allegation that he had sexually abused a child decades ago.
- 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. "A simple investigation into the Michigan nonprofit charity Opus Bono Sacerdotii would bring to light the millions of embezzled dollars, years of mail fraud, and the constant systemic abuse of donations," she wrote.
(Read the full story for much more on how Opus Bono got its start, what investigators found, and the new nonprofit launched by Maher after he was forced out of his job.)