Michigan priest accused of grooming, groping teen

A Michigan priest has been charged with sexual assault after a teenager said the priest fondled him, provided cash, and requested that they 'party together' with drugs. It started with two victims but police in Saginaw fear many more are out there.

Robert Deland, 71, went from the cloth to the jail jumpsuit. Known as Father Bob, he's accused of preying on young men while a priest at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Freeland, near Saginaw. The charges involve a 21-year-old man and a 17-year-old, who worked undercover to make the arrest.

Todd Weglarz with Fieger Law is representing the 17-year-old, who first met DeLand when he was 16 at his friend's funeral after that friend committed suicide last May. The teen had been in legal trouble and it's alleged the priest invited him to do community service at his church.

"It's a progressive, gaining your trust-type thing, and then he starts moving in: Let's start getting drugs, let's party, I have a special bedroom for you.Then the assaults. Yes, this is very well calculated," Weglarz said.

At some point during the grooming process, Weglarz says the teen's parents went to the police, concerned about the amount of attention the longtime, well-liked priest was paying to their son. By the end of the year, DeLand was calling or texting the teen at least 17 times a day, according to the lawsuit. 

The teen agreed to work with police and in February, Deland was arrested after touching the boy inappropriately. 

"This child was very courageous. He decided to try to prevent this from happening to other children so he was working with them and a lot of these things we put in our complaint...were recorded. They've got video and or audio," Weglarz said.

Deland had allegedly been investigated for similar behavior before and police say other alleged victims have come forward since the arrest

"There are other victims out there. I know Father DeLand just didn't decide one day at the age of 71 that he was going to start abusing children," Weglarz said. "Sex abuse victims have rights and they need to come forward to make sure this does not happen again."

DeLand was supposed to be preventing abuse as he was sitting on the board of a child abuse prevention council. Now he's charged with committing that crime and attorneys for the victim say he's not the only one who is to blame.

"This case is about more than just Father Delland, it's about his supervisors, it's about the Catholic Church. We know that they've had a longstanding problem with this," Weglarz said. "We want justice for sex assault victims, we want justice for victims of Father DeLand, we want justice for all victims of the Catholic Church."

The Bishop with the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw released a statement saying he was deeply distressed by this and that the diocese would cooperate fully with law enforcement.

DeLand has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.