Michael Joseph Charland
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate were impressed by the young man who arrived in Godfrey in the summer of 1965 to spend a year in training as a prospective member. Michael Charland is “[a] man of high standards and willing to sacrifice for them,” the master of novices wrote. He “[h]as a deep attachment for the Oblate Priesthood, strives mightily toward it and should be a good one.” Charland professed his first vows to glowing reviews and then left Illinois in 1966 to continue pursuing a course of study and preparation known as “formation.” By the time he returned to the state a fully ordained Oblate priest in 1973, a different picture of the man was starting to emerge.
It was during his further studies that Charland first seems to have developed an interest in counseling. “The priest must do many things today because of a need or a lack somewhere,” he wrote the order’s provincial in January 1968. “But of all the things that a priest does, that are not strictly sacramental, perhaps the most directly connected with his ministry—or at least I feel is most directly connected with it—is direction and counseling.” “Personally,” Charland added, “I would like to be a counselor in the seminary—high school or college level—without having to teach. (I think a counselor can have better rapport with an individual if he isn’t associated in the person’s mind with some course he may not care for or just with the ‘authority’ of a teacher.)”
A few months after completing his theological degree in 1971—the same year he was ordained a priest—Charland began to pursue graduate studies in counseling at Creighton University, where he developed a pattern of conduct he would eventually use to sexually abuse children. As a fellow Oblate later put it, “it was at about that time that the difficulties first began to surface.” Charland lived in the order’s “house of studies” near the Omaha campus along with young men (barely adults) working on their undergraduate degrees; these were prospective Oblates pursuing the same path Charland had recently completed. Ostensibly as part of his schoolwork, Charland conducted interviews and performed a series of tests on the young men to create a “sociogram” visually representing their social links. One of them was shown to have “few friends” and thus was relegated to the sociogram’s “outer circle.”
Looking back a decade later, this young man reflected that “[t]he sociogram became the means for [Charland] to reach out to me in my need and at the same time, to satisfy some of his needs.” Charland “talked to me quite extensively,” the young man recalled, “recognizing in the sociogram some dangerous signs in terms of isolation and perhaps departure from the Oblates.” Through these counseling sessions, the two became friends—and they “expressed this friendship in a sexual, physical way. To me,” the young man explained, “it flowed right out of the counseling. The friendship and counseling were mixed up for me as I think back.” He continued: “I was scared, yet so in need and soon accepted it as part of a deep, intimate friendship.”
It is generally unethical, if not illegal, for a counselor to engage in a sexual relationship with a patient. The patient can be vulnerable; the counselor generally holds a position of power and trust. Pursuing a sexual relationship under these circumstances takes advantage of this unequal dynamic and can be profoundly harmful to the patient.
But Charland would not be in this report if his wrongdoing had been confined to young men. Regrettably, it was not. A year after the sociogram incident—perhaps, some documents hint, because of it—Charland found himself assigned to Saint Henry’s Preparatory Seminary, a high school the Oblates operated in Belleville. Upon arriving on campus in August 1973, Charland took on the role of school counselor, which he seemed to relish to the detriment of his other duties. His provincial later recalled he “was not completely happy” with Charland during his time at Saint Henry’s because “his main preoccupation was counseling and not teaching—he maintained that most of the boys had psychological problems and that he could help them.”
In December 1976, a high school freshman at Saint Henry’s told the school superior that Charland was sexually abusing him during “counseling” sessions. The boy described “a series of sexual touchings, fondlings, ‘sittings on the lap,’ etc., with some minimal undressing. To the best of my recollection,” the superior explained a decade later, “there was no mention of oral or anal sex, or of any overt orgasms or ejaculations.” But, he conceded, “I didn’t want to know any more than I really had to so I was not privy to a lot of detail.” And while the superior “did not make any kind of investigation to determine how long or how widespread the situation had been,” he did form the “impression” that “more students were involved than just the one” and that he was “not dealing with an isolated incident, a momentary weak moment.” He confronted Charland, who “admitted that there was substantial truth in the student’s statement.” The superior concluded Charland “was clearly involved in sexual misconduct with underage boys.”
Charland “agreed that under the circumstances he would have to leave St. Henry’s”—but not until the upcoming Christmas break. In the meantime, he “was told to stay away from the students as much as possible.” A few weeks later, Charland departed Belleville for a hastily arranged position as the associate director of campus ministry at the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota. “From my point of view,” the superior explained, “I felt the incident was over.” His only regret was that, while Charland’s abuse “was never publicly discussed” at Saint Henry’s, it seemed there was still “widespread knowledge of at least the general outline of what had happened.” The Oblates’ provincial in Minnesota, meanwhile, showed the same concern for secrecy—and seemed to have had more success achieving it. “As far as I know,” he said, “the circumstances of this sudden transfer were known to only a few persons in the province. After this everything seemed to go well.”
The provincial’s optimism did not square with reality. Charland became involved with the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis’s youth retreats—despite having just been caught sexually abusing teenage boys. In August 1977, he cofounded the archdiocese’s TEC program—Teens Encounter Christ—which he also served as a spiritual director. Over the next few years, he hosted dozens of three-day TEC retreats at his home parish in downtown Saint Paul. He also volunteered as a spiritual director for TEC retreats in other dioceses—including the Diocese of Belleville’s program in Sparta. Charland’s interest in the TEC program meant he was surrounded by teenage boys at every turn. Perhaps someone along the way might have questioned the wisdom of this vocation if the Oblates had simply told the truth about Charland’s “counseling” sessions at Saint Henry’s.
But the Oblates continued to keep Charland’s secret. And that is how the priest found himself alone one day in 1981 with a 17 year old boy named Joe—a devout Catholic and former altar server who was attending one of Charland’s TEC retreats. The retreat wrapped up with the priest hearing the teen participants’ confessions—alone, of course. At the end of Joe’s confession, Charland gave the boy a sexual hug. “He was brushing his pelvis side to side against mine and suddenly I realize what he’s doing because he’s aroused,” Joe told Minnesota Public Radio in 2017. “He released the hug. And he held my face in his hands and then he kissed both of my eyes and then he kissed me on the mouth.” Joe said he was too scared to tell the church or police what Charland had done to him.
Charland didn’t last much longer with the Oblates. All told, he spent almost eight years in Minnesota before a brief stint as a campus minister in Wisconsin in 1984. But a few months after taking the position, Charland again abruptly resigned—this time leaving the priesthood altogether to marry a woman back in Minnesota. Indeed, the details of the crimes he committed against children under the guise of “counseling” sessions—and the Oblates’ complicity in covering it all up—come primarily from materials prepared by the order in the 1980s to assist Charland with his petition to the pope for laicization and a dispensation from his vows. The petition was granted.
Even after settling down in the Twin Cities as a married man, Charland continued to work as a counselor to young people. The Oblates knew it too. But to the horror of anyone familiar with Charland’s history, still no one from the church said a word.