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Survivor Narratives

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.)”

Charland became involved with the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis's youth retreats—despite having just been caught sexually abusing teenage boys.

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.

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 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.

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Terms are defined as provided in the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Glossary of Catholic Terms, unless denoted with *.

Altar server
Individuals, usually children, who assist clerics during liturgical functions such as mass. Prior to 1994, only men and boys were permitted to be altar servers.*
The title given automatically to bishops who govern archdioceses. It is also given to certain other high-ranking church officials.
The chief diocese of an ecclesiastical province. It is governed by an archbishop.
Auxiliary Bishop
A bishop assigned to a Catholic diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop.
The highest order of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. The chief priests in their respective dioceses. Bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their dioceses. All bishops have a responsibility to act in council with other bishops to guide the church.
A man who has taken vows in a religious order but is not ordained or studying for the priesthood. Sometimes he is called a lay brother to distinguish him from ordained members of religious orders.
Canon Law

A code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church.

Highest-ranking Catholic clergy below the pope. Cardinals are regarded as the pope's closest advisors. Most cardinals are archbishops.
The chief archivist of a diocese's official records. Also a notary and secretary of the diocese’s central administration.
Clergy is a collective term referring to all those ordained—bishops, priests, and deacons—who administer the rites of the church. A cleric is an individual member of the clergy. Only men are permitted to join the clergy.
Confession or Reconciliation
The Catholic sacrament in which one makes a voluntary self-accusation of sins to a qualified priest in private in order to obtain absolution. The priest provides the confessor, also known as the penitent, with a penance to atone for sins committed. A priest who hears confession is forbidden from disclosing the contents of a confession to others under what is called the seal of confession.*
The personnel and offices through which (1) the pope administers the affairs of the universal church (the Roman Curia), or (2) a bishop administers the affairs of a diocese (the diocesan curia). The principal officials of a diocesan curia are the vicar general, the chancellor, officials of the diocesan tribunal or court, examiners, consultors, auditors, and notaries.
Dallas Charter
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People sets forth policies for each United States archdiocese and diocese to adopt as part of an effort to address allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. The Charter was formulated at the 2002 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Texas. The Charter was revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018.
One of three groups that comprise the clergy, meaning those ordained for ministry. Only men are permitted to become deacons. Deacons preparing for the priesthood are transitional deacons. Those not planning to be ordained priests are called permanent deacons. Married men may be ordained permanent deacons, but only unmarried men committed to lifelong celibacy can be ordained deacons if they are planning to become priests.
Diocesan Priest
Priests under the direction of their local bishop. Most serve in the parishes of the diocese, but they may also be assigned to other diocesan ministries or released for service outside the diocese.
A territorial division of the Church headed by a bishop.
Extern Priest
A priest with faculties to minister in a diocese or archdiocese who was not ordained in that diocese or archdiocese. For example, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Springfield who has been granted faculties to minister by the Archdiocese of Chicago is an extern priest.*
Church authorization, given by the law itself or by a Church superior, to perform certain official acts.
Members of the Catholic Church. Derived from Catholic teachings that clergy are like shepherds guiding a flock.*
Laicize or Defrock
The process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. It is sometimes used as a penalty for a serious crime, but also can come at the request of the priest. A laicized priest is barred from all priestly ministry with one exception: He may give absolution to someone in immediate danger of death. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. When a priest is laicized without his consent for a crime, such as committing child sexual abuse, it is sometimes called defrocking.
Any activity conducive to the salvation of souls. It can include ordained ministry such as liturgical leadership and administration of the sacraments, or lay ministry such as instructing children in the faith, serving the poor, visiting the sick, or being an altar server, reader, or music leader at mass.
An honorary ecclesiastical title granted by the pope to some diocesan priests.
A member of a religious order of women who has taken solemn or simple vows.
Ordination is the sacramental ceremony in which a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. A cleric who has undergone ordination is known as ordained.*
A specific community within a diocese with its own church building and under the authority of a pastor who is responsible for providing ministerial service. Most parishes are formed on a geographic basis, but they may be formed along national or ethnic lines.
A priest in charge of a Catholic parish or congregation.
Acts performed to atone for committed sins, as directed by a priest in the Catholic sacrament of reconcilliation.*
Residential housing for clergy provided by the Church. A rectory can also contain administrative offices for a parish.*
Religious Cleric
Professed member of a religious order or institute. Religious clergy live according to the rule of their respective orders.
Religious Order or Order
An institution of men or women, at least some of whose members take solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and whose male members are sometimes ordained.*
An educational institution for men preparing for the priesthood.
A cleric who acts in the name of another cleric.*
Vicar general
A priest, auxiliary bishop, or coadjutor bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in the governance of the diocese.
Victims Assistance Coordinator

A diocesan employee who has been designated to coordinate assistance to survivors of sex abuse by clerics.*