The visiting priests arrived discreetly, day and night.
Stripped of their collars and cassocks, they went unnoticed in this tiny Midwestern town as they were escorted into a dingy warehouse across from an elementary school playground. Neighbors had no idea some of the dressed-down clergymen dining at local restaurants might have been accused sexual predators.
They had been brought to town by a small, nonprofit group called Opus Bono Sacerdotii. For nearly two decades, the group has 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.
Again and again, Opus Bono has served as a rapid-response team for the accused.
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.
When another priest was criminally charged with abusing a teen, Opus Bono later made him a legal adviser.
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 Associated Press 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.
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 requests.
In recent months, two of the group's founders 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.
Still, since 2002, Opus Bono has played a little-known role among conservative Catholic groups that portray the abuse scandal as a media and legal feeding frenzy. These groups contend the scandal maligns the priesthood and harms the Catholic faith.
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.
"All of these people that have made allegations are very well taken care of," Opus Bono co-founder Joe Maher said in a radio interview, contending that many abuse accusations lodged against priests are false. "The priests are not at all very well taken care of."
Opus Bono's roots reach back almost two decades to a sex abuse scandal that convulsed The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, a grand stone structure set amid Detroit's crumbling brick blight.
For 25 years, the Rev. Eduard Perrone presided there. Inside the church, commonly known as Assumption Grotto, glossy Opus Bono brochures tout the pastor's role as the group's co-founder and spiritual lifeblood. Stern and imposing, the 70-year-old Perrone is a staunch conservative; he refused to marry couples, for example, if he thought the bride's dress was too revealing.
Earlier this month, his parishioners were shocked when Perrone was removed from ministry after a church review board decided there was a "semblance of truth" to allegations that he abused a child decades ago. Perrone told the AP that he "never would have done such a thing."
In the years before Perrone helped start Opus Bono, he and Assumption Grotto took in at least two priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct at dioceses in other states. One of them later admitted to molesting as many as 50 children in the 1980s and '90s, according to court documents in Texas.
In 1999, Perrone welcomed the other priest — a West African clergyman named Komlan Dem Houndjame — to come work at Assumption Grotto. Two years later, Detroit Archdiocese officials say, they asked Houndjame to return to his home country, Togo, after learning of accusations of sexual misconduct against him in Detroit and at an earlier posting in Florida.
Instead he went to a treatment facility in St. Louis.
In 2002, Detroit police charged him with sexually assaulting a member of Assumption Grotto's choir.
The 48-year-old parishioner who accused Houndjame of rape said Perrone's response was to protect the church, testifying in court that he told her, "Just walk by him and ignore him."
Perrone responded to the charges against Houndjame by asking the congregation to support the priest in his time of crisis.
Joe Maher was among those who were moved by Perrone's plea for help.
Maher grew up Catholic in the Midwest, then headed to California, where, he said in a podcast, he found work producing live entertainment for Hollywood award shows and other events. "I had access to all the studios," Maher said. He told a radio interviewer he found his faith again in California before moving his family back to Michigan.
Maher led the effort to support Houndjame, serving as media spokesman for the accused priest during the case. Maher even brought the priest home to live with his family, according to his daughter Mary Rose, who was about 10 at the time.
In court files, the AP found two other women at Assumption Grotto also had told police about sexual misconduct by Houndjame. But their testimony was never heard in court.
When the case went to trial, "it was essentially her word against the priest," said then-prosecutor Maria Miller. Houndjame was acquitted and moved to Las Vegas. He told the AP that Perrone had been "a real friend."
Joe Maher, meanwhile, was inundated with calls from other desperate priests, begging for help.
Out of those pleas, Opus Bono was launched.
Around the clock, the organization's main number rang through to Maher's cellphone. Maher and fellow co-founder Peter Ferrara, who had worked in accounting, would mobilize, picking priests up in person or buying them plane tickets, then moving them into a hotel, an apartment or one of several "halfway houses."
"We're on our way to help a priest in need, in the Midwest, so it's going to be a long trip and not much sleep and it could be potentially a dangerous situation," Maher said in a homemade video posted on Opus Bono's Facebook page. He didn't explain why the mission might be dangerous.
Opus Bono's client list is confidential, but its promotional brochures say it has helped over 8,000 priests. The Michigan attorney general estimates the real number is closer to 1,000.
One of those was Rev. Gregory Ingels, a well-known priest in San Francisco's archdiocese who was charged in 2003 with abusing a 15-year-old boy in the 1970s. The criminal charges were dismissed after California's extended statute of limitations was ruled unconstitutional, but the archdiocese later settled a lawsuit filed by another Ingels accuser.
Opus Bono made Ingels one of its advisers on canon, or church, law. When reached by the AP, Ingels said the allegations against him were false and said his involvement with Opus Bono was minimal.
"With Opus Bono, I only answered canon law questions that they had before I hit retirement age," he said.
The group also provided support to Jason Sigler, a former Detroit priest convicted of molesting dozens of children in New Mexico and Michigan.
In a lawsuit, one former altar boy said Sigler forced him into "hundreds of sexual abuse events, each a violation of criminal sexual penetration laws."
Maher visited Sigler in prison regularly, funded his commissary account and took his calls, said Mary Rose Maher. She also says her father introduced her to Sigler before and after he was sentenced to prison, and put her on the phone with him while he was behind bars.
"I really didn't know who Jason was. I had only met him once and I didn't understand why I had to speak to a priest in prison," she said.
She told the AP that while she was still a teenager, she and her homeschooled friends began working for her father's organization — and often spent time with men who were accused of abuse. Sometimes Mary Rose, her father and other employees would meet with accused priests, drive them around town and take them to lunch, she said.
Opus Bono also hired accused priest Dennis Druggan, who headed a Catholic seminary high school in Wisconsin for more than a decade. Druggan was put on administrative leave in July 2012 after allegations surfaced that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor at a Catholic high school for Native American teens in Montana in the 1980s.
Druggan was later removed from public ministry, according to a 2013 audit of the Capuchin province where he served, and is no longer a member of the order, said the province spokesman Tim Hinkle.
Instead, Druggan went to work for Opus Bono, according to employment records the group turned over to Michigan's attorney general.
Druggan occasionally visited Opus Bono's office to say Mass or conduct other business, according to Mary Rose Maher. She recalls sitting at his side for lessons on fundraising.
When contacted by the AP, Druggan said he no longer works for Opus Bono and declined further comment.
Another former priest, Robert Kealy, was sent by church officials in Chicago to Opus Bono for "monitoring/therapy" in 2003 after admitting he abused teens. The group described him as an adviser on church law.
Earlier, Kealy himself had helped handle sex-abuse cases for the church. Now his out-of-town trips had to be approved by the Chicago Archdiocese, and documents show they outsourced his monitoring to Maher, who was listed as his "Therapist, Spiritual Leader, Doctor, Monitor," even though there is no indication Maher is a licensed therapist.
Kealy also attended a conference Opus Bono put on in Detroit, monitored by Monsignor William Varvaro, a former president of the Canon Law Society of America and an early Opus Bono adviser, records show.
Kealy did not respond to requests for comment. Varvaro died in 2007.
From the very beginning, the group won backing from influential members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy who were eager to advocate for the rights of accused priests.
In 2002, 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 John Foster Dulles, the former U.S. Secretary of State. Dulles was a pre-eminent 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, Ferrara or other founding members and never visited Michigan.
"I saw some charity being done and wanted to encourage them. They were very appreciative," O'Brien said, but added that the next time the group reaches out, he will ask that his photo be removed from its Facebook page.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said the only contact between the Vatican and the U.S. group that he was aware of was the receipt of some promotional materials from Opus Bono years ago. He was not aware of a response.
Don Hanchon, an auxiliary bishop in Detroit, said he was surprised his images were featured on the group's website and in brochures. Hanchon told the AP he might have sent in a donation, but the photograph "seems like I'm a big supporter, and that's just not the truth."
Szoka died in 2014 and Burke could not be reached for comment.
Perrone told an interviewer in 2013 that Opus Bono's relationship with the Roman Catholic Church was deliberately arms-length.
"The church benefits from what we're doing but it doesn't give it the support," he said. "The whole point of this is to be a counterpoint to a movement which is also outside the church, a movement of dissent and against the priesthood."
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 addition to courting religious leaders, Opus Bono also has benefited from connections to wealthy U.S. Catholics.
A radio network founded by Tom Monaghan, a billionaire Domino's Pizza founder who later advised President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, interviewed Maher and Perrone and promoted Opus Bono's work, according to archived Ave Maria Radio recordings.
Monaghan's Ave Maria Foundation also sponsored a community talk Maher gave at a Detroit hotel, according to the recordings. And a former chaplain at Florida-based Ave Maria School of Law, which Monaghan founded and on whose board he serves, was listed as an Opus Bono adviser on the group's website.
A spokesman for Monaghan declined to comment on Opus Bono. Joe Maher has said that Monaghan never made any direct donations to the group.
In their four locations over 17 years — three of them in towns in rural Michigan — the group didn't post signs.
In 2005, in Oxford, Michigan, Opus Bono retrofitted one side of an old metal-casting facility adjacent to a high school for its headquarters. At noon, metal workers would halt their noisy work to let Opus Bono staffers observe Mass and sometimes join in prayer, two former employees of the group said.
The group's next move, in 2014, was 20 miles away to the village of Dryden. Local officials were puzzled when they heard Maher and Ferrara wanted to set up a Hollywood-style production studio in a dilapidated warehouse off Main Street — again facing an elementary school playground.
Nothing was mentioned about priests.
"They were very tight-lipped and never talked about anything having to do with priests," said Gyrome Edwards, a building and zoning official in Dryden. "They were just trying to go unseen."
Each week inside the warehouse, office workers mailed out appeals to potential donors in envelopes featuring pictures of the pope. The letters inside, as well as postings on the group's website, included testimonials describing the purported experiences of priests who'd faced desperate crises, including false accusations of sexual abuse.
One testimonial from May 2018, for example, claimed that a "Father David" had been stalked by a mentally unbalanced parishioner who had accused him of sexual misconduct after he turned down her offers of gifts and money.
"Even when a priest has done absolutely nothing wrong," the testimonial asserted, "the Church will sometimes go to the nth degree, including subjecting some priests to unwarranted psychological trauma, and a very long wait to return to active ministry, all to appease a terribly aggressive accuser."
The testimonials, however, were misleading, an investigation by Michigan's attorney general found. Opus Bono's lawyers conceded to state investigators that Maher had concocted them by stitching together stories from various priests.
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 non-profit 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.
The tip landed on the desk of Assistant Attorney General William Bloomfield, a devout Catholic with a law degree from Ave Maria.
The investigation lasted more than a year.
Investigators concluded the group's fundraising solicitations had been deceptive. They also found that Maher and Ferrara had violated state charity laws by using donated funds to cover such personal expenses as sushi lunches, chiropractor visits and power tools to work on their homes, according to a cease and desist order filed by Michigan's attorney general.
Over the years, as the group grew richer — financial records show donations increased from $73,000 in 2002 to $1.3 million in 2016 — Maher's pay soared from $40,500 to $212,000. Ferrara's rose from $16,300 to $316,000.
"Maher and Ferrara took what they wanted, when they wanted it," the attorney general's office wrote, demanding repayment of more than $500,000.
A former board member — J. Michael Carrigan, a former Smithsonian Institution director — said that whatever the co-founders paid themselves was only to reimburse the tens of thousands of dollars they spent out of their own pockets supporting priests in Opus Bono's early days.
Ultimately, Bloomfield oversaw a settlement last December that required Opus Bono to pay $10,000 to cover the costs of the state's investigation and forced Ferrara and Maher from their jobs at the nonprofit. The group's entire board of directors was replaced.
Within weeks of the settlement, Bloomfield left his job at the attorney general's office and took a job with the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, as general counsel.
Bloomfield said his work on the investigation did not represent a conflict of interest because Opus Bono is a nonprofit, separate from the church.
But four years before Bloomfield began directing the state's investigation of Opus Bono, he attended a service chanted by Perrone and the Assumption Grotto choir that moved him "to a deep and joyful praise of God," he wrote on Facebook. Bloomfield told the AP his parents knew Perrone and that he had attended services at Assumption Grotto on occasion as a youth.
Bloomfield also sells religious texts through his own imprint, Sacred Art Series, which sometimes can be found for sale at Assumption Grotto's gift shop, a clerk said. Bloomfield said he has never sold books there directly, but added it's possible that his mother, who served on a nonprofit board with Perrone, may have dropped off copies.
Despite the settlement, the story of Opus Bono continues to unfold.
The Archdiocese of Detroit has asked the Vatican to review the sexual misconduct allegations against Father Perrone.
Mary Rose Maher recently launched her own nonprofit group. She says the group will support survivors of sexual abuse, positioning it squarely in opposition to her father's organization even as she adapts some of its tactics — offering shelter, legal representation and emotional and financial help. She is soliciting donations to build a "safe haven house" and raising money by selling tickets to a banquet that will be held at an as-yet-determined date.
Her father, who was required by the state to never again run a nonprofit in Michigan, has launched a second nonprofit that seems to have the identical mission of helping priests in need.
The new group is called Men of Melchizedek, a reference to an Old Testament figure who was thought to be both a king and a priest. It is registered in Indiana, but its website says its "principal office" is located in Michigan. The group lists Maher as its president.
In a March letter to the Michigan attorney general, Maher's attorney described him something akin to a case worker whose labors are "a corporal and spiritual work of mercy; it is how he practices his Catholic faith." The letter said the new group will provide the same services as Opus Bono, but warned that "more vulnerable beneficiaries may be lost to suicide during the transition."
Both Opus Bono and Men of Melchizedek now list the same canon lawyer, the Rev. David Deibel, as their chairman.
Deibel, Joe Maher and Maher's attorneys did not return multiple messages from the AP.
On its website, the new group promises "non-judgmental support and life-time accompaniment for our priest-clients who are so very much in need."
"We turn no priest away," it says.