FARGO — A former Fargo bishop sexually abused two children in the 1960s when he was a priest in Michigan, church leaders said.

The accusations against former Bishop James Sullivan have been deemed credible by Catholic officials, the Fargo Diocese said in a statement issued Friday, July 2. An investigation found that Sullivan sexually groomed and inappropriately touched two boys when he was a priest living at the Church of the Resurrection Parish in Lansing , Mich., according to a news release issued Friday by the Lansing Diocese.

“I am saddened by the reports concerning Bishop Sullivan, and I am sure the faithful of the Diocese of Fargo share in my disappointment," Fargo Bishop John Folda said. "I ask that we join in prayers for healing and continue in our resolve and efforts to protect those whom we serve.”

Sullivan did not face any credible allegations when he served as a bishop in Fargo from 1985 to 2002.

Still, his name will be added to the Fargo Diocese's list of clergy who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children. He also was added to the Lansing Diocese list. Sullivan is the 32nd clergy member added to Fargo's list, and the 55th one for North Dakota.

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“Bishop Sullivan’s actions were gravely immoral, deeply scandalous and betrayed both the trust of the Catholic community within the Diocese of Lansing and, more significantly, the faith placed in him by the victims and their families to whom we say: ‘This should not have happened to you and we are profoundly sorry that it ever did,’” Lansing Diocese spokesman David Kerr said in a statement.

Sullivan is the only North Dakota bishop who has faced sexual abuse allegations that have been deemed credible.

Investigation

The Lansing Diocese launched an investigation in July 2020 into Sullivan after the Michigan attorney general's office received a report of abuse against Sullivan. The first boy was 12 years old when Sullivan inappropriately touched the child and had "uninvited sexualized conversations" with the boy over a two-year period, according to the Lansing Diocese.

He also inappropriately touched a boy in 1966 who was 11 or 12, the Lansing Diocese said.

The Fargo Diocese was made aware of the investigation last year, spokesman Paul Braun said. When asked why the diocese didn't alert the public to the investigation earlier, Braun said: "The accused was deceased and there were no minors to protect, and so there was ample time to provide due process and complete a thorough investigation."

Sullivan served as an auxiliary bishop in Lansing from 1972 to 1985, when he left for the Fargo position. He died June 12, 2006, in Fargo from complications of Alzheimer's disease, according to news archives.

He was ordained as a priest by the Lansing Diocese in 1955. In Michigan, he served as a priest in Flint, Lansing and St. Joseph, and was a private secretary for former Lansing bishops Joseph Albers and Alexander Zaleski.

Sullivan Middle School, seen Friday, July 2, 2021, in south Fargo has been renamed to Sacred Heart Middle School. School officials are working to change signage. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Sullivan Middle School, seen Friday, July 2, 2021, in south Fargo has been renamed to Sacred Heart Middle School. School officials are working to change signage. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

'We can't honor him'

Fargo's Sullivan Middle School, which is part of the St. John Paul II Catholic Schools network, was named after Sullivan. Due to the allegations, Sullivan Middle School has been renamed Sacred Heart Middle School, the Fargo Diocese said Friday.

The new name emphasizes a priority to protect and guide children through "safe environment" protocols and "circle of grace" education and training, according to a newsletter sent to students' parents.

The name change is effective immediately, said Mike Hagstrom, president of St. John Paul II Catholic Schools. Sullivan's portrait has been taken down, and the school is working to change signage. Other changes will include replacing sports jerseys.

"We can't honor him," Hagstrom said.

It's unclear how long the changes could take and how much they will cost, but Hagstrom said he believes the school will be ready by Aug. 24, the first day of class. "It's just going to be one day at a time," he said.

The school was dedicated Sept. 2, 1998. It replaced St. Anthony's Middle School, which has since closed.

Hagstrom said Sullivan did a lot of good. The bishop oversaw the formation of Fargo's Catholic schools network. He also improved the financial condition of the Fargo Diocese and parishes, according to his obituary.

Still, the Lansing Diocese investigation was thorough and confirmed the allegations, Hagstrom acknowledged. "I'm really horrified that abuse occurred," he said.

Report abuse

If you or someone you know has been sexually abused by a clergy member, the abuse can be reported to local law enforcement authorities. The Fargo Police Department phone number is 701-235-4493.

The Fargo Diocese also can be contacted at 701-356-7945 or victimassistance@fargodiocese.org. Any report of sexual abuse by a clergy member can be made at ReportBishopAbuse.org or 800-276-1562.

Readers can reach reporter April Baumgarten at 701-241-5417 or follow her on Twitter @aprilbaumsaway.