DRYDEN — The visiting priests arrived discreetly, day and night.
Stripped of their collars and cassocks, they went unnoticed in a series of tiny Midwestern towns as they were escorted into dingy warehouses and offices. Neighbors had no idea some of them might have been accused sexual predators.
For nearly two decades, a small nonprofit group called Opus Bono Sacerdotii has operated out 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.
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 backed the abusers, The Associated Press has found.
Catholic leaders say the church has no official relationship with the group. But Opus Bono successfully forged networks within the church hierarchy.
The Associated Press 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, Joe Maher and Peter Ferrara, were forced out after Michigan's attorney general found Opus Bono had misused donated funds and misled contributors. A third co-founder, Father Eduard Perrone, 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. Perrone denies the allegation.
Over the years, Opus Bono brought on as employees or advisers at least three clergymen accused of sexual abuse, and offered sympathizers a tax-deductible, anonymous method of sending money to specific accused priests.
When serial pedophile Jason Sigler, a former priest, was sent to jail for abusing dozens of minors, Opus Bono was there for him, with regular visits and commissary cash, said a former employee. When another priest, Gregory Ingels, was criminally charged with abusing a teen, Opus Bono made him a legal adviser.
The group's current and former leadership did not respond to questions from the AP.
In 2003, the fledgling group won backing from influential Roman Catholics, including Father Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of a conservative Catholic journal who served as an unofficial adviser to President George W. Bush, and Cardinal Avery Dulles, the son of a former U.S. Secretary of State. Dulles was a preeminent conservative Catholic theologian.
Maher met with Vatican officials in Rome, and had visits from them in his group's Michigan offices.
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 founder 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."
As part of the legal settlement earlier this year with the state attorney general, Maher agreed to never again run a nonprofit in Michigan. But that agreement appears to have already been violated: He is now running a near-identical nonprofit group in a different part of the state, the AP found.
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 as 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 L. Deibel, as their chairman.
Deibel, 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.