SAGINAW (WJRT) - (5/3/2018) - The lead investigator into well-publicized allegations of sexual abuse involving clergy from the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw is defending his motives.
A letter Gaertner wrote in 2004 while serving as Huron County's elected prosecutor warned the diocese there could be retribution if the Rev. Bill Rutkowski, who is the brother of Gaertner's opponent in the 2004 election, got involved in the campaign.
The letter referenced an investigation Gaertner led four years earlier into alleged sexual abuse involving the Rev. Jack Leipert, who was pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bad Axe from 1990 to 2000.
A 21-year-old claimed Leipert groped him. Gaertner declined to charge Leipert criminally in that case after a recording device failed during a sting operation.
Gaertner said the case against Leipert would have been based on he said, he said testimony with both sides disagreeing with each other if he had tried to present it to a jury.
"I can't really remember how the decision was made, but you have to remember, in a situation like this, I doubt -- very, very heavily doubt -- that Father Jack would have given us any statement at all," Gaertner recently said of not charging Leipert.
Leipert was removed from the ministry in June 2001, about six months after the sexual abuse investigation ended. The case had been settled and mostly forgotten until Gaertner's letter to a diocese attorney in 2004.
Gaertner was running for re-election as Huron County's prosecutor that year against Tim Rutkowski, who is the brother of the Rev. Bill Rutkowski. Bill Rutkowski, an outspoken critic of Gaertner, pastors a Bay City Catholic church that is part of the Saginaw diocese.
Gaertner asked in the letter for Bill Rutkowski to stay out of the prosecutor campaign. ABC12 obtained a copy of that letter through the Freedom of Information Act.
In the letter, Gaertner raises the question that, if Bill Rutkowski got involved with the prosecutor race, is that how the diocese would thank him for not filing charges in the Leipert case.
"We helped solve the problem, then they turn around and then criticize some of the people that helped solve the problem. That's what I meant when I wrote that," Gaertner said recently after reading the letter.
He denies that he meant the diocese should thank him and his office for not charging Leipert, which would have caused embarrassment for the diocese.
"No, believe me," Gaertner said. "We are sitting here with someone that has just got done charging a priest in a number of matters here in Saginaw."
The letter goes on to say that if Bill Rutkowski did speak out during the campaign, the Leipert matter would be resurrected. However, Gaertner recently said that wasn't a warning that he would reopen the criminal case against Leipert.
"I in no way intended to threaten anybody," Gaertner said.
He also denies the decision to not prosecute Leipert was for his own political gain, so he wouldn't upset Catholic voters in Huron County.
"Well to know about me is, I have never been shy about taking on a challenge or a controversial topic," Gaertner said. "I did not in any way consider the religious make up of the county."
Not everyone agrees with Gaertner's stated intention of the letter. Retired Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Michael Talbot, who recently was appointed the delegate for clergy personnel misconduct for the diocese, called for a deeper look into the letter.
"On its face, the documents shared with us demand serious attention," Talbot said in a written statement. "They appear to present a highly questionable context to some of the recent actions by local law enforcement."
Gaertner beat Tim Rutkowski by 111 votes in the 2004 election, then lost to him four years later in 2008. He later was hired as an assistant prosecutor for Saginaw County.
Bill Rutkowski said he had no knowledge of Gaertner's letter from 2004 and was never instructed to stay out of the campaign that year.
Gaertner flat out denies that he has an ax to grind with the diocese.
"I will be perfectly honest with you: This office under the leadership of our prosecuting attorney has successfully and continues to successfully combat violent crime, homicides, street shootings," Gaertner said. "In no way did we go looking for this case.”
A lawsuit was never filed by the victim in the Leipert case, but he settled out of court with the diocese. He received an undisclosed financial settlement.