Former priest gets prison for abuse in Ontonagon County
Jacobs scheduled to be sentenced July 2 in Dickinson court
ONTONAGON — One after another came the stories from the victims, now in their 50s and 60s.
The handsome, charming priest who seemed like he had a direct connection to God.
The way he abused their trust, sexually abusing them in the church or even in their own house.
And the way they’ve had to live with the memories in about 40 years since: the relationships with parents that were forever damaged, the marriages and careers that were derailed, the fears they still can’t shake.
Multiple victims called it a lifetime sentence. The man who imposed it on them, former priest Gary Jacobs, this week received eight to 15 years in Ontonagon County Circuit Court.
Jacobs, 75, was arrested in January 2020 after an investigation by the state Attorney General’s Clergy Abuse Investigation Team. He also has been accused in Dickinson County, where he will be sentenced July 2 after pleading guilty to second-degree criminal sexual conduct May 14.
The sentence handed down Tuesday in Ontonagon County is the harshest so far in the Michigan Attorney General’s clergy abuse investigation.
The incidents spanned 1981 to 1985.
The 15-year maximum is in accordance with the plea agreement Jacobs reached in Ontonagon County in April. Several other felony charges were dismissed in the plea.
Had the court not accepted that agreement, Jacobs could have forced a trial, prolonging the experience for the victims, Judge Michael Pope said.
“These victims deserve closure, and the court believes that these sentences will in fact provide them with that closure,” he said.
The two-hour hearing included statements from numerous victims, both those whose testimony led to the charges and those who came forward later. Two of the victims appeared in court, while others talked via Zoom or had statements read by Assistant Attorney General Danielle Russo Bennetts.
One of the victims who appeared in court described “a life sentence of scars and painful memories.” Jacobs had started by groping him underwater during a church outing at a lake. His mother, who was religious, had encouraged him to start mowing the lawn at church. This brought him more attention from Jacobs, who encouraged him to start taking showers in the rectory. Jacobs’ impropriety escalated to sex, which continued when, with the victim’s parents approval, the victim slept over.
The HIV pandemic left the victim with constant fear. He would also have nightmares about what Jacobs had done to him.
“I feared that I would break down on the stand during my testimony, but I did not,” he said. “I was so glad to have my day in court, and to face the man who changed my life for the worst and forever. My memories may fade, but they will always come back to haunt me.”
In several cases, Jacobs had become close friends with the parents of the children. Some were too afraid to tell their parents. Some did, only to have their parents not believe them.
The victim in the second-degree charge spoke over Zoom. He remembered being assaulted by Jacobs in the bathroom of his own house. At that young age, he believed, a priest “had a direct-dial number to God himself.”
Over the years, he’s gone through tens of thousands of dollars in therapy. He developed an extreme fear of going to public restrooms, to the point of suffering extreme physical discomfort.
He lost faith in his parents’ ability to protect him. And after what Jacobs did, he could no longer believe in God.
“Who would I be if I hadn’t been imprisoned for life as a child?” he said. “…I can tell you this, Your Honor. I would be a totally different man than I am today. Gary made sure that man never existed. He deserves far more than 15 years in prison for what he’s done. I’ve already endured more than 40.”
Pope gave a harsher sentence than the guidelines for the second-degree charge, where he imposed the same eight to 15 years as in the first-degree charges.
One victim who spoke in the courtroom remembered the parish being “swept off their feet” by Jacobs, and looked up to him as a mentor. Because of the stigma surrounding homosexuality in the 1980s, the already introverted child fell into a “deep, secret introversion of quiet shame.”
Even after another priest took over the parish, Jacobs came back for one final incident, the victim said. He remembered Jacobs using a corporal — a cloth used in Mass celebration — to clean up the victim’s semen.
“The last violation occurred just before Mass,” he said. “This demonstrates the abyss of darkness I went through for being confidential … today is my parole date of closure.”
Jacobs will serve concurrent eight- to 15-year sentences for two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct.
Jacobs had been arrested in Albuquerque, N.M. He said he had been in recovery for severe alcoholism since 1988, when he went to his diocese and admitted he needed help.
The treatment for alcoholism had changed his life, he said. He said he has been in recovery for 35 years, and has been in a monogamous relationship with his husband. Jacobs had also come to grips with his own past as an abused child.
He alternated between facing the judge and turning to two of the victims, who sat across the courtroom.
“I do not suggest that my alcoholism is the cause of my sexual sins, but I do say that it helped weaken my conscience and allow me to behave in such a terrible fashion,” he said. “I am a recovering alcoholic. I am Gary Jacobs and I alone am to blame … I hope someday, those of you who I have harmed can find forgiveness in your hearts and peace in your hearts as well.”
These circumstances are facts, not excuses, Pope said.
Pope said he had been struck with the victims’ ability to survive, endure and persevere.
“They have been living with this silence for so long, and now their voices have been heard,” he said.
Jacobs received credit for 455 days served. He will be placed on lifetime electronic monitoring and must register as a sex offender.