(WXYZ) — At St. Perpetua Catholic Church in Waterford, roughly 1,300 families have been without a full-time priest for nearly 3 years. Something they say has caused a lot of frustration and anxiety and is tied to a backlog of criminal court cases in Wayne County.
For Truman Smith, 63 years of marriage with his loving wife Mary Ann were a blessing in so many ways. A year ago, after losing her following a stroke and other health issues, he says the grieving was even more difficult due to the absence of a full-time priest at the church they spent decades attending.
“We did have a priest come and give her last rites from a neighboring parish," said Smith.
Charged in a statewide case of alleged clergy sexual abuse by the Michigan Attorney General, Fr. Jack Baker faces criminal sexual conduct charges in the first degree, allegedly involving a child under 13. Since mid-2019, he’s been restricted from all ministry while maintaining his innocence.
The Archdiocese has not yet named a permanent replacement for Fr. Jack Baker, releasing a statement about the backlog to 7 Action News that reads in part: "As for the delays, no doubt they’re frustrating to wait out. But, no one – or organization or institution – escaped the delays brought on by the pandemic. It’s been our shared reality. As for the parish community, they continue to be ministered to by a priest-administrator, who also serves as a nearby pastor."
Since the alleged offense took place in Wayne County, Fr. Baker's case is among thousands now part of a backlog amid the pandemic.
"Right now we’re just treading water,” said John Scott, parishioner at St. Perpetua Catholic Church.
Scott says the church has been helped out by those visiting pastors who fill in, but it hasn’t been the same.
"You don’t have that person to call and say, 'my wife just died. Can I talk to you? How will we do this?' We have to do the arrangements. You have a funeral, wedding, or anything. How it’s going to happen and how we’re going to run this whole facility," said Scott.
In part of a new statement referencing the backlog, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy says, “At this time, we don’t have a case management system to easily provide accurate numbers. We anticipate having a case management system in September 2022.”
That’s considering there are normally more than 400 criminal jury trials each year in the county, according to court records.
When asked whether it's a clear violation of a defendant's rights to not get a speedy trial, retired MSP Inspector Ellis Stafford said, "In a normal circumstance, my answer would be absolutely."
Stafford adds that the impact of a major backlog will likely be felt for years to come.
"I don’t see an end in sight. I do see some technology from the pandemic staying around indefinitely and probably forever," he said.
The Michigan Attorney General has declined to comment for this story. An attorney for Fr. Baker is also declining comment.
As parishioners like Smith maintain faith and hope, Fr. Baker remains free on bond awaiting trial, which could still take months or even longer to begin.
"We would like to have his process started and completed," said Smith.
For the time being, all services and duties will continue to be performed by a visiting pastor.