Why did diocese wait 3 years to make abuse allegations public?
By Greg Mason
June 25, 2017
Three years ago, when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse found credibility to allegations that a Utica priest committed acts of child sexual abuse, it was not Bishop Robert Cunningham’s policy to make public those matters, said Danielle Cummings, the diocese’s chancellor and director of communications.
The diocese quietly removed the Rev. Felix Colosimo from priestly ministry in 2014 in response to claims from California man Matthew Strzepak that the priest molested him as a child. Colosimo served at several Utica-area churches, including St. Leo’s Church in Holland Patent, St. Peter’s Church in North Utica and — most recently — Our Lady of the Rosary in New Hartford.
Strzepak filed a lawsuit earlier this month against Colosimo and the diocese in federal court in Connecticut. Declining to speak in further detail, Cummings said Strzepak going public is why the diocese chose to address the allegations publicly, though she reiterated that the past claims were markedly different than those in the June 2 lawsuit.
In past years, Cunningham has rejected requests to release the names of 11 diocese priests connected to credible sexual abuse allegations. That stance has not changed, said Cummings, who noted a challenge in balancing disclosure and respecting the wishes of victims.
“We have made a change in how we do things that when there is an allegation, we will make those things known,” Cummings said on public disclosure. “We have those (victims) that don’t want it — that beg us not to — and that’s their right.”
Though Strzepak’s allegations were found credible, Cummings said that means it is possible that the acts occurred — not that there is actual proof.
Colosimo has declined to comment in detail about the allegations against him. On June 3 he told the O-D, “Again, same what I said from the very beginning, it’s not true. The allegations are false.” He also said he has been advised by his attorney not to comment.
The diocese’s victim assistance office and a Diocesan Review Board reviews allegations that can date back decades. The Board was established in 2003 along with several youth protection programs as part of the nationwide passage of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
Nevetheless, Strzepak said he believes diocese leaders need to be held accountable for how Colosimo allegedly treated him — and for how he believes they mishandled his situation.
So does Alison Foster, the sister of Kyle Foster — an individual left unnamed in Strzepak’s lawsuit as another child who allegedly was abused by Colosimo more than 30 years ago.
‘A way of helping my brother’
Alison Foster said she did not know about Colosimo’s alleged involvement with her brother until after he died.
Strzepak’s lawsuit accuses Colosimo of raping and molesting him from 1987 to 1990 when he was 12 to 15 years old. Part of the lawsuit mentions a John Doe that also was sexually abused by Colosimo — often at the same time. Alison Foster said her brother is that John Doe.
She and Kyle Foster were raised in Marcy and attended St. Peter’s Church in Utica with their family.
From what she can remember, Foster said her brother must have been between 9 to 12 years old when Colosimo occasionally would pick him up to spend the night at St. Leo’s rectory. She said she was 5 years older than her brother.
“Kyle never talked about him in adulthood at all,” Foster said.
As an adult, Kyle Foster was a member of the Marines, completing three tours of duty in Afghanistan, Alison Foster said. She said her brother worked as a UPS delivery driver, was married with two children and had a huge personality. He also dealt with depression, she said, as friends and family encouraged him to get help.
Kyle Foster killed himself in 2010. He was 35 years old.
Strzepak said the Syracuse diocese hired an investigator to investigate his claims in 2014. Alison Foster said her family was contacted by an investigator at about this time, which is when they became aware of how her brother was linked.
“It’s just unconscionable to me that there are families in the Utica area that will not come forward and talk about this,” she said. “The focus needs to be to get other people to come out ... and make it something that the church addresses in a more systematic way.”
‘They don’t practice what they preach’
Ever since Strzepak brought forth his allegations, more victims have come forward with their own allegations of abuse by Colosimo, said Steve Estey, one of Strzepak’s legal representatives.
A Utica native, Strzepak was raised in Marcy and said he remembers Colosimo became friends with his family and visited often.
The priest, he said, often would pick him up for trips to different locations: While the alleged abuse occurred most often at St. Leo’s, he remembers occurrences locally — including Colosimo’s residence in Utica, he claims — and out of state. This includes a Connecticut hotel where Strzepak said Colisimo filmed him and Kyle Foster shirtless.
Strzepak alleges that the abuse started in 1979 when he was 4 years old and continued until around 1990. The lawsuit pertains only to a three-year period due to the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims in New York state, which is why the lawsuit was filed in Connecticut. The Child Victim’s Act — which was passed by the state Assembly on June 7 — looks to change the age limit for reporting allegations of child abuse from 23 to 50.
Strzepak said he was 15 when the alleged abuse stopped and Colosimo “abruptly abandoned” him and his family. After moving to California, Strzepak could not find work and claims he struggled with flashbacks and panic attacks while dealing with homelessness.
He said he brought the abuse to the diocese’s attention in December 2013, claiming he often was ignored by diocesan staffers. Strzepak said an example of this was when the diocese did not come forward to provide therapy sessions until more than two years later in 2016.
As part of the lawsuit, Strzepak is seeking $25 million in damages each from Colosimo and the Syracuse diocese related to charges of abuse and fraud. Large verdicts, Estey said, are the only ways to expect real change and catch the attention of organizations like the diocese.
“It’s to protect other victims and hold not only the church but Colosimo accountable for failing to protect children in their care,” he said of the lawsuit.
Beyond the monetary reparations, Strzepak said he is seeking the resignation of both bishops, Cunningham and retired Bishop Thomas Costello, claiming they are unfit to lead the diocese.
“These folks claim to uphold the gospels of Jesus, but they don’t practice what they preach,” he said.