Expelled Priest Continues Fight to Be Reinstated after Sexual Abuse Allegations
By Daniel Telvock
December 8, 2018
Civil attorneys who defend priests accused of sexual abuse do not have any standing in the legal proceedings run by the Catholic Church.
That is the instruction local attorney Mike Taheri received from the Archbishop of Boston.
Taheri is the attorney for The Rev. Samuel Venne, who has denied allegations of sexually abusing minors decades ago.
Venne, 76, is on administrative leave after the Diocese in June “substantiated” the allegations against him. The diocese has refused to give Venne a copy of the allegations made against him, but a church official met with him in the spring to go over the complaints.
Taheri’s July 30 letter to Cardinal Sean O’Malley raised objections to the process employed by the Diocese of Buffalo for investigating allegations of sexual assault. He said the Diocese of Buffalo is violating basic due process rights of clergy.
“In the spirit of advancing these notions of basic fairness,” Taheri offered four proposals for church leaders to consider for improving the diocesan legal process, including opportunities for priests to offer evidence during preliminary investigations and giving accused clergy copies of the written allegations made by the accuser.
O’Malley responded Sept. 14 that the concerns he raised are matters of canon law, a set of laws and principles enforced by authorities of the Catholic Church. O’Malley is the chief confidant of Pope Francis on setting rules that protect minors from sexual abuse.
“The grave matter of a cleric’s dismissal from the clerical state is deliberated and adjudicated under canon law, it is not considered by civil law and the final determination regarding the process is reserved exclusively to the Holy See,” O’Malley wrote.
“My advisors have also noted that a civil lawyer who is not also accredited in canon law may not represent an accused cleric in canonical proceedings, as it also the case that someone trained solely in canon law may not represent a client in a civil courtroom.”
O’Malley’s response came one day after News 4 Investigates reported that he had ignored Taheri’s procedural objections.
Initially, a representative for O’Malley on Aug. 24 informed Taheri that “your letter raises your concerns regarding a canonical process through the lens of a civil lawyer applying concepts of American civil law and procedure to a church matter.”
But in his September response, O’Malley changed course and offered to send Taheri’s concerns and defense materials on Venne to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board, which monitors church rules that aim to protect minors from sexual abuse, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles disciplinary matters with clergy.
“Those are the two most significant committees we have in the United States,” Taheri said.
“So, our material is being seriously considered, and we hope that it’s reviewed and any changes that Bishop Malone incorporates includes some of our suggestions.”
One day before the Review Board met on June 27, Venne submitted to the diocesan investigator defense documents that included certification for passing a polygraph test and a psychological assessment that concluded his denial of the alleged sexual abuse was credible.
On June 28, Bishop Richard Malone “substantiated” the allegations against Venne. The case is now in the hands of the Vatican, who could order a local tribunal.
Although Taheri can defend Venne, he had not been afforded any opportunity to present materials himself to the local Review Board or to the Vatican. Only when he took his concerns to O’Malley and others higher in the church hierarchy did he get notice that his material would reach decision makers.
Taheri said the Diocese of Buffalo does not provide accused priests with enough information about the church’s legal process.
News 4 Investigates reported in August that allegations against priests are not notarized or signed by the accusers even though the rulebook that guides dioceses says they should be. The diocese also does not provide accused clergy with canon lawyers who are experts in the system of legal principles of the Catholic Church even though the rulebook strongly urges that such aid be provided by the diocese.
“If they want us to use canonical counsel it would be nice if the bishop made those arrangements,” Taheri said.
“Just like somebody gets an assigned lawyer if they’re indigent. Why isn’t the bishop assigning a canonical lawyer to help me or assist me in representing [Venne]? So this goes right back to the bishop and a lack of leadership on his part as to the process he puts in place.”
The diocese said that it is up to the priest to engage a canon lawyer.
“The diocese encourages each priest under investigation to retain the assistance of civil and canonical counsel,” said Kathy Spangler, the spokeswoman for the diocese.
“The diocese is not required to and does not provide for either civil or canonical counsel. If the priest were to ask for help in finding one, we would assist him. Most priests who have wanted a canon lawyer have found one on their own.”
Venne, meanwhile, has repeatedly asked the diocese for a copy of the allegations against him so that he can prepare for any decision that might come from the Vatican on his case.
On Oct. 2, Venne wrote Bishop Malone directly to ask for a copy.
“In all the time that I have been on administrative leave I have not heard a word from you – it is almost as if I am on exile,” Venne wrote.