Abuse plaintiff calls committee's work 'awesome responsibility' to uncover truth
By Jay Tokasz
March 22, 2020
Richard Brownell recalled watching a 1993 television newscast in which the Rev. Bernard “Corky” Mach, a popular Catholic priest assigned to a Lockport parish at the time, tearfully denied molesting a 14-year-old boy.
Brownell immediately turned to his wife during the newscast and said the priest was lying. He told her the Rev. John Aurelio had sexually assaulted him when he was 11 or 12 years old, and Aurelio was a close friend of Mach. It was the first time he had told anyone about the abuse.
More than 50 years after he alleges Aurelio molested him, Brownell, 62, still isn’t comfortable discussing his own abuse in detail. But he said he’s ready to represent hundreds of survivors of childhood sex abuse in their efforts to seek some measure of justice from the Buffalo Diocese.
Brownell and six other people who have Child Victims Act lawsuits against the diocese were selected to be part of the creditors committee during the diocese’s bankruptcy reorganization. The committee is charged with investigating the diocese and its assets, liabilities and operations, as well as claims made against the diocese, and then ultimately negotiating a settlement.
“There’s a huge responsibility on this committee,” said Brownell, a Springville resident. “I’m hoping that my insights can contribute to the bottom line of making sure the diocese is doing the right thing.
“We have an awesome responsibility to bring forward the truth and to hold them accountable and to make them transparent. That’s key.”
It’s unclear whether the novel coronavirus pandemic will slow the diocese’s bankruptcy process, but Brownell said he isn’t daunted by the commitment, which could last two years or more, based upon what has happened in other dioceses and archdioceses that went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganizations.
The married father of three children runs his own business and admits to always having “a lot of questions.” He expects to use his inquisitiveness to get answers and give people a voice. Two other members of the committee have advanced business degrees, including one who was a high-ranking executive with an international hospitality company.
“There’s certainly qualified people who can handle perhaps forensics and looking at the books, as part of this,” said Brownell.
Brownell said the abuse by Aurelio began in 1968 or 1969 when the priest attacked him in a parked car after they attended a hockey game together. He also remembered the priest taking him to a cabin and giving him whiskey and marijuana.
“I was 11 or 12," he said. "It was ridiculous.”
Brownell said he believes the abuse “sent me on a path of destruction” that included being tossed out of three high schools and running away from home at age 15 and moving to Florida.
“I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist but I can say I understand now what set me on that trajectory,” he said. “I was a rolling mess.”
Brownell said he’s tried not to focus his whole life on his own abuse, but he’s been willing to stand up for other abuse survivors.
Following Mach’s denial in 1993, Brownell did a television interview, with his face blurred and his voice disguised, telling a reporter that Mach and Aurelio took boys to a home they owned together in a wooded area outside Buffalo.
“I didn’t want my face shown, because it was ’93 and I wasn’t ready for it. I hadn’t addressed it at all,” said Brownell. “I just wanted to step forward and clarify that this kid wasn’t lying. It was Mach that was lying.”
Then, in 2018, after Michael F. Whalen Jr. publicly accused the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits of molesting him in the late 1970s, Brownell called Whalen to let him know he wasn’t alone. Whalen and Brownell ended up traveling to Albany together in 2019 to celebrate passage of the Child Victims Act that opened a one-year window for childhood victims of sex abuse to file civil lawsuits, no matter how far back the abuse was alleged to have happened.
Whalen called Brownell a great businessman who is a “perfect fit” for the committee.
“He is very smart and I’m glad he is there to represent me and all survivors,” he said.
About 20 people interviewed for a spot on the creditors committee, including Gary J. Astridge, who has been an outspoken critic of the diocese’s handling of abusive priests and its treatment of abuse survivors.
Astridge said he was disappointed not to be chosen. It’s unclear how the selections were made. Applicants were simply asked why they wanted to serve on the committee and what skills they could lend to it.
“There was a part of me that felt if I was on it, it would have given me a sense of empowerment, you know, to be eye-to-eye with the diocese, and I think at some level that would have helped me with the healing process,” he said.
But Astridge said he believes survivors will be well represented by Brownell and the others who were chosen.
“There was a lot of quality people there, so anyone that got selected I’m sure will do a tremendous job,” he said.
Brownell said he filed a lawsuit last year to force the diocese to reveal how it covered up so many cases of clergy sex abuse for so long. Like many plaintiffs, he was not happy about the Chapter 11 filing, which put on hold any lawsuits against the diocese.
“I was hoping to be able to get on the stand and say my piece,” he said.
While that might not happen now, Brownell said he still feels obligated to follow through, by whatever means are available.
He said people were counting on him and the other committee members “to at least push the buttons that we can to do the right thing by the victims.”