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  Priest Is Known for His Dedication to Children, the Handicapped

By Harles Anzalone
Buffalo News
December 22, 1993

The Rev. John R. Aurelio has spent decades building a reputation as one of the Buffalo Diocese's brightest stars: charismatic, inspiring, current, a shining example of the best the Catholic Church could offer.

But he earned an additional label Tuesday. Father Aurelio admitted to law enforcement officials that he and the Rev. Bernard M. Mach engaged in acts of sodomy with young boys between 15 and 20 years ago in an East Aurora house the two priests once shared, according to sources in Niagara County.

Father Aurelio, known for his almost magical ability to weave the Catholic Church's gospel into stories that speak to people's lives, has no dearth of followers. Many talk passionately of their devotion to him and the impact he has had on their spiritual lives.

"He is warm, outgoing, loving, compassionate," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Coppola, who said he has been a friend of both priests for many years. "He would take the Gospel and create a fairy tale around it."

Besides acting as spiritual director at Christ the King Seminary, Father Aurelio offers weekend Masses at St. Catherine of Siena Church, 4928 Seneca St., West Seneca. Once a month, he holds court in what has become known as Story Sunday.

"He calls all the children up to the front, and they look up at him with their mouths open," Coppola said. "The parents look at each other and marvel, talking about what a wonderful job he does, the simplicity with which he relates the message. Anyone would understand, especially children. That's the only time my kids would look forward to going to Mass."

The Mass originated in 1969 when Father Aurelio was trying to prepare a homily for a children's Mass at the church, where he was assistant pastor. Searching for a way to make a point, he recalled a fairy tale he had read in high school and decided to use it.

It was a great success. He eventually ran out of classic fairy tales and began creating his own, delivering them on Sundays in his colorful "Raggedy Ann" vestments. He was one of the subjects of a CBS television religious news special on youth liturgies in 1978.

Beginning that year, he also compiled the first of several books of his Christian fairy tales. One of them was a winner of the Catholic Press Association's National Catholic Book Award. In all, he has written seven fiction books and three non-fiction works based on Old and New Testament stories.

The most popular of his stories, "The Beggars' Christmas," a tale of how two handicapped beggars in Medieval France find the true meaning of Christmas, was turned into an opera that saw its premiere here in 1989.

Monsignor David A. Gernatt, pastor at St. Catherine's, echoed the sentiments of many of Father Aurelio's followers.

"I have nothing but the greatest faith in this man," Msgr. Gernatt said. "He is a very original thinker, a very good storyteller, trying to teach the lessons of the Lord the same way Jesus told it, through parables."

"The people in this parish thought he was a kind, thoughtful man," Father Gernatt said. "And I believe so, too. I'll stand behind him. If this investigation proves differently, then we'll pray for his weakness."

Father Aurelio's confession to law enforcement officials was not without its twists. Niagara County investigators recently approached Father Aurelio because he is known as Father Mach's best friend.

The two priests still share a summer beach cottage in the Town of Brant. And when Father Mach appeared in public Dec. 10, for the first time to offer Mass after a lawsuit accused the Lockport pastor of sexually abusing a boy, Monsignor Gernatt and Father Aurelio were at his side in St. Mary's Church.

The friendship between Father Aurelio and Father Mach, whose nickname is Corky, is well known.

"They have been best friends ever since seminary," Monsignor Gernatt said. "Father Mach is Polish and Father Aurelio is Italian, and that's the best bond there is."

The two often argue and kid each other while eating dinner at St. Catherine's, according to Monsignor Gernatt. Others watching the two priests -- their voices rising, their arms waving -- wonder if their argument will lead to a physical fight, the monsignor said. But the two always remain close friends.

A native of Buffalo, Father Aurelio, 56, is a graduate of Grover Cleveland High School and St. Bonaventure University. After graduate studies in psychiatric social work at Fordham University, he studied at St. John Vianney Seminary and was ordained a priest in 1966.

He first demonstrated his brilliance as an organizer and his capacity for reaching beyond traditional roles as a graduate student at Fordham. There he helped organize New York City's Cuban Relief Program and worked with the city's Youth Board on problems of the mentally retarded.

As a seminarian, he organized a social workshop at Buffalo's Sisters Hospital and worked in the city's minority neighborhoods. In his first assignments in Hinsdale and Dunkirk, he worked with migrant laborers, unwed mothers and the Cursillo Movement, which organizes retreats.

His charisma and ability to inspire were evident after he became chaplain at the West Seneca Developmental Center in 1969. After leading a campaign there that raised $ 40,000 for three wheelchair buses and emergency breathing apparatus, he spearheaded a drive to build an outdoor pool that raised $ 300,000 for an indoor/outdoor facility with access for the disabled.

"It was an incredible success for a bunch of neophytes who basically called their friends and asked for contributions," Coppola recalled. "Father John was the catalyst. His inspiration was amazing."

When completed, the pool was named Father John Pool in Father Aurelio's honor.

Father Aurelio was chosen as an outstanding citizen by The Buffalo News in 1977 and has won several other awards from the Diocese of Buffalo and from groups that work with retarded children and the handicapped.

He was an organizer of the Day in the Park celebrations in Delaware Park in the mid-1970s. Mayor Stanley M. Makowski named him to an advisory committee on the handicapped in 1977. In 1981, he led a wheelchair brigade of 120 handicapped persons and their escorts on a pilgrimage to Rome and the Vatican as part of the International Year of the Disabled.

Those who know him often say his experience with the handicapped shows through with everyone he met.

"He had a special way of accepting everyone, making everyone feel special," said Rev. Mark J. Wolski, pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church, 2315 Seneca St., where Father Aurelio was pastor from 1986-90.

This star quality earned Father Aurelio some criticism among his peers.

"He wasn't well-integrated into our staff," said Monsignor Fred Leising, president-rector for Christ the King Seminary, where Father Aurelio teaches seminarians how to preach homilies. "He has so many outside interests. He gives talks all over the country at educational conferences."

"He tries to be cooperative, but he is something of his own man," Monsignor Leising added. "He defines his own sense of reality, and out of that he has a devoted and large following of people who enjoy the way he is able to relate to them.

"He is not a scholar," said Monsignor Leising. "He is a person who appeals to peoples' emotional lives."

 
 

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