$ 2 Million Lawsuit Alleges Sexual Assaults by Priest
By Dan Herbeck
July 27, 1994
A Town of Boston man claims in a State Supreme Court lawsuit that, as a teen-ager in the late 1960s, he repeatedly was molested by a Catholic priest.
When he and his parents went to their pastor to report the molestation, the pastor accused them of making up the allegations and threatened to have them excommunicated from the church for lying about a priest, Christopher Szuflita, 41, claims in his $ 2 million lawsuit.
"I tried to bury it in my mind for a long time after that, but I never forgot it," Szuflita said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. "After what the pastor told us, it took me a long time to get the courage to file this lawsuit."
A lawyer for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo said he was aware of the suit, which names the Rev. Joseph Friel, now retired and in his mid-60s, as the priest who molested Szuflita. It names the late Monsignor Martin Ebner as the pastor who threatened the Szuflita family. The suit seeks damages from both Father Friel and the diocese.
"I just became aware of these allegations today. Obviously, the diocese is going to look into them. But it's my understanding Father Friel has denied them," said Terrence M. Connors, attorney for the Buffalo diocese.
Connors said the lawsuit may be dismissed because the statute of limitations on such actions would have been past many years ago. In most cases in the state, a lawsuit must be filed within one to three years of the alleged wrongdoing.
That is true, said Jennifer A. Coleman, Szuflita's lawyer. But she added that the courts have made exceptions in cases where a person has been forced to delay filing a lawsuit.
"Our position is that the pastor stopped this family from filing suit for many years by telling them they would be excommunicated if they pursued this matter," Ms. Coleman said. "To a Catholic, that is a very scary threat. It was only recently that Chris got up the courage to pursue this in the courts."
According to Ms. Coleman, Szuflita is the first person in Western New York to file such a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo under his own name, without going by a "John Doe" identity.
"It was an extremely courageous, difficult thing for him to do," Ms. Coleman said. "But Chris feels the diocese has benefited from the fact that most of the allegations have been made anonymously. He's not nameless or faceless. He has a name, and he's standing by what he says."
Father Friel, a Buffalo resident, could not be reached for comment. A man answering the telephone at Father Friel's home said he did not know if the priest was aware of the lawsuit.
"Father has been sick," said the man, who identified himself as a friend of Father Friel but would not give his name. "I wouldn't approach him now with something like this."
Szuflita claims that the molestation took place at Fourteen Holy Helpers Church in West Seneca, where he attended grammar school and served as an altar boy. Szuflita said he was in his teens when Father Friel molested him "five to 10 times."
On several occasions, Father Friel took him out of his religious education class and led him to a bedroom on the second floor of the rectory, where he removed his pants and had sex with him, Szuflita said in court papers.
Szuflita said Father Friel assured him there was nothing "dirty" about what they had done, but also asked him not to tell anyone about it. Szuflita said his parents became suspicious and made him tell about the incidents after he began refusing to go to his religious education classes.
When Szuflita and his parents reported the incidents to Monsignor Ebner, pastor of Fourteen Holy Helpers, "Monsignor Ebner stated he did not believe plaintiff and that plaintiff committed a mortal sin and would be excommunicated for telling lies about a priest," according to legal papers.
Monsignor Ebner died in 1971. Connors said he is skeptical about Szuflita's claim about the monsignor.
"Much of the validity of this suit rests on statements allegedly made by a man who has been dead for more than 20 years," Connors said.
Szuflita said one reason he finally decided to sue the diocese was his anger over a statement issued last December by Bishop Edward D. Head, regarding sex abuse allegations made against two other priests, the Rev. Bernard Mach and the Rev. John Aurelio. Bishop Head said the diocese faced difficulties in investigating or responding to "anonymous, faceless complaints."
"I think the diocese has been hiding behind that policy, and that's why I'm making my name public," Szuflita said. "I spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking it over with my wife (Janice). This is very difficult for her, too."
A mortician by trade who formerly worked as a funeral director in the South Towns, Szuflita said he is not working full time and is doing "odd jobs."
He said he remains a Catholic, but doesn't attend church regularly anymore.
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