Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]
July 5, 2021
By Jay Tokasz
[Photo above: Priests Pascal Ipolito and Samuel J. Venne are pushing back against the Buffalo Diocese’s new monitoring program for priests with substantiated abuse claims against them]
The Rev. Samuel J. Venne insists he never molested a child, and he believes he has evidence to prove it.
But three years after he was first accused of sex abuse, Venne, 80, has not had a chance to defend himself against the claims.
Bishop Michael W. Fisher now is threatening to take away Venne’s pension, unless he agrees to be monitored under a new diocese program for priests with substantiated abuse claims against them.
Venne wants no part of the program, and a lawyer has advised him not to sign any monitoring agreement.
“I am not guilty and have never been given an opportunity to present my case,” Venne wrote in a recent letter to Fisher. “This entire process is shameful and a disgrace to all of the priests.”
The Buffalo Diocese is launching a monitoring program that will include monthly home visits and other restrictions for offending priests.
Local attorney Michael Taheri, who has been advocating on behalf of Venne, said the bishop’s threat to withhold pensions amounted to bullying.
“These are 80-year-old guys,” Taheri said. “None of them have been found guilty in a criminal or civil court.”
Diocese officials met in June with representatives from the State Attorney General’s Office to outline a plan for a monitoring program that will include monthly home visits and other restrictions for priests accused of sex offenses with children.
In a lawsuit filed in November, the AG’s Office slammed the diocese for, among other things, lax oversight of priests who had molested children. The agency sought a court order to force a better monitoring system for offending priests.
Eighteen priests are currently being asked to participate in the monitoring, and more than half of them already have agreed, diocese officials said.
The 18 priests are: Venne, Louis Dolinic, Donald Fafinski, Mark Friel, Dennis Fronczak, Thomas Gresock, John Hajduk, Brian Hatrick, Fred Ingalls, Pascal Ipolito, Fabian Maryanski, Thomas McCarthy, Ronald Mierzwa, Daniel Palys, Martin Pavlock, Arthur Smith, James Spielman and Mark Wolski.
Each priest will have his own tailored plan based on age, offenses, health and other factors. All monitored priests will be required to meet at least monthly with a mental health case worker contracted by the diocese, according to diocese officials.
The monitor, who has experience working with sex offenders, may visit the priests’ homes unannounced and search the property if there is “credible information” that a priest may have violated his supervision plan, according to a memo from Fisher to the priests.
The priests must refrain from performing any kind of ministry, such as celebrating Masses and hearing confessions, and from wearing the Roman collar and being introduced as “Father.”
The Buffalo Diocese, as part of bankruptcy negotiations, will no longer pay or provide health care for priests facing substantiated sex abuse
They also will be prohibited from living within 1,000 feet of a school, park or other place where children gather, the memo said.
Fisher said he expected full cooperation, and he made it clear in his memo that a priest’s failure to abide by the monitoring plan could lead to the revoking of his pension.
“I won’t consent to being monitored because I’m not guilty,” Ipolito said. “I’m not a predator, and I absolutely refuse to accept that label.”
Former Bishop Richard J. Malone put Ipolito on administrative leave in 2018 following a complaint of alleged abuse in 1975. The complainant later filed a Child Victims Act lawsuit accusing Ipolito of plying the plaintiff with whiskey sours on a trip to Toronto for a Beach Boys concert. The plaintiff, who was 17 at the time, accused Ipolito of getting him drunk and then engaging in “unlawful and unconsented sexually deviant behavior.”
Ipolito said he knew the plaintiff as a member of the Annunciation Church youth group, but he denied abusing him.
A second Child Victims Act lawsuit accused Ipolito of fondling the legs and genitals of a 13-year-old boy in 1981 or 1982 inside the rectory of the former St. Vincent de Paul Church in North Evans. Ipolito said he does not know the plaintiff in that lawsuit, and he denied molesting anyone.
Ipolito said he has been waiting three years for an opportunity to defend himself, and he called the diocese’s process for determining whether an abuse allegation was “substantiated” as “grievously flawed.”
“I call it star chamber jurisprudence,” he said. The diocese, he added, presumed him “guilty from the get-go and that colored the whole process.”
Ipolito said he wasn’t allowed to testify before a review board, which recommended that he be put on leave.
Diocese has put four more priests on leave “for the purpose of investigation” and the leave “does not imply that any determination has been made as to the truth or falsity of the complaint.”
And because the diocese is in bankruptcy, it appears unlikely that the Child Victims Act cases accusing him of abuse will be litigated, which means Ipolito won’t have a chance to testify in civil court, either.
Ipolito wants Fisher to ask the Vatican for permission to form a tribunal in Buffalo to try the cases against him.
“I want fair canonical or civil due process, which means I want to see the evidence,” he said.
Ipolito is among a handful of priests who have retained local attorney Mark Byrne to represent them in potential civil litigation over the monitoring program.
“The purported plan will be imposed on individuals absent a finding of guilt under the law and for whom there is no evidence that continuous monitoring is in any way necessary for the safety of the community,” Byrne said.
Byrne said it was “fundamentally unfair” to bind his clients to agreements they did not make. And taking away pensions for failing to comply with the monitoring program could “lead to homelessness” for some of the priests, he said.
Venne wants day in court
Taheri said he believes he has compiled enough evidence to clear Venne’s name and get him reinstated into active ministry. But Venne has not been allowed to present any of his evidence in a diocese or Vatican court, he said.
Venne has two abuse allegations lodged against him, including a Child Victims Act lawsuit in which he is accused of molesting a 7-year-old boy in 1980 at Our Lady of Pompeii Church and school in Lancaster.
Venne passed a polygraph test in which he denied committing the abuse.
Parishioners were informed at Masses this past weekend in a letter from the bishop that was read to them.
Taheri also hired a psychiatrist to conduct a forensic mental health evaluation and psychosexual assessment of Venne. The assessment found that Venne does not “present with either current or historical indications of unhealthy or deviant sexual interests.”
Taheri said he suspects Venne may have been mistaken for another priest, the Rev. Loren Nys, who was at Our Lady of Pompeii around the same time and has been accused in multiple cases of abuse.
Side-by-side photographs of the two burly priests from the 1970s and 1980s show a resemblance.
“I’ve got really good evidence that frankly there would never be a criminal case or probably a civil case if we could have presented it,” Taheri said.
But Kevin Brun said it was important to note that a review board examined the case against the accused priests and deemed the allegations to be substantiated.
“If one of these priests is found not guilty, I’ll be completely shocked,” said Brun, a member of the creditor’s committee that represents abuse survivors in the diocese’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Retired priests who are fully vested in the diocese’s pension plan currently get $1,950 per month at their normal retirement age.
Survivors of child sex abuse criticized the diocese in 2020 for not doing more to punish priests accused of abuse, including revoking pensions.
As part of Chapter 11 bankruptcy negotiations, the diocese agreed to stop paying priests who were suspended due to substantiated abuse allegations. It also stopped paying for their health care and car insurance.
Diocese officials said in 2020 they could not revoke pension payments, however, because they weren’t certain it was legal.
But in recent months, Fisher amended the pension plan to include a clause stating that priests with substantiated abuse allegations forfeit their rights to receive benefits under the plan.
A bishop, nonetheless, is obligated under Catholic Church canon law to provide “decent support” for his priests, even if they have been suspended from ministry. The amended pension document also says that the bishop “may restore a portion, or even all, of the priest’s retirement benefit.”
Fisher originally gave the 18 priests until June 15 to comply with the monitoring plan. This week, he sent a letter extending the deadline to July 30 for those who had yet to comply.
“It is important to note that compliance with the program does not indicate your personal acknowledgement of guilt,” he said in the letter. “I strongly encourage you to agree to the monitoring plan in the spirit of helping to bring about healing, while demonstrating cooperation with our efforts to restore trust and assert accountability.”