Churchill: Why wasn’t an accused priest removed from parishes?

Times Union [Albany NY]

July 31, 2021

By Chris Churchill

Father John Varno was accused of abuse in a January lawsuit. He continued to serve parishoners in 3 local churches for seven months

ALBANY — Late on Friday afternoon, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany announced that the Rev. John Varno had “voluntarily withdrawn” from ministry after being accused of sexual abuse in a Child Victims Act lawsuit. 

There’s more to the story than that. You see, some parishioners at Our Lady of Grace in Ballston Lake, one of three parishes where Varno had been serving as a sacramental minister, demanded he be removed after learning about an accusation that the diocese hadn’t mentioned to them. 

“We didn’t want him to have access to our children until this is worked out,” said John McIntyre, who is one of the parishioners. “They’ve got to protect our kids.”

McIntyre is the publisher of Spotlight Newspapers. He had discovered Varno’s name in a database of priests accused under the Child Victims Act, legislation that opened a window for victims of long-ago abuse cases in New York to file civil litigation. McIntyre told me he then spent about six hours searching for the lawsuit — and was dismayed when he finally read it.

In the legal complaint, a Warren County resident now in his 40s alleges that when he was a child preparing for First Communion at St. Jude the Apostle in Wynantskill, Varno got him drunk on wine and took him into a confessional for “special prayer.” There, the priest allegedly stuck his hand down the boy’s pants before fondling and sodomizing the child.

Varno, 82, denies the claim, according to the diocese. I was not able to reach him for comment.

McIntyre found the allegation difficult to dismiss, given the amount of detail it included. He also noted the date of its filing: Jan. 19 of this year.

Why then, he wondered, was Varno allowed to continue at Our Lady of Grace over the past seven months, conducting Mass as recently as last weekend? McIntyre’s own daughter was scheduled to have her First Communion performed by Varno.

For McIntyre, it all brought back terrible memories: He and his family had attended Corpus Christi Church in Halfmoon when the Rev. Edward C. Pratt was removed for sexual misconduct involving children in 2002.

The trauma of that shock lingered, McIntyre said. And now this?

McIntyre took what he’d learned about the allegation against Varno to other parishioners at Our Lady of Grace. Together, they in recent days told the diocese, McIntyre said, that they wouldn’t tolerate the priest’s presence so long as the cloud of the allegation persisted.

Doing so, McIntyre said, wasn’t easy. Varno was a popular priest. The congregation had embraced him.

But it was the demand from parishioners, apparently, that led Varno to withdraw from public ministry, including duties at Our Lady of Grace as well as Immaculate Conception in Glenville and St. Joseph’s in Scotia. Varno, also a former principal at Catholic Central High School in Lansingburgh, will not publicly officiate at sacraments, wear clerical garb or present himself as a priest, the diocese said.

“Father Varno maintains his innocence but has made the decision for the good of the parishes he serves and the diocese,” said the statement issued by the diocese. “Out of an abundance of caution and sensitivity to all concerned, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger has accepted Father Varno’s decision, and asks for prayers for all involved.”

This isn’t the first time Varno has stepped away from his duties.

In 1997, when he was still at St. Jude the Apostle in Wynantskill, Varno took a leave of absence after being arrested by state police on a public lewdness charge at a rest area in Schodack along Interstate 90.

After what the church described as counseling, Varno returned to a hospital ministry in 1998 that included Ellis Hospital in Schenectady and others. He has been a sacramental minister for Our Lady of Grace since 2005.

But back to McIntyre’s question: Why was Varno allowed to continue after the January allegation? By diocese policy, accused priests are removed while an investigation proceeds — a rule designed, in part, to rebuild trust after the devastating child sexual abuse scandals of recent decades. 

I put the question to Mary DeTurris Poust, spokeswoman for the diocese.

Poust said investigations are triggered when complaints are taken directly to the diocese, a process that includes a local district attorney and the Diocesan Review Board. There is no immediate investigation, or removal of the priest, when the allegation is made in a lawsuit alone.

“We encourage all survivors to report any claims to the diocese or to civil authorities directly — in addition to filing their CVA lawsuits — in order to trigger an investigation,” Poust said.

But if the foremost objective is to protect children, why should it matter how the complaint is filed? I doubt parishioners in Varno’s churches care about the technicalities — but they certainly had the right to know about the allegation.

“They did nothing to inform anybody at the parish,” McIntyre said. “Some of my fellow parishioners are shocked by that.”

McIntyre, meanwhile, is feeling angry and disillusioned, so much so that he’s considering staying away from church, perhaps for good.

His faith in God is strong, he said. His faith in the diocese is not. ■ 518-454-5442 ■ @chris_churchill

Churchill is one of the most well-known names, and faces, at the Times Union. His columns – published on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays – are shared heavily on social media and have won several awards. Churchill studied English and history at the University of Texas before beginning his journalism career at small weeklies in Maine, later working at the Biddeford Journal Tribune, Waterville Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal newspapers. He started at the Times Union as a business writer in 2007 and became a columnist in 2012. Reach him at or 518-454-5442.