2 accused priests sue Buffalo Diocese after their pensions are cut

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

April 18, 2022

By Jay Tokasz

Two retired Buffalo priests accused of sexually abusing minors are suing the Buffalo Diocese to restore their pensions, which were reduced or eliminated after the priests refused to submit to a monitoring program pushed by the State Attorney General’s Office.

The Rev. Arthur J. Smith and the Rev. Pascal D. Ipolito maintain that they are not child molesters and haven’t had a fair hearing to defend themselves against the accusations. They also said they earned the pensions that were promised to them when they became priests decades ago and when they retired a few years ago.

“Our position is that the (pension) contract clearly lays out that they have a vested right. It cannot be amended, modified, whatever it may be,” said attorney Mark J. Byrne, who filed a lawsuit Sunday in Erie County State Supreme Court.

The lawsuit might be the first of its kind in the country of Catholic clergy seeking a civil court remedy in a pension dispute. Diocesan priests take a vow of obedience to their bishops when they are ordained, and very few priests have challenged their bishops in U.S. courts over employment matters.

Byrne described the case as a contract dispute in which the diocese has failed to fulfill its end of the bargain.

He said Bishop Michael W. Fisher recently added to the priest’s pension plan “random conditions” that were not present when the priests retired.

“They’re just changing the substance of the contract in order to almost appease the Attorney General’s Office. It is fundamentally unfair,” said Byrne.

Byrne is seeking an injunction to restore the full pensions until the matter can be addressed in court.

Fisher created the monitoring program in response to the AG’s 2020 lawsuit alleging the diocese covered up for abusive priests and failed to put in place measures to prevent child sexual abuse. The state agency sought a court order to force a better monitoring system for offending priests. The diocese and AG’s office are still negotiating a settlement to end the lawsuit.

Lawyers for the diocese and the Attorney General’s Office have been going back and forth for months on a draft settlement agreement, according to documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Diocese spokesman Gregory Tucker issued a prepared statement Monday stating that the diocese “has been consistent in its requirement that those members of the clergy with substantiated claims of abuse agree to the rigorous monitoring program established by the Diocese.”

“Failure to comply entails the potential forfeiture of Diocesan financial support and/or pension benefits, as outlined by Bishop Fisher in October 2021,” he added.

Fisher last year wrote to 18 accused priests, all of whom are retired, about a monitoring plan that requires them to refrain from presenting themselves as clergy and performing any kind of ministry, such as celebrating Masses and hearing confessions. They also must meet at least monthly with a mental health case worker and be subject to unannounced home visits, among other requirements.

Fisher said in his letter that failure to comply could lead to their pensions being revoked, and diocese officials have said most of the 18 priests signed monitoring plan paperwork.

Smith, Ipolito and at least one other priest, the Rev. Samuel J. Venne, have maintained their innocence and refused to sign.

Venne’s priest pension was cut by a quarter from $1,940 to $1,668 per month, not enough to cover basic living expenses, Venne said in a recent letter to Fisher.

Venne, 80, said he had earned the full pension and was in poor health and too old to find a job to replace the cut in pension money.

“I find your lack of charity under the circumstances unconscionable and completely inconsistent with the fundamental teachings of our Lord, Jesus Christ,” Venne said in his letter.

Venne has not joined the lawsuit.

Byrne said the diocese eliminated Smith’s pension entirely and cut Ipolito’s in half.

“They can’t afford their living expenses, medical, or anything like that,” he said. “How are they supposed to pay any of these bills? They have rent. They’re not homeowners with regards to where they’re living, so they have a lease agreement and they’re going to get thrown to the curb.”

Former Bishop Richard J. Malone removed Smith, Ipolito and Venne from ministry in 2018 and placed them on administrative leave after receiving complaints that the priests had sexually abused minors. A diocese review board later determined the complaints were substantiated.

Ipolito, 77, is accused in three separate Child Victims Act lawsuits alleging abuse in the 1970s and 1980s. Venne is accused in two lawsuits, one alleging abuse in 1980, the other in 1992. Smith also is accused in two lawsuits, one alleging abuse in 1976, the other in 1994.

In an interview last year, Ipolito told The News he wouldn’t consent to being monitored because he wasn’t guilty of any child sexual abuse.

“I’m not a predator, and I absolutely refuse to accept that label,” he said.

Venne and Smith, 76, also have maintained their innocence through their attorneys.

Before the cuts, Ipolito and Smith had been receiving pensions of $2,009 and $1,904 per month, respectively, according to court papers.

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 salaries to 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 because they weren’t certain it was legal.

But Fisher last year amended the pension plan to include a clause stating that priests with substantiated abuse allegations forfeit their rights to receive benefits under the plan.

Bishops are still obligated under Catholic Church canon law to provide “decent support” for their priests, even if they have been suspended from ministry. The diocese’s amended pension document says that the bishop “may restore a portion, or even all, of the priest’s retirement benefit.”

Fisher extended the deadline for priests to comply with the monitoring program multiple times, and in February he advised the holdout priests in a letter that their pension payments would be cut as of March 1.

“The monitoring program as required by New York’s Attorney General is an essential component of your repentance and accountability to provide the assurance of a responsible and safe environment for all persons,” Fisher said in the letter. “If you were to agree to full compliance of this reasonable monitoring program, there could be the possible consideration of restoring your full pension.”

It’s not clear how far the priests’ lawsuit will advance, given that courts sometimes are reluctant to intervene in personnel matters of religious organizations.

A Catholic priest in Fall River, Mass., who was removed from ministry after a child sex abuse allegation sued his bishop last July. The Rev. Daniel W. Lacroix alleged Bishop Edgar Moreira da Cunha slandered him by putting Lacroix’s name on a list of priests credibly accused of abusing a minor. A Massachusetts Superior Court judge in March dismissed the case.

A former priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York settled a State Supreme Court lawsuit in 2008 over his suspension and eventual dismissal from the priesthood. That case was two days into trial over claims by Simon B. Howson that he was removed as rector in Batavia because he had complained about being sexually harassed by another priest. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, although Howson was not immediately reinstated.