Judge rules accused priest Bialkowski can control widow’s $2 million estate

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

August 11, 2022

By Charlie Specht

An Erie County judge has ruled that a Catholic priest who has been accused of sexually abusing children can spend a dead parishioner’s $2 million estate as he pleases, despite the objections of her relatives.

Erie County Surrogate’s Court Judge Acea M. Mosey dismissed allegations by the widow’s family that the Rev. David W. Bialkowski, former pastor of St. John Gualbert Catholic Church, “groomed” Ruth Peters to become the executor of her estate before her 2019 death.

“I conclude that there is no proof that the will was the product of fraud perpetrated on decedent by Bialkowski or any other person,” Mosey wrote in her decision.

The March 31 ruling clears the way for the suspended priest, who is on the diocese’s list of priests with “substantiated allegations of abuse of a minor” and who is accused in two Child Victims Act lawsuits of sexual abuse, to inherit $125,000 directly, in addition to controlling the remainder of the $2 million estate.

Bialkowski’s attorney did not respond to a message seeking comment on the ruling, but the suspended priest stated in newly obtained court testimony that he “never” discussed whether he would be named as a beneficiary of Peters’ will with her before she died.

But the priest and the widow did discuss her desire to name Bialkowski as the executor of her estate, Bialkowski testified in an October 2021 deposition.

“She said, I had asked you to be my executor because I can trust you and because I believe you’re competent to handle the things that I own,” Bialkowski said.

Attorney Robert M. Ciesielski said in court papers that Bialkowski intends to give half of Peters’ $2 million estate to Villa Maria College and the other half to SUNY Buffalo State, where Peters, a former Cheektowaga public school principal, was “deeply involved.”

But a Town of Tonawanda attorney who represents two men who say they were abused by Bialkowski as children has filed a motion asking the court to freeze the funds until their Child Victims Act lawsuits – which are stayed by a state judge while the Diocese of Buffalo is in bankruptcy proceedings – are resolved. Mosey has not yet ruled on the motion.

“If he’s going to get money, we’d like it put in escrow,” attorney Kevin Stocker said. “Put it into escrow until it’s all litigated so that all that money doesn’t disappear.”

Bialkowski has denied that he sexually abused any child. He also denied that he had tried to “groom” a child for sex.

“No, no, not at all. Never,” he told The News in 2020.

David M. Bialkowski stands outside St. John's Church in Buffalo on March 31, 2008. Buffalo News file photo
David M. Bialkowski stands outside St. John’s Church in Buffalo on March 31, 2008. Buffalo News file photo

He is one of two Buffalo priests who were accused of taking advantage of elderly female parishioners and inheriting large sums of money when they died.

In 2016, Rev. Joseph Klos inherited the lion’s share of an estate worth at least $467,000 from a widow he befriended while he was pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Lancaster. He also made $242,500 from the sale of a Florida condominium that was once owned by the widow. Relatives of that widow criticized Klos but did not challenge the will, which the Surrogate’s Court ruled was valid. 

Competency is questioned 

In January, The Buffalo News published a story about the dispute over Peters’ will. Attorneys representing several cousins of Peters alleged that the she was not of sound mind when she made it.

“Just as he apparently ‘groomed’ young boys, he has become the sole beneficiary under the will of a wealthy elderly widow,” attorney Sean A. Fitzgerald, a court-appointed guardian representing relatives of Peters, said of Bialkowski in court records. “The methods of grooming (a) boy or teenager are the same as the methods of exercising undue influence over a person.”

Bialkowski is not qualified to serve as an executor “by reason of dishonesty, improvidence or is otherwise unfit,” attorney Elizabeth A. Ingold said in a court document filed last year.

But Mosey dismissed those claims, citing the testimony of Ciesielski, who served as Peters’ attorney when she made out her will. Ciesielski said Peters appeared of sound mind when she said she wanted to leave money to the priest.

“I probably met with her at least in person eight to 10 times before that will was made and she seemed to be no different than the other times I talked to her,” Ciesielski testified.

Mosey also cited a similar court case in Nassau County from 2008 where a priest facing an allegation of sexual abuse was named a fiduciary of someone’s estate. As in that case, Mosey stated in her ruling that Peters’ cousins “have not shown that Bialkowski will jeopardize the assets of the decedent’s estate because of allegations of sexual abuse made against him.”

An administrative judge, though, repeatedly prevented an attorney representing the interests of Peters’ relatives from questioning Bialkowski about whether he had discussed with Peters the alleged sexual misconduct that led to his removal from ministry by the diocese in 2011. 

“Judge Mosey has made very clear that this is an area not to be delved into,” said Joseph A. Shifflett, a court attorney appointed by Mosey to preside over Bialkowski’s October 2021 testimony.

When attorneys for Peters’ relatives asked Bialkowski whether he was “concerned about maintaining clear and appropriate boundaries” with Peters or whether he was “aware of a code of pastoral conduct for clergy,” attorney Thomas F. Hewner, who was serving of counsel to Ciesielski, objected to the questions and Shifflett sustained both motions.

Sexual abuse allegations

It was allegations of sexual misconduct – not financial improprieties – that led to Bialkowski’s removal from St. John Gualbert in 2011. A former altar server said Bialkowski inappropriately touched his thigh and made suggestive comments when he was 14 years old.

After the altar server’s account appeared in The News, two more people came forward to describe inappropriate contact with Bialkowski. Bialkowski was removed from ministry, but never defrocked as a priest.

Two Child Victims Act lawsuits filed in 2019 also accused Bialkowski of sexual abuse of minors. A civil lawsuit against the diocese filed by State Attorney General Letitia James said the Buffalo Diocese received at least four reports of inappropriate contact with minors by Bialkowski.

‘Playing to people’s needs’

Peters was a member of the Ladies Guild at St. John Gualbert Catholic Church in Cheektowaga, which was one of the diocese’s most active Polish congregations.

Ciesielski, the priest’s attorney, told The News in January that Peters appreciated the way Bialkowski helped her clean up her home and organize her finances after the death of her husband.

“Ruth had no children, no brothers or sisters, no really close relatives. When her husband died, the priest was kind and helpful to her,” Ciesielski said.

Two former St. John Gualbert employees and volunteers who clashed with Bialkowski while he was pastor of the church in 2006 told a different story.

“These old ladies used to adore Bialkowski,” said Andrew Kowtalo, who served as organist at the parish for 10 years. “He’s very good at playing to people’s needs and gaining people’s trust.”

A second cousin told The News that Peters was a deeply religious person, but the second cousin said she and other family members were “shocked” to hear that Peters had left $125,000 to Bialkowski and made him her executor.

The second cousin, who asked that her name be withheld because she is “a private person,” said she does not think Peters would have left money to Bialkowski if she knew that he was accused of molesting children.

Diocesan spokesman Gregory Tucker in January said Vatican officials “agreed with the Diocese’s recommendation that he be permanently barred from active priestly ministry. There will now be an extra-judicial process to confirm his future status, which may entail his laicization.”

Bialkowski is no longer receiving a salary or other benefits from the diocese, Tucker said.