Despite Child Victims Act, justice remains elusive for some survivors of abuse

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

September 8, 2022

By Charlie Specht

Robert Kapal spent nearly 40 years trying not to remember a Buffalo Diocese priest he says abused him as a child.

But when a reporter showed up at his door four years ago with diocese documents naming the priest, the 46-year-old firefighter burst into tears.

“I haven’t heard that name in a long time,” Kapal said, before recalling details of sexual abuse he said he endured at St. Christopher Catholic Church in the Town of Tonawanda in 1980. 

That was four years ago, and it might have been financially beneficial for Kapal to come forward. New York’s Child Victims Act was about to become law, opening a “look-back window” for survivors of sexual abuse to sue abusers and the institutions responsible for their abuse. But emotionally, Kapal wasn’t ready.

“I wanted to forget about this and just move on with my life, and I couldn’t,” Kapal said.

Legally, Kapal has hit a wall. The window to sue his accused abuser – originally set at one year, and later extended to two years by the State Legislature – is closed. And the deadlines to apply for the Buffalo Diocese’s voluntary settlement program or to make claims against the diocese in U.S. Bankruptcy Court have also expired.

Kapal is not alone.

Lawyers who filed abuse lawsuits in State Supreme Court say hundreds of victims came forward shortly after the Child Victims Act deadline passed. Survivors and advocates say thousands of others abused by a relative, neighbor or someone else who did not work for an employer with deep pockets, like the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts, could not find a lawyer willing to file a lawsuit for them.

“I’ve heard from thousands of victims that couldn’t go to court, and they’ve given up. And to me, that’s heartbreaking,” said Gary Greenberg, an abuse survivor from the Albany area who led the charge to get the Child Victims Act enacted into law in 2019.

The Rev. Joseph Vatter - Provided photo
The Rev. Joseph Vatter – Provided photo

Diocese knew of allegation

Kapal knows he may have missed his chance to file a lawsuit, but he still wants the public to know about the Rev. Joseph E. Vatter. Kapal says Vatter abused him when Kapal was a 9-year-old altar boy. Vatter retired in May as pastor of St. Paul Parish in Kenmore.

“That’s why I’m doing this now, to give myself some peace, to move forward with this and to say, ‘yes, it absolutely happened,’” Kapal said. “In the back sacristy, it was very dimly lit. Our robes were in the back corner. And some of my memories are, like almost being on my hands and knees, seeing the texture of the carpet with the direct beam right on the floor. I shut down. I completely, emotionally shut down to protect me, without even knowing it.”

Kapal said he told his sister and parents about the abuse when he was in college in the early 1990s.

“I remember it very clearly,” said Kimberly Williams, Kapal’s sister. “He said he remembered it happening in the sacristy. He remembered Father Joe coming at him with his hands and different things like that. And it just ruined his life.”

Vatter has never publicly been accused of sexual abuse, and he was not named in any Child Victims Act lawsuits. Diocesan records show the church in 2004 received an abuse complaint about Vatter, but found there was “no basis” to the accusation. It is unclear what steps the diocese took to investigate the claim.

He did not respond to several phone messages seeking comment on Kapal’s accusation. He did not answer when a reporter knocked on his door, and did not respond to a letter left at his residence. 

Robert Kapal knows he may have missed his chance to file a lawsuit, but he still wants the public to know about the Rev. Joseph E. Vatter. Kapal says Vatter abused him when Kapal was a 9-year-old altar boy. Vatter retired in May as pastor of St. Paul Parish in Kenmore.  Libby March
Robert Kapal knows he may have missed his chance to file a lawsuit, but he still wants the public to know about the Rev. Joseph E. Vatter. Kapal says Vatter abused him when Kapal was a 9-year-old altar boy. Vatter retired in May as pastor of St. Paul Parish in Kenmore. – Libby March

Photo – Kapal knows he may have missed his chance to file a lawsuit, but he still wants the public to know about the Rev. Joseph E. Vatter. Kapal says Vatter abused him when Kapal was a 9-year-old altar boy. Vatter retired in May as pastor of St. Paul Parish in Kenmore.

Internal Buffalo Diocese records obtained by The Buffalo News confirm the diocese was aware of Kapal’s accusation against Vatter. Kapal said he never reported the abuse to church authorities, but believes his parents did before their deaths.

A 2005 memo written by Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz said members of the diocese’s review board of lay professionals “conscientiously studied the case, as well as Terry Connors attempted to make contact with any other complaints against Fr. Vatter.”

Connors has been the diocese’s legal counsel through the last four bishops, dating to the 1990s.

Kapal said he was never contacted by anyone from the diocese as part of an investigation.

Reached by phone, Connors said he did not remember the specific case, but said parents or other family members will sometimes call to report abuse. When that happens, Connors said, the diocese will attempt to corroborate the accusations.

The 2005 memo stated board members “concurred that there is no basis to the allegation against Fr. Vatter” and that Vatter “was pleased to hear the news that there was no allegation against him relative to any kind of sexual abuse with the boys during his assignment at St. Christopher, Tonawanda, N.Y.”

The memo, which contains Grosz’s initials, contains a sticky note with the words, “Allegation. Firm denial. No evidence to move forward. Case dropped.”

Grosz, through a diocesan spokesperson, also did not respond to an interview request.

Kapal’s case is also included on a diocese document drafted by Connors’ law firm titled, “Summary of Potential Claims as of January 2018.” The document says that Vatter was accused of abusing Kapal in 1980 and it states that the diocese received the complaint in June 2004. 

In response to The News’ questions about the documents and what actions the diocese took after receiving the complaint, diocesan spokesperson Joe Martone said, “We can’t officially comment on things of a confidential nature.”

Beginning in 1979, Vatter served at churches in Tonawanda, Jamestown, Buffalo, Dunkirk, Depew, Belmont, Medina, Lockport and Kenmore before his retirement this year.

From 1991 to 1996, Vatter is not listed as being assigned to any parish or diocese office in either the local or national Catholic directories.

“In that six-year period, it was his request to take a voluntary leave, which priests do from time to time, and it was to work,” Martone said of Vatter.

Vatter worked as a case manager and counselor at two local nonprofits that assist disabled adults, Martone said, before returning to the diocese in 1996 as a priest in good standing.

Kapal said he began to deal with the scars of the reported abuse after he retired from a Rochester area fire department and began to see a therapist who specializes in childhood trauma.

“All my life, I’ve tried to think, ‘Why do I feel like this? Why have I struggled to let people in?’” Kapal said. “I couldn’t put it together. And it goes back to this. But I have to do this to move on. It has been pushed down and hidden within myself for the longest time, and I just don’t want to do that anymore. I can’t.”

Kapal said his counseling bills are expensive, but not the primary reason he wishes he could now file a lawsuit.

“What if there was another kid that this happened to, and I didn’t say anything and I could have stopped it?” he said. “All I want is just to possibly help somebody else. I would like the diocese to admit this stuff still happens and there is no timetable for healing.”

Windows re-opened

New York’s Child Victims Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2019, changed the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse from age 23 to age 55. It also included a “look-back window,” allowing victims from decades past to sue their abusers or the institutions who enabled the abuse.

During the two year look-back window in New York, lawyers filed more than 10,000 lawsuits against various institutions.

But after the deadline passed, more than 230 additional survivors contacted the Jeff Anderson & Associates law firm, which has one of New York’s highest caseloads, said Stacey Benson, an attorney at the firm.

“I can’t say that we would have taken all the cases, but it gives you a rough idea of how many people are still out there that need help,” Benson said.

Greenberg, the Albany abuse survivor who lobbied for passage of the Child Victims Act, said many abuse survivors were turned away by lawyers because their accusations of abuse were against friends or relatives, instead of deep-pocketed institutions.

“They called 20 lawyers, the window passed, and they were left out,” he said. “They were left at the door of justice, and that’s not right. Every victim should get justice.”

More than 20 states have opened look-back windows for sexual abuse lawsuits, but some states have gone further than New York.

Vermont in 2019 abolished its civil statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse both going forward and retroactively. Maine, which abolished civil statutes of limitation in 2000, passed a new law last year extending that policy retroactively to decades-old cases. Hawaii has re-opened the look-back window for sexual abuse multiple times.

“There shouldn’t be any window, because people are going to continue to come forward,” Greenberg said. “A lot of people, they get older, and they realize … I was sexually abused as a child.”

Even survivors who filed lawsuits before the deadline have seen their cases stalled because multiple Catholic dioceses in New York – including Buffalo, Rochester and Rockville Centre – declared bankruptcy, citing a flood of lawsuits. Lawyers have said the Buffalo Diocese bankruptcy proceedings are not expected to be resolved for a few years.

Paul K. Barr, a Niagara Falls attorney who is representing Kapal, said he is in the process of finding out if late claims like Kapal’s can be accepted in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

“This is uncharted territory,” Barr said. “I don’t know how this is going to play out for him and people like him who didn’t make their claims during the window.”

Barr said he hopes the State Legislature will consider re-opening the look-back window once some of the bankruptcy cases are settled.

For now, Kapal said telling his story publicly is the only way he and other survivors can heal.

“This is a journey I’m willing to take, even though it’s scary and I’m nervous,” Kapal said. “I had to do this for me, to hopefully help me move forward. And hopefully someone else can do the same.”