With little explanation, diocese has reinstated 17 priests accused of sexual abuse

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

September 6, 2022

By Jay Tokasz

Seventeen of the 29 Buffalo Diocese priests put on administrative leave since 2018 due to a sex abuse allegation involving a minor were later allowed to resume their priestly activities.

The diocese publicized the priests’ returns to ministry by stating that a review board had examined the claims and found them to be “not substantiated.”

Diocese officials maintain that the review process is rigorous, independent and designed to protect children from potential abuse.

Accusers and their attorneys aren’t convinced, and they worry that some priests are being publicly exonerated and put back into contact with children without a thorough and impartial investigation into abuse claims.

They point out that in some cases a priest was returned to ministry, even though his accuser wasn’t interviewed as part of an investigation.

The most recent reinstatement of a priest was in July, when Bishop Michael W. Fisher restored the faculties of the Rev. Raymond A. Donohue, who was accused in a Child Victims Act lawsuit and a confidential bankruptcy claim. Donohue denied the allegation.

The diocese said the plaintiff’s attorney refused to allow an investigator to interview his client.

Steve Boyd, the plaintiff’s attorney, described the board as a “public relations wing of the diocese” that was created to “try and find ways to put priests back into ministry.”

“With regard to the transparency of this group, there just needs to be more,” Boyd said in an August court hearing. “Right now, it is a secret committee that does secret work, and we find out their findings later, without knowing anything about what their process is.”

A diocese spokesman declined to comment for this story about the review board’s investigations and the bishop’s decisions.

Dioceses across the country have put in place review boards to help bishops handle child sex abuse allegations.

But a national expert on child abuse prevention said the boards are not fully independent and often don’t get all the information they need to analyze cases of alleged abuse.

“The review boards are just another bureaucratic layer in my book,” said Marci Hamilton, founder and chief executive officer of Child USA, a nonprofit think tank organization based in Philadelphia. “Whereas what we really need is an in-depth investigation with all of the facts gathered. That’s really all the survivors are asking for. They really want the truth to come out.”

If law enforcement won’t investigate because criminal statutes of limitation have expired, dioceses might consider turning to an external review by independent experts who have no connection to the church, Hamilton said.

Scandal erupted in 2018

The diocese has faced intense scrutiny over its handling of abuse allegations since a retired priest, the Rev. Norbert Orsolits, admitted to The News in 2018 that he had molested probably dozens of boys earlier in his priesthood.

The admissions prompted a snowball of complaints against priests, a program to compensate victims, state and federal investigations into the diocese, and hundreds of civil lawsuits.

The diocese responded in 2018 by hiring a former FBI agent to examine abuse complaints. A group of lay people pushing for reforms also recommended in 2019 that the diocese make its review board a more independent body and hire additional sex abuse investigators.

In a dozen cases since 2018 where an allegation against a priest was substantiated, the diocese took steps to permanently remove the priest from ministry.

The diocese in most instances has given no explanations about how or why the review board arrives at its conclusions, nor has it made public details of investigations into allegations.

The News did obtain a copy of an investigator’s report into accusations of abuse against the Rev. Roy Herberger that deemed the allegations “completely false” and cited a litany of inconsistencies in the accuser’s version of events. Attorney Scott F. Riordan, a former prosecutor, spent six months investigating the case. Herberger ultimately was restored to full ministry and sued the accuser for defamation.

Several other priests who were permanently removed from ministry due to allegations the diocese says were substantiated through an investigation maintain their innocence and claim they were falsely accused.

The diocese has publicly identified 85 priests since 1950 who had substantiated abuse claims, and another 23 priests who were part of religious orders and served in the diocese at some point since 1950. A 2021 News analysis of CVA lawsuits found that 230 priests who served in the Buffalo diocese were accused of abuse.

The diocese has a contract with multiple lawyers to do the investigative work, the results of which are forwarded to the review board, a group that currently includes a retired state Appellate Court judge, a retired M&T Bank vice president, a licensed clinical social worker and a pediatrician, among others, all of whom are Catholic. The review board makes a written recommendation to Fisher, who ultimately decides whether to reinstate a priest.

The diocese has pledged to investigate all abuse allegations as part of efforts to comply with the New York State Attorney General’s Office, which sued the diocese in 2020 over its handling of accused priests. Investigators attempt to interview any accuser who makes a credible claim against a priest, diocese officials have said.

Accusers in some cases have spoken with the diocese’s investigator, but several have refused, often out of mistrust of the diocese and fear lawyers will try to use the statements against them later.

Diocese wanted to ID accuser

At least four priests were cleared of an abuse allegation by the review board and bishop only to face a second allegation after their suspensions were lifted.

One of those priests, the Rev. John Sardina, 90, was suspended from ministry in 2018 and returned in 2019 upon an investigation determining the claims were not substantiated.

The diocese is now investigating a second allegation involving Sardina, and its lawyers asked for a court order to help their inquiry, which Chief Judge Carl L. Bucki recently denied.

Lawyers for the diocese wanted Bucki to allow the release of the name of a woman who accused Sardina of abusing her as a child 50 years ago.

The woman, 61, filed a Child Victims Act lawsuit in State Supreme Court in 2019 and made a claim in the diocese’s federal bankruptcy case. In both instances, she used a pseudonym, LG36. State Supreme Court and federal bankruptcy court typically require public disclosure of interested parties, but both courts have allowed for modifications given the sensitivity of information about abuse victims.

The woman alleged in the lawsuit that Sardina sexually assaulted her after she participated in the sacrament of confession with the priest. The abuses are alleged to have happened from 1969 to 1971 when Sardina was assigned to Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Buffalo.

Sardina denied sexually abusing a minor in court papers answering the plaintiff’s complaint. He denied abusing any children in a 2019 interview with WIVB-TV, as well, although he said he had consensual sex with women and church officials sent him to counseling for that years ago.

The diocese’s lawyers said they reached out to the woman’s attorney for permission to tell Sardina her name so that they could properly investigate the claims. Receiving no response, the diocese filed a motion with Bucki to force the issue.

A lawyer for the diocese told Bucki that the diocese was stuck between a rock and a hard place as it tries to adhere to a sound process for investigating a claim.

“This is solely about the protection of children and determining whether priests are fit for ministry in any form,” said Sara C. Temes, the diocese attorney. “Their hands are completely tied when they can’t even tell the clergy member the name of the accused.”