Buffalo Diocese agrees to improve child sexual abuse protections to settle AG’s lawsuit

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

October 25, 2022

By Jay Tokasz , Charlie Specht

The Buffalo Diocese in its settlement Tuesday with the State Attorney General’s Office made no admissions about covering up for priests who had molested children, but agreed to implement enhanced measures to prevent future sex abuse in parishes and schools.

The settlement, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, bans two retired bishops linked to a cover-up of sex abuses from serving in any charitable fiduciary roles in New York, and requires the diocese to follow through for five years on such measures as a program to monitor offending priests.

New York’s AG is alleging diocese leaders protected more than two dozen priests accused of child sexual abuse by not referring their cases to the Vatican.

Attorney General Letitia James said the deal ushers in a “much-needed era of independent oversight and accountability” of the diocese.

“For far too long, the Buffalo Diocese and its leaders failed their most basic duty to guide and protect our children,” she said. “In choosing to defend the perpetrators of sexual abuse instead of defending the most vulnerable, the Buffalo Diocese and its leaders breached parishioners’ trust and caused many a crisis of faith.”

The diocese did not admit to any wrongdoing in the stipulated final order issued by U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Abrams.

Read the settlement between the Buffalo Diocese and state attorney general’s office

View the 31-page settlement reached Oct. 25, 2022, between the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and the New York State attorney general’s office, w…

The 2020 lawsuit accused diocese leaders of protecting more than two dozen priests accused of child sex abuse by not referring their cases to the Vatican for potential removal from the priesthood. It also accused Bishop Richard J. Malone and Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz of misusing charitable assets by supporting priests who they knew had likely sexually abused minors.

Malone resigned in 2019 under intense criticism over his handling of abuse allegations. Grosz retired a few months later in 2020.

Bishop Michael W. Fisher, who succeeded Malone, expressed “deep regret” and acknowledged Tuesday that “those who presented themselves as ministers of God” had defiled their vows and “committed crimes against the most vulnerable.”

Fisher also said that survivors of clergy sex abuse were not to blame for the abuse.

“As we move forward, I want to assure them that what happened to them will never happen again in this diocese,” he added.

Michael F. Whalen, whose 2018 news conference began a massive sexual abuse scandal in the Buffalo Diocese, called the diocese’s settlement with the state attorney general on Tuesday “a step in the right direction.”

Abuse survivors expressed skepticism about how much the settlement holds diocese officials accountable.

Michael F. Whalen, the abuse survivor whose 2018 news conference began the unraveling of a massive sexual abuse scandal in the diocese, called the settlement “a step in the right direction,” but expressed concern that it won’t keep diocese officials honest.

“I just don’t think it goes far enough,” Whalen said. “I think it should be permanent.”

Whalen said he also was troubled that the settlement did not include stiffer penalties for Malone and Grosz.

“The cover-ups that they did … they are crimes,” Whalen said. “Those guys walking away with no charges really gets under my skin. They should be held accountable for their actions.”

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.”

A spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests characterized the settlement as disappointing.

“The settlement as agreed to does not result in any public disclosures of abusers or enablers, does not involve any perpetrators facing trial and does not make any changes to the status quo that ease the effects of trauma on Buffalo survivors or make any children in Buffalo safe,” SNAP spokesman Michael McDonnell said.

The lawsuit culminated a two-year investigation into the diocese’s sex abuse scandal that began in 2018 with Whalen’s public accusation that he had been abused as a boy by the Rev. Norbert Orsolits. Following Whalen’s news conference, the retired priest admitted to The News that he had molested probably dozens of children in the 1970s and 1980s.

Revelations of other abuse cases that had been buried by church officials for years and sometimes decades poured forth, leading to a federal investigation, a compensation program that paid out $17.5 million to 106 abuse victims, hundreds of lawsuits and a bankruptcy filing, in addition to the Attorney General’s lawsuit.

The state’s lawsuit was transferred into federal court shortly after its filing when the diocese’s lawyers raised religious freedom questions. The diocese has paid multinational law firm Jones Day more than $1.4 million to defend itself against the AG’s lawsuit, according to court papers.

Robert Kapal spent nearly 40 years trying not to remember a Buffalo Diocese priest he says abused him as a child. But when asked about him four years ago, Kapal burst into tears.

At a news conference in the diocese’s Main Street headquarters, Fisher introduced Melissa Potzler, a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, as vice chancellor, in-house counsel and child protection policy coordinator. Potzler took on the role in September. She previously was parish life coordinator at Nativity of Our Lord Church in Orchard Park.

The agreement with the attorney general also calls for the diocese to hire Kathleen McChesney, a former assistant director of the FBI and the first director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Child Protection, as independent auditor, pending approval of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

McChesney will have access to all diocese documents and communications deemed necessary to complete the audit and an annual report that will be posted to the diocese’s website for public review.

While the settlement prohibits Malone and Grosz from serving on the boards of nonprofit organizations in New York, it has no bearing on their ability to perform ministerial or sacramental duties.

Grosz, however, removed himself from public ministry following an abuse claim made against him in a Child Victims Act lawsuit. He has remained out of the public eye since last summer.

Thirty-five Child Victims Act lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo may end up getting settled in federal bankruptcy court – albeit through the Boy Scouts of America’s Chapter 11 plan, not the diocese’s own bankruptcy process.

Malone is considered by the Vatican to be a bishop in good standing and has no restrictions on his ministry or priestly work.

Fisher said he realized Malone’s presence “may be painful to others,” and “there may be certain functions that we have to talk about, so we do that with prudence.”

“Celebrating confirmation, celebrating Mass with the people if he’s asked, I’m comfortable with that, because he’s not in any kind of fiduciary or administrative function there,” Fisher said.

McDonnell said the punishment for Malone and Grosz was inadequate.

“For two men who were accused of covering up decades of sex crimes against children, such a ‘punishment’ does not even qualify as a slap on the wrist,” he said.

Another key stipulation of the settlement is a program to monitor priests with substantiated claims of abuse against them. The lawsuit and an accompanying 218-page investigative report slammed the diocese for what it characterized as lax oversight of priests accused of molesting children.

Fisher implemented the monitoring program last year for 18 priests. It includes monthly visits to the priests’ homes by a retired probation officer and a host of other restrictions for offending priests as part of the diocese’s efforts to comply with the terms of the attorney general’s lawsuit.

After a handful of those priests declined to participate, Fisher cut or eliminated their pensions to force them into compliance. Two priests sued the diocese, claiming breach of contract, but a state Supreme Court judge dismissed the case in August.

Diocese officials have publicly acknowledged that substantiated abuse allegations have been lodged against 80 diocese priests and 23 religious order priests who served in the diocese since 1950. Child Victims Act cases filed since 2019 have accused at least 175 different priests.

With the Attorney General’s lawsuit now settled, Fisher said the diocese will be able to focus more fully on mediation in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding.

“It’s certainly a turning point. Some were asking, ‘Do you see this as a win or loss?’ I don’t look at it that way. I look at this as an opportunity for us to fine-tune our policies, to make them stronger so that as we move forward in the restructuring … hopefully we’ll get through that and we’ll have the resources to move ahead with the mission – and that’s to proclaim the good news and to help the people we’re responsible for,” he said.