Clergy accusers praise AG settlement with Buffalo Diocese, but want bishops held accountable

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

October 25, 2022

By Charlie Specht

Michael F. Whalen, whose 2018 news conference began a 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.”

He’s a bit worried, though, that the enhanced child protection and priest monitoring plans mandated in Attorney General Letitia James’ settlement won’t go far enough to keep the diocese honest. The court-ordered monitoring program will last for a period of five years. 

“I just don’t think it goes far enough,” Whalen said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “I think it should be permanent.”

In Nov. 2020, James sued the Buffalo Diocese, along with retired Bishop Richard J. Malone and retired Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz, over their handling of clergy sexual abuse cases.

The civil case accused diocese leaders of protecting more than two dozen priests accused of child sexual abuse by not referring their cases to the Vatican for potential removal from the priesthood. It also accused Malone and Grosz of misusing charitable assets by supporting priests who they knew had likely sexually abused minors.

The Buffalo Diocese in its settlement 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 diocese did not admit to covering up abuses of children or misusing assets as part of the settlement. 

Michael F. Whalen Jr. opened the floodgates of the clergy abuse scandal when he publicly accused the Rev. Norbert Orsolitis of molesting him.  By Derek Gee/Buffalo News
Michael F. Whalen Jr. opened the floodgates of the clergy abuse scandal when he publicly accused the Rev. Norbert Orsolitis of molesting him. By Derek Gee/Buffalo News

The settlement prohibits Malone & Grosz from serving in a fiduciary capacity in any New York charity.

The settlement also does not include financial penalties for Malone & Grosz, something that doesn’t sit well with Whalen. 

“The coverups 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.”

Kevin Koscielniak, a former Cardinal Dougherty High School student who said he was molested in 1979, scoffed at the language the diocese used in a news release suggesting it already had sufficient policies in place for the protection of children. 

The numbers are a striking rebuke to Buffalo Diocese officials who for decades downplayed the extent of abuse in the area and protected molester priests from prosecution and public accountability.

“Let’s be clear: They are not heroes in this,” Koscielniak said of diocesan leaders. “They can make it sound like they were putting these things in place. The only reason they were putting them in place is because this lawsuit started. This was not voluntary. If none of this happens, they are not changing their ways.”

The settlement spells out the process for investigating abuse allegations and reporting them to police. It also mandates more transparency by the diocese’s review board, a group of mostly lay professionals who evaluate abuse claims. 

If a sexual abuse claim against a priest has been “substantiated,” the settlement states, the priest will be prohibited from “possessing pornography or sexually explicit materials of any kind.” He also must stay away from strip clubs and adult bookstores and cannot live within 1,000 feet of “a school, park or other place where children gather.”

Koscielniak said the specificity of the settlement made it clear that the AG had to handle diocesan leaders “like kids.”

“We’ve got to put all these things in place because you can’t handle your own business,” he said. “And, sadly, it’s the taxpayers who are paying for this.”

Whalen said that when he came forward in 2018, he never expected state and federal investigations of the diocese to take shape. But he’s glad the settlement will bring a measure of accountability to the church. He said he hopes sexual abuse victims of all ages continue to speak out. 

“Holding these people in check and holding the diocese in check, that is something I didn’t expect,” Whalen said. “I never expected any of that. I was just there to tell my story to tell other survivors that they weren’t alone.”