5 years after Buffalo Diocese sex abuse scandal erupted, victims still waiting for compensation

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

February 26, 2023

By Jay Tokasz

The lid on the Buffalo Diocese’s long-held secrets about clergy molesters was pried open in 2018 when a Catholic priest admitted he had sexually abused dozens of boys.

Five years later, despite promises to do right by abuse victims, the diocese has not paid a penny in damages to an estimated 900 people who filed claims alleging they were sexually abused by priests or other diocese employees. Despite pledges of greater transparency, the diocese has yet to make public internal documents on its handling of abuse cases. And no one connected with the diocese has been charged with any crimes related to child sex abuse or its cover-up in the past five years.

“It seems to me that nothing has changed,” said Michael F. Whalen Jr., who held a news conference on Feb. 27, 2018, to tell the public that the Rev. Norbert Orsolits had abused him nearly 40 years ago when he was a teenager.

And yet so much happened following Whalen’s teary-eyed announcement on a public sidewalk. A few hours later, Orsolits responded with his admissions in an interview with a Buffalo News reporter. Other victims who had stayed silent about their abuses stepped forward within days with their own stories.

Within a year, the New York Attorney General’s Office and the FBI were investigating the diocese over reported cover-ups. Within two years, the Vatican launched its own probe, Bishop Richard J. Malone stepped down and more than 200 people filed Child Victims Act lawsuits against the Buffalo Diocese claiming clergy sex abuse. The diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Feb. 28, 2020.

“Mike really was the little snowball that caused an avalanche,” said attorney Steve Boyd, who represents Whalen.

All abuse claims are now being handled in U.S. Bankruptcy Court Western District of New York, where diocese lawyers are privately negotiating a settlement with victims and insurance carriers that would forestall the civil cases from being hashed out individually in state courts.

Diocese spokesman Joseph Martone said the diocese cannot legally compensate any of the 900 claimants in bankruptcy court until it reaches an agreement with the creditors committee and the deal is approved by the judge. 

“We’re eager to resolve these cases and have closure for the claimants whose claims are deemed credible by the court,” Martone said. “The diocese is working with the creditors committee to arrive at a just and equitable settlement agreement.”

The diocese has spent around $11 million on fees for lawyers and other professionals working on the Chapter 11 bankruptcy, according to court papers, and it remains unclear how far along negotiations are.

Martone said the $11 million paid to diocese lawyers includes payments to its bankruptcy court lawyers, to defend the diocese against Child Victims Act lawsuits and a suit filed by the state attorney general, as well as pay for attorneys for the creditors committee. 

In January, Patrick H. NeMoyer, recently retired associate justice of the Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court, Fourth Judicial Department, agreed to work as a second mediator on the negotiations.

The length of the process has been infuriating for abuse survivors, many of whom already have been waiting decades for the Catholic Church to be held accountable for allowing molesters to get away with their crimes.

“If they’re going to put forth the narrative that they want to be truly transparent and do what’s right, I don’t know what’s stopping them from releasing those files,” said Kevin Brun, an abuse survivor who served on the bankruptcy creditors committee until the fall.

Brun said the Buffalo diocese was “following the same playbook” as other dioceses that dragged out the bankruptcy process to wear down abuse victims and gain a more favorable settlement.

“To me, that’s not doing the right thing for survivors. We’ve been in an emotional prison for decades,” said Brun, who, in a lawsuit, accused the Rev. Arthur Smith of abusing him when he was a teenager. “I think survivors deserve some answers, and this bankruptcy should be settled sooner than later.”

Brun said he knows of at least six abuse survivors who have died since the diocese filed for bankruptcy protection, and others have serious health issues.

Whalen remembers a buzz in Buffalo over Orsolits’ comments in the days and months after his news conference on Main Street, near St. Louis Church and across the street from the chancery.

Interest in the plight of abuse victims continued through the resignation of Bishop Malone in December 2019, but seems to have waned since then, Whalen said.

“People go on with their lives. We’re still here. We’re still struggling. We’re still hurting. It’s just that everything’s died down and forgotten,” he said.

Whalen worries that many more victims will die without getting any sense of justice, while the bankruptcy drags along. It reminds him of how the diocese handled its abusive priests, he said.

“It’s just a game that they want to play. That seems like their M.O. ‘Let’s wait it out. Let’s keep stalling,’ ” Whalen said. “That’s what they did with these priests. ‘Let’s just move them around and wait it out and let it die down. And if he acts up again, we’ll move him again.’ ”

That’s no surprise to Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented many clergy sexual abuse victims in cases against dioceses and religious orders throughout the country.

He said bankruptcy courts were never intended to handle sex abuse cases, and the diocese is using that as a weapon against victims.

“The diocese strategy is a war of attrition. They’re purposely revictimizing the clergy sexual abuse victims who have come forward,” he said.

The diocese handed over some of its secret files on abuse to the state Attorney General’s Office under a subpoena. The AG’s Office’s 2021 lawsuit against the diocese included references to the subpoenaed diocese files of 25 priests. But the files were highly redacted, and a report from the AG’s Office that accompanied the lawsuit acknowledged that the diocese had turned over files for approximately half of the 78 priests that were identified at that point as having substantiated accusations of abuse.

The diocese made some priest personnel files available under a nondisclosure agreement to a creditor’s committee in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy case. In exchange, the committee agreed not to object to the diocese’s requests for lawsuits against nonbankrupt parishes and other Catholic entities to be put on hold during bankruptcy negotiations.

So far, the public has not been able to examine any internal church documents that might provide a better understanding of how diocese leaders kept abuse cases under wraps, in some cases for decades.

Martone noted that the diocese published a list of credibly accused priests on its website.

Asked why the diocese has not publicly disclosed records showing how it has handled abuse complaints through the years, he said the diocese keeps those records private because accusers are promised confidentiality. 

Some local Child Victims Act cases against large institutions already have advanced to discovery, and further, in some cases, in state courts, with large settlements paid out. 

In 2022, for instance, the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District agreed to pay $17.5 million to settle 35 Child Victims Act lawsuits filed by former students who accused retired elementary school teacher Arthur Werner of molesting them.

Several lawyers have said that the diocese would be susceptible to very large jury awards if it had to defend itself in state courts. It is one of the reasons the diocese paid out $17.5 million to 106 victims through a voluntary compensation program in 2018 and 2019. In return, the victims agreed not to sue.

The diocese hasn’t paid any funds to victims since the compensation program ended.

Whalen said he received a lot of criticism that he was only in it for the money after he went public with his claims about Orsolits. The diocese offered him $35,000 through its compensation program, which Whalen termed a slap in the face, given the four decades of personal turmoil he experienced that he believes is connected to his abuse.

At the outset, Whalen said he was merely concerned with letting other abuse survivors know that they’re not alone and “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

But money, he said, has become an important factor, given there’s no other way to pursue a measure of justice, such as a criminal prosecution of Orsolits or the diocese leaders that knew about his sexual abuse of children years before Whalen met the priest.

Richard Brownell said he wasn’t thinking about money when he called Whalen with words of support following the news conference.

“I never heard of him or knew him before and there he was crying in front of the office,” recalled Brownell.

But Brownell said he felt a kinship with Whalen because he had also been molested by a priest, the Rev. John Aurelio, in the late 1960s, when he was 11 or 12. He rarely spoke of it and until that point had tried to keep it out of his mind.

“There is no monetary value to make it right,” said Brownell, who went to Albany with Whalen for the passage of the Child Victims Act and now serves on the creditors committee in the bankruptcy case.

“The older I got,” he added, “the more I realized the monetary aspect is the only way that they can compensate us.”

Brownell said he doesn’t understand why the bankruptcy is taking so long, and he believes the diocese and its lawyers are “calculatingly dragging this out.”

“They’re certainly in a position to understand what it is that the survivors are looking for, and that is closure, for me,” he said. “I just want this to be over. It’s affected my entire life.”

Whalen wants a sense of closure, too. And, whether the diocese has changed or not, he said he wants to reconnect with the faith of his youth that was robbed from him by an abusive priest.

On Monday, Whalen plans to head back to the Main Street sidewalk where he first told the world about what Orsolits did. Then he’ll step inside St. Louis Church for the noontime Mass, he said.