Who killed the monsignor? Could a Buffalo bishop shut down a murder investigation?

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

February 5, 2023

By Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel

This is the 16th installment in an 18-part serial on the unsolved 1966 murder of Buffalo Diocese Monsignor Francis J. O’Connor. Read the rest of the series.

[Includes brief video of former Buffalo News reporter Michael McKeating [who] remembers the murder of Francis O’Connor, sharing why he believes the Buffalo Diocese pressured the Buffalo police to stop investigating, and what Buffalo police homicide chief Leo J. Donovan told him about the investigation being shut down.]

Bishop James A. McNulty left no doubt who was the boss during the nine years he spent in charge of Buffalo’s Catholic Diocese.

But was he powerful enough to stop Buffalo police from investigating the murder of one of his priests? Did he?

McNulty was running the Buffalo Diocese when Monsignor Francis J. O’Connor was found dead March 13, 1966, in Scajaquada Creek.

The O’Connor murder probe was shut down suddenly – with no arrests – shortly after a priest emerged as a suspect, according to four sources who spoke to Buffalo police detectives who ran the investigation.

And one of those sources said former Homicide Chief Leo J. Donovan told him the probe was shut down soon after Donovan and his boss met with McNulty to ask him about some of the evidence they had obtained.

Buffalo police records indicate homicide detectives received permission from McNulty to question and fingerprint a priest, but diocese officials say they have no record of McNulty communicating with police about the murder probe, or of McNulty ever asking police to shut down their investigation.

“We went through our archives, including Bishop McNulty’s appointment book,” said Joseph Martone, a spokesman for the diocese. “We found no record of these conversations ever taking place.”

Nearly 57 years later, with McNulty and everyone in his inner circle long dead, questions remain about the former bishop and whether he had a role in ending the police investigation into the still unsolved homicide. 

The Buffalo News has found no documented evidence that McNulty asked anyone to stop the O’Connor murder probe.

News reporters reviewed the Buffalo police files on the investigation. They contained reports written daily by detectives after O’Connor was killed. Then the reports ended without explanation less than two months after O’Connor’s murder.

Bishop was powerful

In 1966, the Buffalo Diocese bishop was far more influential than he is today.

There were 913,640 Catholics in the Buffalo Diocese that year, 337,440 more than there are today, according to diocesan records. 

Many of the region’s government and business leaders – including most of those who made decisions regarding police investigations in Buffalo – were Catholic men. Those men included Mayor Frank Sedita, Police Commissioner Frank Felicetta, Chief of Detectives Ralph V. Degenhart and Erie County District Attorney Michael Dillon. All are deceased.

“These men were all on the same team, so to speak,” said attorney Michael P. McKeating, a former Catholic deacon, former Erie County budget director and former investigative reporter for The Buffalo Evening News.

“Would they shut down a murder case if it could embarrass the church? The bishop would not even have to ask them to do that. He would only have to tell them, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ and they would know what to do,” McKeating said.

The Rev. Vincent Becker, 86, is one of the few priests who served under McNulty who is alive.

“I don’t know what happened in this case … but in those days, it was common that things were covered up by the church,” said Becker, who emphasized that he was a young priest when O’Connor was killed and he did not know why the investigation ended.

Another priest, Monsignor James N. Connelly Jr., discussed his suspicions about the murder probe with The News in 2018.

“It seemed like the investigation just stopped, all of a sudden, and it went no further,” recalled Connelly. “To me, it seems like everything was just hushed up because they had come to a certain point, and they didn’t want to take it any further. Believe you me, there were people in our diocese who had the power to make that happen.”

Connelly, who knew O’Connor, died at age 97, four months after the interview.

When O’Connor was killed, McNulty expressed great sadness over the monsignor’s death. He called the slaying “a shock … a staggering blow.”

The bishop eulogized O’Connor at his funeral, calling him a great priest and journalist.

“His career ended so abruptly, so tragically, so mysteriously,” McNulty lamented.

Covered up abuse

The murder of O’Connor is the only known murder case in which Buffalo Diocese leaders have seen one of their priests emerge as a suspect.

But in the past five years, numerous allegations have surfaced that Buffalo Diocese leaders, including McNulty, covered up the sexual abuse of children by priests for decades.

Abuse allegations against some priests remained hidden for years until the Rev. Norbert Orsolits in 2018 admitted to a Buffalo News reporter that he had probably molested dozens of children and then-Bishop Richard Malone’s administrative assistant gave diocese records of abuse complaints against priests to WKBW-TV.

Since then, Child Victims Act lawsuits accused a total of 230 Catholic priests of sexually abusing children in nearly every parish in the diocese over the past 75 years.

One of those Child Victims Act lawsuits includes allegations that McNulty helped cover up sexual abuse of a child. 

Angelo Ervolina, a retired state parole officer, said he delivered newspapers as a boy in 1965 to McNulty’s residence. He said he was 10 years old that year when he told McNulty that Monsignor Michael J. Harrington had molested him during a church-organized trip to New York City.

“The bishop appeared to be concerned and told me, ‘I’ll take care of it,’ and handed me a $5 tip, a very large tip, for his newspaper,” Ervolina told The News.

McNulty and subsequent bishops allowed Harrington to serve as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Buffalo until he retired in 1985.

“There is no record of Harrington ever being punished. Nobody from the diocese ever came to question me. Twenty years later, Harrington was still practicing as a priest,” Ervolina told The News.

It was not until 2018, after Orsolits’ public admissions, that the diocese publicly identified Harrington as a credibly accused molester of children.

“As far as I’m concerned, Bishop McNulty turned his back on an innocent boy. I don’t believe he did anything to investigate my complaint,” Ervolina said. “If he did that to me, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he covered up a murder investigation.”

Diocese officials say they have no record of Ervolina complaining to McNulty about Harrington.

Another priest accused in Child Victims Act lawsuits is Rev. John D. Lewandowski, a priest who was a suspect in the police investigation of O’Connor’s murder.

In October 1965, McNulty transferred Lewandowski from Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Buffalo to Holy Cross Church in Salamanca.

Monsignor Maximillian Bogacki, pastor of Assumption Church, told Buffalo police investigating O’Connor’s murder that he had to have Lewandowski yanked from Assumption Church because of his behavior. Lewandowski stayed out late at night and drank too much, but “the final straw was when he kept the boy out all night.” The teenager arrived home drunk at about 6 a.m. and said that he had been out with Lewandowski, Bogacki told police.

Bogacki told police that he had complained repeatedly to the bishop about Lewandowski’s conduct.

Lewandowski was sent by the diocese in January 1966 to a retreat house in Bemus Point for priests. The diocese secretly used the retreat house – which police described as “a penal house for wayward priests” – to house, monitor and counsel priests who had been accused of being gay or abusing children.

After Buffalo police questioned and fingerprinted Lewandowski as a suspect in the O’Connor homicide, Lewandowski was assigned in 1967 to Our Mother of Good Counsel Church in Blasdell, according to a national Catholic directory.

And in 1969, McNulty approved the unusual transfer of Lewandowski to a church in another diocese. He served as an assistant pastor at a church in Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks, where the parishioners were unaware he had been a suspect in a homicide or accused of inappropriate behavior with children.

A June 27, 1969, story in the Watertown Daily Times says the Rev. John Lewandowski was transferred from the Buffalo Diocese to Holy Name Parish in Tupper Lake by Ogdensburg Diocese Bishop Stanislaus Brzana. This happened three years after Buffalo police questioned Lewandowski as a suspect in the 1966 murder of Monsignor Francis J. O'Connor of Buffalo.
A June 27, 1969, story in the Watertown Daily Times says the Rev. John Lewandowski was transferred from the Buffalo Diocese to Holy Name Parish in Tupper Lake by Ogdensburg Diocese Bishop Stanislaus Brzana. This happened three years after Buffalo police questioned Lewandowski as a suspect in the 1966 murder of Monsignor Francis J. O’Connor of Buffalo.

McNulty’s other controversies  

Several controversies involving McNulty did become public while he was bishop.

In 1967, seven priests who were professors at the East Aurora seminary run by the diocese voiced criticism of a statement issued by Pope Paul VI, declaring that artificial birth control was sinful. McNulty removed all seven priests from their positions at the seminary.

“Those who reject” a position taken by the pope “or even worse, urge others to reject it, are manifestly in error,” McNulty said at the time.

After the Rev. Gerald R. Forton, who succeeded O’Connor as editor of the diocese newspaper, offered support for the ousted professors, McNulty replaced Forton as editor.

In 1969, the Buffalo Diocesan Priests Senate was preparing to meet with McNulty to discuss the reassignments of Forton and other priests. McNulty disbanded the Senate, saying he would appoint a new group of priests to it.

In 1972, the 72-year-old McNulty suffered a heart attack and a stroke while visiting family in New Jersey. He died on Sept. 4, 1972. 

While McNulty became gravely ill, the news media reported a longtime friend, Monsignor Joseph E. Schieder, traveled from Buffalo to spend weeks at the bishop’s side in the hospital.

In 2018, the Buffalo Diocese added Schieder’s name to its list of priests who had been “credibly accused” of molesting children. Schieder is named as an abuser in seven Child Victims Act lawsuits that allege abuse dating back to the early 1960s.  


Coming Monday: What became of two suspects in unsolved murder?

Catch up on the series: Who killed the monsignor? Exploring the murder of Monsignor Francis J. O’Connor, its investigation and its legacy