Buffalo priest drops defamation case against accuser alleging sex abuse in 1980s

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

June 11, 2023

By Jay Tokasz

Buffalo priest has dropped his defamation lawsuit against a man who claimed he had been sexually abused as a child in the 1980s by the priest.

The Rev. Roy T. Herberger said he couldn’t afford to continue toward a trial after spending $20,000 in legal fees since filing the defamation case in 2020 in State Supreme Court in Erie County.

Herberger consulted with his attorney, Steven K. Long, and decided that pressing further was unlikely to accomplish anything more.

“He asked me what do I want to do, and I said, financially I can’t do it anymore, not after all that money already spent,” Herberger said.

Herberger’s lawsuit is believed to be the first and only defamation case in Western New York alleging that a plaintiff in a Child Victims Act lawsuit was lying about abuse accusations to slander an innocent priest.

The Buffalo Diocese put Herberger on administrative leave in June 2018 after receiving a complaint that the priest had sexually abused an 8-year-old boy in the 1980s. Herberger vehemently denied the allegation in a letter to parishioners and friends. Following a diocese investigation that determined the allegation was unfounded, he was returned to active ministry in December 2018.

The man who complained to the diocese is now 45 and lives in Niagara Falls. He sued in August 2019 under the Child Victims Act, naming the diocese as a defendant, but not Herberger. The Buffalo News is not identifying the man because he says he is a child sex abuse victim and The News does not identify sex crime victims without their consent.

Herberger, 80, has been a priest since 1968. He retired as a pastor in 2017 but still celebrates Masses and performs other priestly duties at the University at Buffalo Newman Center and various churches.

Testimony by Herberger and the 45-year-old man during separate depositions were mostly consistent with statements they gave to attorney Scott Riordan, an investigator hired by the diocese to examine the abuse allegations.

Herberger and his accuser knew each other when the accuser was a boy, because the priest tried to help the man’s father with an alcohol problem on several occasions.

But Riordan had determined that the man’s claims against Herberger were “completely false” based upon some of his statements not lining up with basic facts, such as where the alleged abuse happened, where the priest lived and what church he was assigned to at the time of the alleged abuse.

Herberger said in his testimony that he met the boy two or three times. On those occasions, the priest found the boy’s father, who struggled with alcohol, sleeping outside the rectory and brought him home to his wife, Herberger said in a deposition.

The priest recalled once asking the boy at the family’s home what grade he was in, but aside from that had no further conversation with him.

Herberger also said he was never alone with the boy, and he denied taking him out to eat at fast-food restaurants, as the accuser maintained in his deposition.

The priest said the claims “were false and made up for the sake of money.”

“The original case by him against me we proved was absolutely false,” Herberger said in an interview this week. “He just continues to change his story. ‘Well, it happened here, well maybe not here, but somewhere near there. Maybe not then, but maybe at this point. Almost every time you asked him a question the story changed.”

Herberger said he knew he was unlikely to collect any money from his accuser if he won the case at trial, but he sued “out of principle” and to let anyone else who would falsely accuse someone of sexual abuse know that they can face legal consequences.

Attorney Scott Duquin, who represented the defendant in the defamation suit, declined to comment on Herberger’s assertions about his client. He said any of the disputed issues in the case “could have been resolved at trial.”

“But at the end of the day, the defamation case is over,” said Duquin.

The man has not dropped his Child Victims Act lawsuit, which has been put on hold due to the Buffalo Diocese bankruptcy case.

“We believe our client. Our client gave sworn testimony. And whether he gets his day at trial or it’s some other bankruptcy resolution, that remains to be seen,” Duquin said. “But we believe our client, and we’re going to represent him zealously and to the best of our ability.”