Buffalo Diocese says retired priest abused a child

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

September 5, 2023

By Charlie Specht

A longtime Buffalo Diocese priest and pastor who retired in 2022 sexually abused a child, the diocese said Tuesday in a news release.

The Rev. Joseph E. Vatter, 71, who retired in 2022 as pastor of St. Paul Parish in Kenmore but continued to occasionally celebrate Mass at various churches, had been on leave since February after an abuse allegation was reported.

The diocesan review board, a group of clergy and lay Catholics appointed by Bishop Michael Fisher, determined that a claim that Vatter “had abused a minor female” had been “substantiated.” Fisher accepted that recommendation, the news release said.

Dioceses across the country have put in place review boards to help bishops handle child sex abuse allegations.

Buffalo Diocese officials did not say when the alleged incident occurred, but it appears to be separate from an allegation involving a man that was reported by The Buffalo News in 2022.

In September 2022, a Rochester area man, Robert Kapal, told The News that Vatter had abused him in 1980 when he was a 9-year-old altar boy at St. Christopher Church in the Town of Tonawanda.

Diocesan records obtained by The News show the church in 2004 received an abuse complaint about Vatter, but the diocese determined in 2005 that there was “no basis” to the accusation. Another internal diocese document says that Vatter had been accused in 2004 of molesting Kapal in 1980.

A 2005 memo written by Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz said members of the diocese’s review board of lay professionals “conscientiously studied the case, as well as Terry Connors attempted to make contact with any other complaints against Fr. Vatter.”

Connors has been the diocese’s legal counsel through the last four bishops, dating to the 1990s. Kapal said last year he was never contacted by anyone from the diocese as part of an investigation.

Vatter did not respond last year to messages from The Buffalo News seeking comment on Kapal’s accusation. He also did not respond to a message Tuesday seeking comment.

The diocese has faced intense scrutiny over its handling of abuse allegations since a retired priest, the Rev. Norbert Orsolits, admitted to The News in 2018 that he had molested probably dozens of boys earlier in his priesthood.

Documents obtained by WKBW-TV from church whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor revealed the mishandling of clergy sex abuse claims by then-Bishop Richard J. Malone. State and federal investigators launched probes of the diocese and Malone resigned in December 2019. 

The diocese said Vatter “will continue to be removed from ministry and be listed on Priests with Substantiated Claims of Abuse on the diocesan website.” The site lists the names of 110 priests – 87 diocesan priests and 23 religious order priests – against whom abuse claims have been substantiated.