How a local reporter got a priest to confess to sexual abuse
By Matthew Kassel
Columbia Journalism Review
September 17, 2018
In February, a retired priest confessed to Buffalo News reporter Jay Tokasz that he had sexually abused dozens of teenage boys decades ago. The admission shook Buffalo, a deeply Catholic city, and several victims have come forward with stories of abuse by priests in the local diocese. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s statewide clergy abuse probe will reportedly focus on Buffalo’s diocese.
ICYMI: Anticipating the daily traumas of local reporting
Tokasz, 48, previously worked at the Ithaca Journal and then at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle*, where he covered an unraveling clergy abuse scandal in the local diocese. Since 2002, he’s held a number of reporting roles at The Buffalo News, where he recently joined the watchdog team covering the Catholic church.
Tokasz traced the path of his reporting from the surprise February admission to the ongoing statewide investigation. The interview is condensed and edited for clarity.
It’s a phrase that’s seared into my brain, and it’s the one real quote I had in my story, because I’ll never forget that.
Tell me how you got the confession.
There was this gentleman, Michael Whalen, who held a press conference at the Buffalo Diocese headquarters. Our breaking news reporter handled that assignment, but later in the day, my editor asked me how we could get in touch with the priest, Norbert Orsolits, because they had figured out he was still living and they obviously wanted to find out if he had anything to say about Whalen’s allegations. We found a phone number for him, but he didn’t call back. So, due diligence, my editor asked me to go out there. I look back at it now, and there was sort of a reluctance on both of our parts, because he lived 45 minutes outside Buffalo, so it would have been an hour and a half both ways. I figured, He’s just going to slam the door in my face. And that’s not what happened at all.
I didn’t have my notebook out. I just knocked on the door and said, “Hey, it’s Jay Tokasz, I write for The Buffalo News. There was a gentleman at the Catholic Center today who said that you sexually abused him, and I’m just here to see what you have to say about that.”
It was immediately peculiar when he didn’t flat-out deny it. His response was, “What was the name again?” That was the response. So I said his name, and he said, “Well, I don’t remember him.” But he said it in a way like he was suggesting that there were other people, so at one point I just said, “Well, was there any sexual contact between you and boys, kids?” He said yes, and of course, through all of this, I’m not taking notes because I don’t want to freak him out.
We continued to go back and forth, and I knew some things about how the diocese operated when it had reports of priests who abused kids, how they sent them away. I knew particulars about the Southdown Institute [a rehab facility for clergy, located outside Toronto], and I threw that into the discussion, and he said, “Oh yes, I was at Southdown,” which was further confirmation that he was there for molesting kids. Then he confirmed he went on ski trips that Whalen talked about. So I said, “Well, how often did you inappropriately or sexually touch these kids?” He didn’t offer a number or a frequency on that. At one point, I did try to pin him down, and I said, “Was it one boy, or two boys, or three boys, or dozens of boys?” And then he said, “Probably dozens.” It’s a phrase that’s seared into my brain, and it’s the one real quote I had in my story, because I’ll never forget that.
You tried to take your notebook out, right?
That’s when he realized that maybe he shouldn’t be saying these things. He told me I’d need to go talk to the diocese or something like that. So I rushed back to my car and wrote down what I could remember, drove back to the office, and filed that story. Within the next day, I got calls from other people, including a gentleman by the name of Jim McCarthy, who basically described what Orsolits had done to him even earlier—in the late ’60s, early ’70s. I had a long discussion with McCarthy, and then his brother also said that he was abused by Orsolits.
I went back to Orsolits a second time, and this time he welcomed me into his house, and we talked more. He remembered the McCarthy brothers. He admitted that he abused both of them. That was on a late Saturday afternoon. I think I could have spent a lot more time with him, but I had a deadline and I had to get back to the office and finish the story. I mainly wanted him to comment on the McCarthys. That story ran, and then my editor said, “Well, why don’t you go back again?” I went back a third time, and again he welcomed me in, and during that conversation, I was mostly interested in figuring out how the diocese handled his case, from his perspective. Finally, maybe a half hour into the conversation, he got uncomfortable again and wanted to go off the record. I said, “I’ll go off the record from here forward, but everything else has been on the record.” He didn’t like that, so he asked me to leave. I haven’t been back since.
Why do you think he talked to you?
I’m still trying to figure that out. He lives in a pretty remote, isolated area. I don’t know if he gets the opportunity to talk to a lot of people. It could have just been simple loneliness. But, really, I don’t know the answer to that.
Do you think he knows the statute of limitations in New York prevents him from being prosecuted or sued?
I would think he knows that. One of the major takeaways I got from him was, there really wasn’t a lot of consideration for the pain he had caused other people. I asked him numerous times what he would say to these guys, and he just wasn’t very responsive on that. I gave him an opportunity to express remorse and he didn’t. It was more about him trying to tell me that after treatment, he never did anything bad again.
It seems as though your story on Orsolits opened the floodgates. A lot of people are coming forward now.
We’re now trying to focus on how this was all covered up for so long. Victims feel much, much freer in terms of coming and talking with us. Two or three victims came to me in 2005 or 2006, and I met with them at the News to hear their stories. I remember their stories very clearly, and they said, “Of course, I want to be anonymous, and the priest is deceased.” At that time, I don’t know how much you could do with that story: you’ve got an anonymous accuser and a dead priest and a diocese that’s not going to confirm or deny anything. But since then, we’ve had a man come forward with his name, accusing a priest who confirms abusing other boys. It’s just a different ball game.
Is it dark, writing about abuse?
It wears on you a little bit. I thought I had gotten away from it, years ago. The only thing you can think about is that is that it’s not nearly as dark as the experience of having been abused.
Interviewing victims is the hardest part of it. I still stumble over it every time I do it. There’s no particular method—I think it’s just trying to be honest and straightforward about what they can expect to see in print. I always tell people, “As a paper, we’re not here to out you as being a victim of abuse.” So if they’re not comfortable with their name on something, then we back up. But I also say, “Look, the credibility skyrockets when you attach your name to it.” It just makes the story so much stronger and more believable and more credible. But they’re all brave doing what they’re doing.
Do you have an amicable relationship with priests in general?
I’ve never burned a priest on any story, so they would have no reason to distrust me. I still have a lot of priest sources, and they talk to me. I have found myself, in some instances, prefacing conversations with, “Look, I’m not calling about you,” just to ward off that sense of dread.
Where do you see this story going as the attorney general’s investigation moves along?
The Pennsylvania AG’s report set a pretty high bar for what New York and other states will probably have to live up to. The problem—at least, the way we’ve been told—is that the New York AG doesn’t have the same sweeping power, criminally, that the Pennsylvania AG office does, so they are trying to work with district attorneys across New York on the criminal aspect. That could be very unwieldy and very complicated. And then you’ve got an office where the AG is going to be turning over shortly, so I don’t know how it’s going to shake out. I think that’s going to require us to continue to be on the story as much as possible.
What’s the response been like in Buffalo?
People are talking about this constantly. It’s just a lot of disbelief, anger, frustration and a sense of, “Where do we go from here?” It’s a heavily Catholic town. Even if the Catholic population has dwindled to some degree, or just become disconnected from the church, there’s still the influence of the Catholic church all over the place. It’s just a very, very entrenched Catholic town, and so a lot of people feel badly about the whole thing.
Are you Catholic?
I am. I attended Catholic high school, and my son goes to a Catholic elementary school. It’s been difficult for me. Luckily, my son is still maybe too young to totally understand everything that’s going on, but there’s been a bit of a personal struggle on the whole thing. It’s not a struggle of pursuing the stories; it’s a struggle of, “How do I buy into this institution still?”
And you’re still figuring that out?
Yeah. I don’t know if I buy into the institution. But I will say that, for all of this cover-up and everything, there’s another side to the institution. Its high school helped mold me; growing up in that tradition helped mold me as a person. Those were good things for me, personally. I can’t just reject that outright.