Erie’s Trautman accused over Buffalo abuse complaints

By Ed Palattella
Erie Times
June 18, 2019

Retired Bishop Donald Trautman led the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie for 22 years, until October 2012. He came to Erie from his native Buffalo.

Man claims retired Erie Catholic bishop failed to address concerns over abusive priest when he was at Buffalo diocese.

Donald W. Trautman, already criticized for how he handled clergy abuse cases while he was bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Erie, is now facing similar claims in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.

Trautman, who retired as Erie bishop in 2012, was accused Tuesday of mishandling complaints that a priest in the Diocese of Buffalo was abusing minors when Trautman was chancellor in that diocese more than 30 years ago.

Flanked by lawyers at a news conference in Buffalo, the accuser, James Bottlinger, 50, said that he was in high school when the Rev. Michael Freeman molested him when Freeman was at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Lancaster, New York.

Bottlinger said Trautman and others knew of previous complaints about Freeman, but that Freeman was moved around in the diocese and eventually abused Bottlinger.

“He’s got a lot of answering to do,” Bottlinger said of Trautman.

The lawyers said Bottlinger intends to sue the Diocese of Buffalo over the abuse after he recently rejected a $650,000 settlement that the diocese offered to him as part of its $17.5 million program to compensate victims who, as children, suffered clergy sexual abuse.

The lawyers said Bottlinger will go to court under New York’s new Child Victims Act, which gives plaintiffs a one-year window to sue over claims of clergy sexual abuse no matter what the statute of limitations at the time of the incidents.

Freeman died at 63 in 2010. Bottlinger’s lawyers on Tuesday said their case will focus on what they characterized as the Diocese of Buffalo’s failure to act on the abuse complaints.

“The church purposely covered this up,” Bottlinger said at the news conference, which was live-streamed on YouTube. “There were victims before me.”

One of Bottlinger’s lawyers, Steve Boyd, of Buffalo, said Trautman knew of at least three other complaints against Freeman.

“Bishop Trautman knew that (another person) complained, that two others had complained, and each time there was a complaint, they just moved Father Freeman around until he ended up at St. Mary’s in Lancaster, and that’s where he met James,” Boyd said of Bottlinger.

Boyd said Bottlinger, as a teen, met Trautman when Trautman visited Freeman’s quarters and Bottlinger was there, but that Trautman did not do anything despite seeing Bottlinger with Freeman.

“James actually met Bishop Trautman in Lancaster in Father Freeman’s private quarters, and Bishop Trautman did nothing about it,” Boyd said.

Trautman, 82, was not available for comment. A Buffalo native, he was auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo when he became bishop of the Diocese of Erie in 1990. He retired as the bishop of the Diocese of Erie in October 2012.

His successor as Erie bishop, Lawrence Persico, was out of the office on Tuesday, but the Diocese of Erie said in a statement that it would have to wait on the filing of the lawsuit to further review the allegations against Trautman. But the diocese said that, following policy, it will report the allegations to law enforcement.

“Neither the Diocese of Erie nor Bishop Lawrence Persico were named in the lawsuit announced in the Diocese of Buffalo today. As non-parties, we are not able to review the details it contains until its public filing and dissemination,” according to the statement.

“However, just one week ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved protocols to ensure that cases involving child sexual abuse and those who covered it up — including bishops — are handled appropriately. The Diocese of Erie is committed to these protocols.

“When new information comes to light, the Diocese of Erie immediately provides it to law enforcement and its independent investigators. This same policy will be followed with today’s first-time public statement by the New York survivor who alleges that Bishop Trautman mishandled this case during his tenure as chancellor of the Diocese of Buffalo.”

Some of the sharpest previous criticism of Trautman developed 10 months ago. The Pennsylvania grand jury report on Roman Catholic clergy abuse statewide, released Aug. 14, was critical of how Trautman handled the cases of priests accused of child sexual abuse.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office conducted the grand jury probe, singled out Trautman at the news conference on the report.

Shapiro pointed to a case in which, he charged, Trautman failed to aggressively pursue an abuser and the diocese, under Trautman, intentionally curbed its own investigation into sexual abuse claims to wait out the Pennsylvania statute of limitations.

Trautman at the time called that claim “baseless” in a statement and defended his record against the claims raised in the grand jury report. He also disputed Shapiro’s claim that the diocese, during Trautman’s tenure as bishop, engaged in a “cover-up” in another abuse case.

As part of the grand jury report, Shapiro has called on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass window legislation similar to the new law that will allow Bottlinger to sue in New York. The proposed window legislation has stalled in Pennsylvania, and the Diocese of Erie and other Catholic dioceses statewide have established victim compensation funds, as has the Diocese of Buffalo.

On Tuesday, in Buffalo, Bottlinger said he decided to reject the $650,000 settlement offer from the Diocese of Buffalo so he could sue and get more information. He said he hopes the court action will force the Diocese of Buffalo to disclose how it handled the abuse complaints of him and others.

“Maybe then they can answer what happened,” Bottlinger said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.