Erie’s Trautman denies claims in Buffalo abuse suit

By Ed Palattella
March 7, 2020

Former bishop, accused of cover-up, is disputing constitutionality of New York law that lets plaintiffs sue in old cases.

Retired Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman is challenging New York’s landmark Child Victims Act as he seeks to dismiss a lawsuit that claims he covered up clergy sex abuse of a minor when he was a top official in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo in the 1980s.

The Child Victims Act “is unconstitutional,” lawyers for Trautman wrote in his initial legal response to the suit, filed in December in Erie County, New York.

The lawyers also wrote that the law violates Trautman’s rights to due process under the New York constitution, and that Trautman denies all the claims in the suit.

The complaint should be dismissed “in its entirety,” according to the response, filed Thursday. The 11-page response lists denials for the claims in the suit without providing details, as is customary in the early stages of litigation. The claims and counterclaims are expected to get more detailed as the case proceeds.

Trautman, 83, was vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and then its auxiliary bishop for five years before he became bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Erie. He led the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie from 1990 to 2012.

The New York Child Victims Act gives victims a one-year window to sue, no matter what the statute of limitations at the time of the abuse. The New York Legislature a year ago passed the law in response to the Roman Catholic clergy sex-abuse crisis nationwide, including the release, in August 2018, of the grand jury report on clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church across Pennsylvania.

The New York law went into effect Aug. 14, triggering the filing of hundreds of lawsuits, contributing to the Diocese of Buffalo filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Feb. 28.

In the suit involving Trautman, the Catholic Diocese of Erie is also named as a defendant, along with the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and a Catholic church and school in the Buffalo area. Trautman and the other Buffalo defendants are accused of failing to prevent the abuse or covering it up.

The claims against the Catholic Diocese of Erie are more indirect. The suit contends that Trautman continued to cover up abuse while he was in Erie, though the underlying allegations in the lawsuit refer to the case in Buffalo.

The suit, in which the plaintiff is listed only as PB-14 Doe, claims “Trautman took his playbook of covering up clergy abuse from Buffalo, New York, to Erie, Pennsylvania, where he currently resides and maintains an office, and where he continued to carry out the aforesaid cover up for decades.”

Lawyers for the Catholic Diocese of Erie have until March 31 to respond to the suit, according to a filing docketed on Monday. The diocese has said that the current bishop of Erie, Lawrence Persico, who succeeded Trautman in 2012, would cooperate in the case but would not comment on it. Persico is not a defendant.

The Catholic Diocese of Erie is not paying for Trautman’s legal fees in the New York case, the diocese’s spokeswoman told the Erie Times-News. The Catholic Diocese of Erie’s law firm in the case is K&L Gates, with headquarters in Pittsburgh, while the firm representing Trautman is the Buffalo-based Lippes, Mathais, Wexler, Friedman.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Buffalo did not respond to an email about whether that diocese is paying Trautman’s legal fees, though the Lippes firm is representing the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo in other Child Victims Act cases, according to court records.

The lead lawyer for Trautman is Dennis C. Vacco, a partner in the Lippes firm and a former attorney general for New York and a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York, which is based in Buffalo. In another Child Victims Act case in which Vacco is representing the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, Vacco is also arguing that the law is unconstitutional.

The suit involving Trautman focuses on the Rev. Gerard A. Smyczynski, a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo who died in 1999. The suit claims Smyczynski abused the plaintiff in the mid-1980s, when the boy was 10, after he met Smyczynski when the plaintiff was a student and altar boy at Infant of Prague Catholic Church and school, in Cheektowaga, New York.

After the suit was filed, Trautman told the Erie Times-News that he did not recall Smyczynski’s name. Trautman lives in Erie and keeps an office at the Catholic Diocese of Erie’s administration building.

The Buffalo suit claims, among other things, that Trautman knew of Smyczynski’s abuse and failed to investigate it and report it. The suit also claims that, as part of the cover-up, Trautman “expedited an annulment for a member of Plaintiff’s family with the hope of ensuring their silence about the abuses perpetrated by Fr. Smyczynski and covering up those abuses.”

The Catholic Diocese of Erie is not facing similar cases in Pennsylvania because the state General Assembly did not pass a look-back law that would take effect immediately and be similar to New York’s Child Victims Act.

The General Assembly instead approved, in November, a measure that would amend the state constitution to allow for the two-year window to sue. But the amendment process will take years.

The Catholic Diocese of Erie and other Roman Catholic dioceses statewide established compensation funds for victims, though victims who receive money from those funds must waive their right to take court action over abuse.


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