Two Priests Removed Locally

By Jay Tokasz and Lou Michel
Buffalo News
September 10, 2003

At least two diocesan priests recently were removed from ministry under unusual circumstances as Bishop Henry J. Mansell implemented a national plan to confront sexual abuse allegations among the clergy.

Mansell released a statement Tuesday saying that he has removed several diocesan priests in accordance with church policy relating to child abuse and sexual abuse of minors.

He refused to identify the priests, say how many have been removed or specify when they were removed.

But within the past month, two rural parish priests were removed abruptly from their ministries under unusual circumstances. They are:

The Rev. Thomas McCarthy, pastor of St. John the Baptist in West Valley, who retired suddenly Aug. 26 following a meeting with diocesan officials, according to parishioners.

The Rev. Robert Wood, who was removed about three weeks ago as pastor of St. Joseph in Varysburg, where he had served since 2001.

Wood wrote in the church bulletin that his removal was due to an alleged incident 16 years ago, according to parishioners there.

McCarthy, who had been an associate pastor at St. John the Baptist Church in the Town of Tonawanda as recently as 1998, and Wood are no longer residing in parish rectories.

Neither could be reached to comment.

Mansell's two-page announcement occurred Tuesday in response to requests from The News for information about the removals.

The bishop, through his spokesman, Kevin A. Keenan, declined to speak with a reporter or elaborate on the statement. He also declined to provide the exact number of priests removed, or their names.

"The bishop feels that just because someone has been accused of an offense, that doesn't mean we have an obligation to release their name," said Keenan.

Nonetheless, in his statement Tuesday, Mansell maintained that the diocese's 710,000 Catholics should have no doubts about the more than 250 active diocesan priests remaining in the diocese.

"As far as we know, there is no priest in active ministry in the Diocese of Buffalo now who has been accused of sexual abuse of a minor at any time," he said.

That statement, though, is similar to statements from the diocese more than a year ago, before these recent removals.

In April 2002, Monsignor Robert J. Cunningham, chancellor for the diocese, stated that no priest during the past 20 years was transferred to another assignment when there was "credible evidence of inappropriate sexual behavior with children."

Bishop apologizes

A priest relieved of his duties can no longer celebrate Mass publicly, administer the sacraments or wear clerical garb.

The bishop Tuesday again apologized to anyone in the diocese who has been a victim of clergy sexual abuse.

The moves occurred following a review of all diocesan personnel files that was required by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a blueprint instructing bishops on how to clean up a nationwide sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church for more than a year.

Auditors from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are scheduled to visit Buffalo this month to determine whether the diocese was complying with the charter, which was adopted last November and took effect in March.

The charter calls for the removal of any priest "for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor, past, present or future."

The diocesan review board, a lay panel of advisers to the bishop, examined the old allegations and agreed with Mansell's decision to remove the priests.

Most of the allegations were from the 1970s and 1980s. One alleged incident took place nearly 40 years ago, the diocese said in its statement.

Following the allegations, the priests received "professional counseling and experts in the field then recommended that they be allowed to return to active service. None of the priests involved has had any subsequent accusations made against him," the statement said.

The sudden removals stunned parishioners in the two small churches.

"Everybody was really taken aback. Nobody saw anything coming," said Patti Dashnaw, an administrative assistant at St. John the Baptist in West Valley.

McCarthy reportedly told some parishioners there that he decided to retire because the bishop wanted him to go to a larger parish close to Buffalo. He also cited health problems in a brief letter to parishioners.

McCarthy, who worked for several years in secular companies before being ordained a priest in 1980, was assigned at Christ the King in Snyder, Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna and St. Mary of the Angels in Olean. He also served for more than six years as associate pastor at St. John the Baptist in Tonawanda. After a short stint at All Saints Church in Buffalo, he was named pastor of the West Valley parish in 2000.

Fliers sent to homes

News of McCarthy's move already had reached several Tonawanda homes late last week, when a flier was sent anonymously through the mail. The flier, sent to several dozen homes near the church on Englewood Avenue, asks parents to "check with your children . . . to see if they were abused by Father McCarthy."

Tonawanda police said they were trying to track down the origin of the flier.

"We've talked with the chancery of the diocese and others and we've done everything we can do to determine the author of this letter," said Detective Lt. Joe Flanagan.

Parishioners at both St. John the Baptist in West Valley and St. John the Baptist in Tonawanda described McCarthy as an effective priest who was quiet and concerned about children.

At St. Joseph, parishioners said Wood had revitalized the tight-knit parish by getting more people involved.

A basket in the church was collecting cards to be sent to Wood wishing him well.

One parishioner who asked not to be identified said the priest was "dumbfounded" and "devastated" by the removal.

The parishioner said the Catholic Church had failed to address the problem of sexual abuse earlier, but "now, they're going to the other extreme just to quiet the press."

Wood was ordained in 1974 and served at Holy Trinity in Dunkirk, St. Thomas Aquinas in Buffalo and St. Francis in Tonawanda. He was parochial vicar at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin in Elma for 13 years prior to his pastorship in Varysburg.

The Rev. John J. Mergenhagen, who lives nearby and has been filling in as the priest at weekend Masses since Wood's departure, said he has been trying to reassure people in the parish.

"My big thing is to let them know that they are (the) church. When there is a crisis, that's what makes people come alive with faith," he said.

The removals shocked some colleague priests, as well, with some wondering why the diocese hadn't acted sooner and others concerned that due process was being thrown out the window.

Some dioceses removed priests more than a year ago, when the extent of the abuse scandal was still unfolding.

In June 2002, the Diocese of Rochester named and removed six priests who had old allegations against them.

The Archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the scandal, released the names of more than 80 priests who had accusations against them. Other dioceses also have released the names of accused priests, in the interest of regaining the trust of parishioners.

"I've never seen anything quite like (the Buffalo announcement). Many bishops these days at least provide the names," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, a national support and lobby group. "I feel bad for the priests who three weeks from now get sick. People are going to naturally assume, 'Oh my God he's an abuser.' "

System needs refining

One diocesan priest who requested anonymity said the system for investigating sex abuse allegations against priests needs to be refined because it currently makes them "guilty until proven innocent."

"A poor priest who might have rightly disciplined a student in high school could years later find himself being retaliated against and falsely accused of some impropriety, and I know that has happened," the priest said.

In urging diocesan officials to proceed with caution, the priest added, "In our country, you can't just go around with unproven allegations and ruin a man's reputation. If a man is accused, then who is the accuser."

Chancery officials, he said, have an obligation to allow the accused to face the individual making the charge.


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