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Editorial: A brave acknowledgment

The confessions of a wayward priest do not absolve him for the alleged damage inflicted on a local man and dozens of others he acknowledges abusing over the course of decades.

One way to offer real amends to victims would be to extend the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. A bill to do just that was introduced last year in the New York State Legislature. It would extend liability for criminal charges to 28 years old from 23 and extend the liability for civil lawsuits to 50 years old from 21.

The measure, known as the Child Victims Act, passed in the Assembly, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo endorsed it and then State Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan failed to bring the bill to the Senate for a vote. Cuomo included the measure in his budget submission in January. Republicans must not thwart the effort by removing it as part of the final deal. The bill should return and this time to an overwhelming bipartisan support.

Here’s why: in a shocking case reminiscent of the Boston priest scandal, the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits described incidents of sexual contact with teenage boys to a Buffalo News reporter who visited him at his cottage home in the Town of Ashford.

In acknowledging his wretched past, Orsolits did not deny what Michael F. Whalen of South Buffalo said happened to him.

Whalen, then a teenager, with two other teenage boys went on a weekend ski trip with Orsolits in 1979 or 1980. Whalen said the priest served them alcohol in the ski lodge and smoked marijuana with them in his cabin before the abuse.

Orsolits, now 78, acknowledged taking many children on ski trips. He lives a short distance from Bluemont Ski Area in Yorkshire, where he said he often skied in Ellicottville with the children.

He said that he was later sent for treatment at a psychological facility in Canada. That was before the diocese assigned him to work at a small rural church and school. He wasn’t removed by the diocese from the ministry until 2003.

Orsolits’ excuses sounded pathetic, as he “talked casually of having had sexual contact with teenage boys, saying that it had been fueled by alcohol.” Sounding remorseless, he suggested the contact was consensual and that he was “led on” by some. However, he added he never persisted with any sexual touching if a teenage boy resisted. But there is no such thing as honorable pedophilia. Whalen has suffered for decades because of what was done to him.

The church moved Orsolits to counseling to another parish to Erie County Medical Center. It wasn’t until 2003 that then-Bishop Henry J. Mansell told Orsolits that he had to retire from ministry and could no longer perform priestly functions in public, according to Orsolits.

Whalen, now 52, said he first told someone about the alleged abuse during a group counseling session in Rochester about a decade ago. Last year, Whalen returned to St. John Vianney Parish, largely out of guilt because when he was a child he and other students stole money from the collection at the church. He brought $131 to return his share of the stolen money, spoke to a priest at the church and told him about the alleged abuse from decades earlier.

To that priest’s great credit, he reported the allegation to the diocese. Whalen received a phone call from Bishop Richard J. Malone, who offered Whalen counseling paid for by the diocese. Whalen said he was already receiving counseling at Catholic Charities of Buffalo in South Buffalo.

Still, at the time the diocese portrayed Orsolits’ removal as retirement. In that, it replicated policies that were shameful and have since been shown to be widespread.

Fortunately, times have changed because of those brave enough to speak out. Michael Whalen now joins the ranks of those whose courage may help others who still suffer in lonely, tortured silence.

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