The Rev. Jack Ledwon, the pastor at St. Joseph University Catholic Church, has been preaching for more than 40 years. When he started working on his homily last week, “it seemed quite simple,” he told the congregation assembled before him at Sunday morning Mass. “The readings pointed us in the right direction.”
Exodus detailed the Ten Commandments. The Gospel of John told of Jesus cleansing the temple. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” Jesus said as he shooed away people unceremoniously using religious grounds to sell birds and beasts.
Using that material, and with Easter just a month away, an experienced preacher could craft a straightforward message.
“But then this week happened,” Ledwon said. “The horrible scandal of sexual abuse cases within our own diocese.”
It changed everything. It made the homily Ledwon was about to give “the most difficult and the most critical one to deliver,” he said, “and certainly the most necessary.”
Five days earlier, Michael F. Whalen, 52, of South Buffalo held a news conference during which he claimed the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits, a retired priest who served in multiple capacities across the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, abused him more than 35 years ago. Whalen, a teenager at the time, was a member of St. John Vianney in Orchard Park, where Orsolits then served as a priest. Later that day, when a Buffalo News reporter visited Orsolits at his cottage home in the Town of Ashford, the 78-year-old former priest admitted to abusing “probably dozens” of teenage boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Orsolits, who was sent by the diocese for psychological treatment in the 1980s, was removed from ministry in 2003 and no longer allowed to perform priestly duties. Still, the outright admission was stunning, and more was to come. Over the weekend, a pair of brothers became the second and third men to accuse Orsolits of molestation while he was a priest in the mid-1960s at St. John the Baptist in Alden. Orsolits, in a separate interview on Saturday, admitted to that abuse.
Also last week, Bishop Richard J. Malone – who came to Buffalo in 2012, well after Orsolits was out of ministry – announced a compensation plan for victims of abuse by diocesan personnel. That program, diocesan officials said, was in the works for months — long before the allegations against Orsolits became public this week.
Allegations against priests, apparent cover-ups by the church, and solutions that avoid involving law enforcement are a long-told story first broken by the Boston Globe in 2002 and chronicled three years ago in the Academy Award-winning movie “Spotlight.” It is a story that extends across the United States and to the Vatican.
Ledwon, clearly, felt the need to address the issues directly, and so did many of his brethren across Western New York.
At St. Pius X Church in Getzville, the Rev. Jay McGinnis devoted his entire 12-minute Sunday sermon to the issue, apologizing no less than three times on behalf of the church and calling this a “dark era.” McGinnis, the church's pastor, pointed out the diocese has had procedures in place since around 1990 to handle complaints of sexual abuse by priests.
McGinnis told the congregation that as a young priest about 25 years ago, he was forced to confront this issue. A parishioner brought to his attention that another priest from a different parish – a man he considered a friend – could have been guilty of at least inappropriate behavior with a child, based on a conversation the child's mother overheard on a phone call with the priest. McGinnis said he was “enraged” to learn about it and reported the behavior to the diocese. He said he did not report it to the police at the time because he was not sure a crime had occurred.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “There was no training in the seminary for something like this.”
McGinnis said the priest was sent to St. Luke Institute in Baltimore to be treated. He never returned to the priesthood.
“Nothing can make up for the horrors that these sins have created,” he said. “There is no taking this away. You can’t wish and pray that they never happened, because they did.”
On Saturday afternoon at St. John Vianney in Orchard Park, the Rev. Robert L. Gebhard Jr. walked to the altar near the end of 4:30 p.m. Mass and shared a letter from Malone to the parishioners of St. John Vianney. (The letter also was sent to the other churches where Orsolits had served.)
Malone’s letter encouraged people to report allegations of abuse directly to law enforcement. The bishop also asked that suspicions of abuse by clergy or church personnel be reported on a confidential diocesan hotline at 716-895-3010.
“If the recent admission by Father Orsolits brings up an allegation from long ago at your parish,” the bishop said, “we want to know about it.”
After reading Malone’s letter, Gebhard asked the parishioners to pray for Whalen, and for “children whose innocence and dignity is shattered by abuse of any kind.”
He concluded, “And finally I do ask for your prayers for all of us as priests in the Diocese of Buffalo and beyond, and assure you that we hurt along with all of you at such news as this.”
At St. Amelia Church in the Town of Tonawanda – one of the largest parishes in the diocese – Robert M. Bennett, chairman of this year's Catholic Charities drive, appeared as a guest speaker at the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass. He said that he, like many Catholics, is “disturbed and angry” about the latest “publicity” of the priest scandal. Bennett also said he hopes the negative publicity will not overshadow the good work done every day by priests and Catholic Charities workers. Bennett congratulated Malone for his handling of the situation, and noted that “not one penny” raised in the Catholic Charities drive will be used toward reparations paid to victims of improper conduct by priests.
Later, the Rev. Sean Paul Fleming, weekend associate at St. Amelia, echoed the bishop’s request for victims who have been silent to come forward, so the diocese can help them with counseling and other services.
"The church loves you," Fleming said, in reference to the victims.
At St. Joseph University, Ledwon delivered a pointed message that lasted only six minutes. “This weekend,” he said, “we must confront the fact that this has been happening in our midst, not only because of the sins of individuals, but also because of the sin of the institution that has too often protected itself at the price of the destruction of the innocent.”
Ledwon told his congregation he wanted to make three points.
First, that the compensation fund announced last week was in the works for months. “No matter what, it is too little, too late,” he acknowledged. “Something must be done, however, to offer restitution and healing.”
Second, he said, “I must apologize to you.” Not just broadly for the offenses of any priest, but personally. “I may have been spared the terrible burden of the sin of lust,” he said, “but I instead carry my own sins, especially that of pride, which can create its own abuse by giving birth to anger, arrogance, dismissiveness and annoyance with others, that can wound others deeply. If I have injured you in some way, I ask for your forgiveness.”
Lastly, he pointed out, “The good news: You are here this morning.”
That, Ledwon said, meant the people in the church have a belief, hope and reliance on something. “And that something is God,” he said. “Not the church, not the institutions, not the clergy, but God.”
He finished by reminding his congregation of that day’s Gospel: Jesus cleansed a temple 2,000 years ago. Pray, he asked, that Jesus will also come into "our temple to cleanse us, to set us free, to heal us" — especially the innocent and still-broken.
Then Ledwon’s homily – his “most difficult” and “most critical” – was concluded.
“Please let us stand and pray,” he asked.
They did. But first, they broke out in applause.