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Sean Kirst: In priest abuse fallout, two survivors find themselves outside the lines

Jonpaul Okal and Robert Swierat have never met. They grew up in separate parts of Western New York, and their lives took different turns.

But they share the same wounds.

Both say they were sexually abused as children by Catholic priests in their communities, accounts supported by their families. One says he was assaulted in the basement recreation room in his home, the other in a bedroom and shower while staying at a residence for priests who taught in a Lancaster high school.

In both situations, the accused priests have been identified as abusive in unrelated cases.

Okal and Swierat each also represent a void in the way the Diocese of Buffalo is responding to accounts about improper sexual behavior. For different reasons, both said diocesan officials told them they are ineligible for a new review process that offers financial compensation in cases of credible abuse.

The Independent Reconciliation and Compensation program in Buffalo will bring survivors before former judges who have volunteered to study each case and determine a possible settlement on behalf of the diocese. While Bishop Richard J. Malone said he hopes survivors come forward, anyone without a complaint on file will not be eligible, at least for now, for this new method of financial compensation.

The deadline for filing was March 1, the same day Malone offered a public apology. Okal said it gave survivors who had never shared their stories only hours to make contact before the door closed.

Bishop Malone: 'We are so very, very sorry for the pain of the abuse'

“This is justice not served,” said Okal, who said he was abused in 1980, as a 10-year-old, by the Rev. Norbert Orsolits, after the priest said a private Easter Mass for his family.

Swierat, 62, said he was told by the diocese that he does not qualify because the priest he said abused him – a teacher at a diocesan high school – is part of an order based outside the diocese.

Lost innocence

At 48, Okal is director of quality assurance for a food company, and lives with his wife and children in Wisconsin. As a child, his family lived near the cottage owned by the Orsolits family in Ashford.

In the late 1970s, Okal said, the priest stopped at the Okal house, and introduced himself to the family.

Okal said his parents were Catholics, but they were not parishioners at St. John Vianney, the church Orsolits was assigned to serve in Orchard Park. Okal said his mother and father initially believed Orsolits was simply a warm neighbor who took a liking to their family.

The priest, Okal said, began offering odd jobs to the little boy. Okal would go to his cottage, and Orsolits would watch while the 9-year-old did yard work. In the beginning it seemed reassuring, an adult showing interest in the life of a scholarly and sometimes lonely child.

Yet Orsolits used to kid him about sharing a beer, Okal said, teasing that grew so persistent the boy felt uncomfortable.

Almost 40 years later, he understands he was being “groomed,” the term used to describe how pedophiles try to lower the guard of their targets.

Even with no understanding of sexuality, Okal said he noticed a troubling proximity from Orsolits, who often brushed or pressed against him. Orsolits began occasionally saying Mass in the family home, which seemed like an extraordinary privilege.

Finally, after saying Mass for the family during an Easter Sunday visit, Okal said he was in a basement recreation room when Orsolits came downstairs. During the moment they were alone, Okal said Orsolits suddenly put his hand down the child’s pants and molested him.

He has never forgotten the pain or the shock. He ran away, stunned and nauseated. For a time, Orsolits stayed away, and Okal – humiliated – kept the story to himself.

Months later, his parents asked if he wanted to do more work at the Orsolits home. Okal objected, and told his parents what happened. His father drove to the cottage. Okal does not know what was said, but Orsolits never came to their property again.

A family member corroborates that account. Okal’s parents asked their son if he wanted them to go to the police. Okal, ashamed and frightened that other children would learn what happened, said no. He feared people would accuse him of lying, or would taunt him at school.

Orsolits has admitted to abusing “dozens” of children. In an interview with The News, he said he remembered Okal, but did not remember any sexual assault upon that child.

Okal’s memory is more distinct.

“My innocence was removed at a very early age,” he said.

He is overprotective of his own children, he said, because it is hard to put faith in any other adults. He attends church, but is no longer a Catholic.

The story, he said, underlines the implicit danger when the diocese chose to relocate priests accused of abuse, rather than removing them from ministry. In a recent interview, that practice was recognized as a mistake by Malone, who arrived in Buffalo six years ago. The bishop called last Saturday, Okal said, to express regret about his situation.

Okal said he contacted the diocese after reading about Orsolits, seeking to become part of the new process of remediation and compensation. While he was offered some services, he was turned down for the chance for any financial settlement because he did not have a complaint on file in time for the program deadline.

That decision only rekindles his anger. If the diocese wants to hear from survivors, he said, why aren’t they all treated in the same way?

In a general response, since the diocese does not speak publicly about confidential cases, diocesan spokesman George Richert referred to policies on the diocesan website that promise “counseling, spiritual assistance, support groups, and other social services as agreed by the Diocese and the victim.”

‘It still makes me sick’

Swierat took a different journey to a similar response. He said his struggles began in a turbulent home. He grew up in Lancaster, where he said he had a difficult relationship with his father. As a 13-year-old, he said, he ran away and lived for a time in a tent, and eventually with the family of a friend, Jim Hamme.

At the time, the early 1970s, Swierat said, his mother did cleaning and cooking for nuns and priests involved with St. Mary’s Elementary School. She told the priests her son was basically homeless. They responded that he could stay temporarily at the residence of the priests who served the high school, in return for doing work around the property and at Bingo, which also helped with his tuition.

One night, while he was in the shower, Swierat said Rev. Loren Nys – a teacher and former administrator in the high school – came into the stall naked and began touching him.

“I was in shock,” Swierat said. “I was a vulnerable kid, and he must have known it.”

Swierat said he felt as if he could tell no one. Nys began entering his room at night to abuse him, he said.

“It still makes me sick,” Swierat said. “I remember thinking there must be something wrong with me.”

Nys was a member of the Milwaukee-based Society of the Divine Savior, the Salvatorians. In 2014, according to newspaper accounts, the order removed him as pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Green Bay, Wis., after the discovery of two letters from parents accusing him of “inappropriate conduct with youth.”

Rev. Joseph Rodrigues, provincial of the order, was quoted as saying the abuse “did not involve private parts.”

Swierat said Nys went far beyond that with him. He said the priest warned him, if he told anyone, that he would lose his chance to stay at the residence. He said the priest would often spread soap across him in the shower and describe it as cleaning “a dirty kid” of his sin.

“He used to say I wouldn’t even be there unless I was a bad kid, and he was helping me to get clean,” Swierat said. “He’d say, if I told, no one would ever believe me, and then I wouldn’t have a place to live.”

Hamme, the high school friend who now works as a nurse practitioner for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Colorado Springs, Colo., said Swierat became so despondent that Hamme asked a counselor to speak with him. About 20 years ago, Hamme said, Swierat told him the whole story.

Swierat’s sister, Mary Jane Bascom, first saw the report of Nys being disciplined three years ago and told her brother, which caused Swierat to call the diocese with his story.

In his case, then, that first contact easily met the diocesan deadline. He called this month, for a second time, after reading of the Orsolits allegations. Over the years, he said, he also made contacts with lawyers to see if there was any chance for a lawsuit, and was told it was far beyond any statute of limitations.

While diocesan officials decline to comment on specific cases, to protect confidentiality, Swierat said their response was similar to the one received by Okal. He was offered counseling and support, he said, but he was told responsibility lies with the Salvatorians. He was also told he was ineligible for the new compensation program because the abuse involved a priest in an order outside diocesan control, Swierat said.

On Tuesday, a Salvatorian spokesperson released a statement that said Nys was removed from active ministry in 2014 – three years before any notice of Swierat’s allegations – and was placed on a “safety plan.”

The statement said the society “has a very specific protocol that is initiated when allegations cannot be pursued by legal authorities because these events happened so long ago.” It said the Salvatorians will initiate an investigation, and that they take Swierat’s accusations “with utmost seriousness.”

Swierat said he returned a call Tuesday from a representative of the Salvatorians, who said the religious society would investigate his allegations. But that representative also wondered why Swierat waited years to come forward.

Swierat said he’s talked about the abuse for years. He recalled how he already had told his sister, some friends, the diocese and representatives of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

“It’s like they’re looking for excuses not to help people,” Swierat said of the official response.

Nys is not on the diocesan list of priests credibly accused of abusing children. Swierat guesses that is because Nys was not a diocesan priest, and he wonders how many abusive priests retain that kind of technical anonymity.

He believes the diocese should release the names of all priests, from any order, who are believed to have abused children in greater Buffalo.

Being believed

Both Swierat and Okal are conscious of the Lenten timing of this newest wave of allegations. The burst of disclosures began a few weeks ago, when Michael Whalen said publicly that Orsolits abused him. The priest responded with his admission to improper behavior with dozens of children.

Lent is the time of year when Christians, in contemplation and community, prepare for Easter. Mary Jane Bascom, Swierat’s sister, said she does not see the overlap as a coincidence. She said her brother told her decades ago about the abuse, and she promised him that someday he would be heard and believed.

As for Okal, he knows many people wonder why he did not go public earlier. Part of it, he said, is the horror of being sexually abused, the sense of shame and violation, the way you never want other people to know.

But he said it was Orsolits himself, more than anything, who caused him to step forward. Orsolits said much of the sex he inflicted was “consensual,” and the children themselves instigated the abuse.

Okal, appalled, knew he had to respond.

“Children can’t give consent,” he said, “especially a 10-year-old.”

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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