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Two ask Pope Francis to investigate how Buffalo Diocese handled sex abuse claims

A Buffalo man says he was sexually abused by a priest 40 years ago when he was a boy.

A Niagara Falls woman says a male lay teacher abused her 12 years ago when she was a student at a Catholic middle school.

Last year, their attorneys said, they took their complaints to the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, which ordered an investigation, but nothing has happened.

So now Antonio “Tino” Flores and Vanessa DeRosa are appealing to Pope Francis, asking him to investigate how the diocese handles such complaints.

They also are seeking to meet with the pope during his September visit to the United States.

“We’re hopeful this action will assist both Vanessa and Tino to receive some emotional closure in their troubled lives,” Diane Tiveron, one of their attorneys, said at a news conference Tuesday at the HoganWillig law offices in Amherst.

But Bishop Richard J. Malone said diocesan attorneys “were in discussions with lawyers for Ms. DeRosa regarding the assistance available to her from our diocese when they decided to initiate a public news conference.”

He said the diocese cooperated with authorities in a criminal prosecution of the teacher, who was eventually sentenced to prison.

In Flores’ case, Malone said the diocese volunteered to arrange counseling for him after his complaint was referred to the Order of Friars Minor because the priest involved was a member of that order. He said the order offered Flores counseling.

The bishop denied Flores’ statement at the news conference that the diocese offered him $50,000 for counseling and treatment for the rest of his life.

“I am always deeply saddened when I hear reports of this kind of pain and suffering,” Malone said

“Each of these cases occurred before my tenure as bishop of Buffalo, but I have inquired and found that these cases were handled in accordance with policies and procedures enacted by our diocese and consistent with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Our policies are subject to an independent audit each year, and we have been found to be in compliance every year.”

The bishop encouraged “anyone who has been abused by clergy or other church representatives to make a report to law enforcement and the diocese.”

Flores, 51, and DeRosa, 25, are seeking a papal investigation because the statute of limitations has expired, according to their attorneys.

Tiveron said New York has one of the shortest windows in the country for pursuing child sexual abuse complaints through the courts.

Under New York law, people who allege they were abused as minors must come forward before they turn 23.

Tiveron said proposed legislation would allow people who were abused as minors to have more time to file lawsuits.

“The church can get away with this because they can,” she said. “We need the State Legislature to do their part and pass a bill that will protect victims.”

The proposal, which has passed the Assembly but stalled in the State Senate, would extend or eliminate the statute of limitations for such crimes and introduce a one-year window for victims to file suit in older cases.

Tiveron said the law firm contacted the diocese on behalf of Flores and DeRosa about a year ago after the victims worked through their abuse experiences and sought the lawyers’ assistance.

She said the diocese undertook an investigation of their complaints, but so far nothing has come of it.

As a result, she said they are asking the pope to investigate, noting his past comments on sexual abuse in the church.

She cited the pope’s comments last July when he told six victims of clergy sexual abuse that the church should “weep” and “make reparation” for their suffering.

“Francis is a breath of fresh air,” said Corey Hogan, senior partner at HoganWillig. “We hope he will pursue this.”

The attorneys noted that in November, the pope ordered an investigation into similar complaints against three priests in a diocese in Spain.

Flores said he was abused by a priest for five years in the 1970s, beginning when he was 10 years old.

He said his mother, who was single and working, sought help from the church after his brother got into trouble for some robberies, and a priest was assigned to help the family.

He said the priest, who is now deceased, became a father figure to him, taking him out to lunch and buying him things.

But he said the priest also started sodomizing him and performing other acts of sexual abuse.

Flores never told his mother or anyone else about it at the time. “Who are they going to believe – a priest or me?” he asked.

But 10 years ago, he told his psychologist about it, and the psychologist contacted the diocese.

He said the diocese then helped pay for his counseling and medications for stress, depression, psychological trauma, physical illness and panic disorders.

The diocese eventually sent his psychologist a letter, offering to pay $50,000 to cover his treatment for the rest of his life, he said.

He said he was shocked by what he considered to be a low figure for the treatment he will need.

“They ruined my life,” he said.

He rejected the money. He said the diocese stopped paying for his treatment about two months ago.

Flores said he decided to come forward with his complaint because he wants to make sure that what happened to him doesn’t happen to another 10-year-old boy.

DeRosa said she was abused by her computer teacher when she was a 13-year-old student at the former St. Dominic Savio Middle School in Niagara Falls.

During the 2002-03 school year, she said she was sexually harassed, abused and exposed to pornography by Christian Butler.

She said he tried to kiss her and asked for sexual favors, urging her to “get naked” and have sex with him in a car.

She reported the abuse to the principal and an administrator, but she said nothing was done.

In 2004, she said, she contacted Niagara Falls police after two other girls complained to her about his conduct.

Butler eventually pleaded guilty and served four years in prison for possessing child pornography on his school computer and child endangerment.

In addition, the two other girls sued the diocese, the school and the Niagara Falls Catholic School Network, accusing them of failing to respond adequately to their complaints about Butler’s behavior between 2002 and 2004.

They settled the lawsuit last year for an undisclosed amount of money.

Both Flores and DeRosa said they still believe in God but have no faith or trust in the church.

If a meeting with the pope is arranged, Flores said he would tell the pontiff to “screen your priests better.” DeRosa said she would ask him to “take better notice of who is working for the church.”