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Buffalo diocese ponders whether to reveal names of abusive priests

Bishop Richard J. Malone is reconsidering a longstanding Catholic Diocese of Buffalo policy that withholds the names of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse.

Publicizing the names of clergy alleged to have molested children would reverse a tradition that's been in place for more than 15 years.

"We're looking at it anew," Malone said following his recent announcement that the diocese has established a new fund to compensate victims of clergy sex abuse.

A retired priest's admission in February that he molested "probably dozens" of boys in the 1970s and 1980s re-ignited concerns that clergy sexual abuse in Western New York was more devastating and widespread than accounts provided so far by diocesan leaders. The Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits admitted the abuse to The News after a South Buffalo resident accused the priest of molesting him on a ski trip in the early 1980s. The admissions prompted additional allegations against Orsolits, as well as new public accusations against other priests.

Victims' advocates for years have called for greater transparency from the diocese, including the release of names of clergy alleged to have molested children. Withholding names, they argue, fosters secrecy that allows the abuse scandal to fester.

"It's the secrecy that's the problem," said Judith Burns-Quinn, coordinator of the Western New York chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "They are a victim of the system that's protected their abusers."

Diocesan officials revealed in 2003 that they had received 93 complaints of sexual abuse against 53 clergy since 1950. The numbers were part of a diocesan "self study" of personnel files that was mandated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in new norms for dealing with child sexual abuse cases. The bishops adopted the new standards in the wake of molestation scandals in the Archdiocese of Boston and in dozens of other dioceses across the country. Since 2003, the diocese has received 15 to 20 additional complaints, according to attorney Terrance Connors, who represents the diocese.

The diocesan policy of not naming accused priests has not yet changed. This past week, a diocesan spokesman refused to confirm if the diocese had received a complaint of abuse against the Rev. Linus Hennessy, a Franciscan friar who had taught at Bishop Timon High School.

The spokesman, George Richert, said the diocese would not confirm whether allegations had been made against individual priests.

Allegations of abuse, for the victims, are too sensitive and too personal for the diocese to discuss publicly, he said.

"We promised to be confidential," he said.

Buffalo resident Tino Flores in 2015 publicly accused Hennessy of sexually abusing him in the 1970s. Hennessy died in 1983. Malone said at the time Flores made his public accusation that the diocese offered to arrange counseling and that the complaint was referred to the Order of Friars Minor, the order to which Hennessy belonged.

Flores provided to The News a 2013 letter from Brother Edward Coughlin of the Holy Name Province of the Order of Friars Minor to Dr. Philip Scozzaro, Flores' physician, stating that Coughlin did not know if Flores was abused "or the extent of any abuse on the part of Fr. Hennessy." The letter referenced the possibility of a $50,000 financial settlement.

Diocesan officials have long maintained that Buffalo has had relatively few bad apple priests and that those priests weren't shuffled from parish to parish, as in other dioceses where the abuse scandals exploded. Victims say it's impossible to know if that's true because the diocese has provided little accounting of who abused children or how it handled cases. The diocese also has never made clear if its accounting of 53 clergy includes just diocesan priests and deacons, or if it counts clergy from religious orders, such as Franciscan friars and Jesuits, that served in Western New York.

The News has compiled a list of 19 priests that have been publicly accused of child sex abuse, mostly in criminal or civil court cases.

At least 19 Buffalo priests publicly linked to sex allegations

Other dioceses have been more forthcoming with information about abuse allegations. In May of 2002, the neighboring Diocese of Rochester, for example, identified six priests who were pulled from ministry after a review of files and revision of diocesan policy regarding sexual misconduct allegations. The diocese in 2012 updated its list with more priest names, while also describing which men had been dismissed from the clerical state and which cases were still being reviewed by the Vatican.

More than 30 dioceses and archdioceses across the country have publicized the names of offending priests, according to bishopaccountability.org, a website dedicated to documenting the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic church. The Diocese of Tucso, Ariz., was among the first dioceses to include a full accounting of allegations against priests, with a news release in 2002 that listed the names of 15 accused priests, as well as their parish assignments and their dates of service in the diocese.

At that time, then Bishop Henry J. Mansell told The News he would not name priests against who complaints had been lodged. When Mansell left Buffalo to become archbishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Monsignor Robert Cunningham stuck to the same script, saying in 2003 that keeping the names confidential was "the human and the decent thing to do."

Malone's predecessor, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, was pressed by reporters about naming names and refused. Kmiec said in 2005 that he believed victims weren't interested in having their allegations aired publicly. "It just opens up wounds and everything else," he said.

Malone sidestepped the question of naming accused priests when he was named bishop of Buffalo in 2012. As bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Malone in 2007 identified priests who were removed from ministry due to abuse allegations and their parish assignments in that diocese.

Malone said last week that keeping accused priests' names under wraps here might have to change.

"That's a situation I inherited," he said. "Right now, we are involved in a new consideration of that situation."

Malone said he wanted victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy to contact the diocese, which is voluntarily offering monetary settlements to such victims.

And he acknowledged during an interview that withholding priests' names might not be the best approach, if the diocese hopes to connect with victims.

"First of all, victims often find themselves kind of liberated and empowered to come forth, if they've not yet come forth, if they see in print the name of their abuser. We know that," he said. "And also, in the case of a priest who's off the job, you can make the argument that it's good for people in the area, in the neighborhood, to know that that person could be a risk."

Dioceses that identified abusive priests varied in the amount of information they provided. Some provided just a list of names. Others included details about parish assignments and their current status in the church.

In some cases, media already had publicized the names, relying on civil and criminal court cases and other reporting. In other dioceses, grand jury investigations prompted the release of names.

Advocates for survivors of sex abuse said they believe the number of clergy that molested children in the Buffalo diocese is much higher than the number self-reported by the diocese in 2003.

"I'm sure the 53 is low," said Terence McKiernan, founder of BishopAccountability.org.

McKiernan estimated it's probably closer to 200 priests, based on the overall number of clergy who served in the Buffalo diocese since 1950.

McKiernan noted that a 2002 study of the abuse crisis by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found little variation across regions as to the percentages of clergy who faced allegations.

The John Jay report found that about 4 percent of Catholic clergy in the U.S. who had served since 1950 faced allegations of sex abuse. Diocesan officials reported that 2.6 percent of clerics in the Buffalo diocese were accused of such abuse.

"They went through their files and did a file review. What did they drop under the table? We see a common practice of ignoring second-hand allegations or anonymous allegations," said McKiernan.

The Buffalo diocese and several others, he added "have never had their accounting. And every diocese is as rotten as the next one."

If the Buffalo diocese had come clean years ago with more details about which priests abused and how those cases were handled, it wouldn't be struggling all over again with stories of horrible abuse, said McKiernan.

"It's so frustrating, this kind of guessing game that you're stuck with," he said. "Why not get it out of the way?"

The Buffalo diocese's unwillingness to release any information about his alleged abuser is one of the reasons why James A. McCarthy agreed to speak with The News for a story about the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits, who admitted to The News last month that he had molested "probably dozens" of teenage boys.

"If there's a little bit more transparency about this stuff, there would be more attention, awareness and alertness that helps prevent these things from being able to happen," said McCarthy.

McCarthy in 2010 reported to the diocese that Orsolits had abused him in 1967 while he was a parishioner at St. John the Baptist parish in Alden. But he said he was rebuffed when he asked for information about the priest.

"I felt like I was fighting the diocese, rather than dealing with the issue," he said.

The diocese in 2003 removed Orsolits from active ministry and forbade him from celebrating Mass or wearing clerical garb. But diocesan officials maintained at the time that he had simply retired.

Contact Jay Tokasz at jtokasz@buffnews.com or 716-849-4406

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