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Two priests suspended amid probe of sexual abuse allegations

Two Buffalo-area priests were put on leave this past weekend as the Diocese of Buffalo investigates complaints of childhood sexual abuse.

Bishop Richard J. Malone suspended the Rev. Samuel J. Venne and the Rev. Arthur S. Smith from ministry due to allegations that the priests behaved inappropriately with minors.

Venne, who is retired, regularly celebrated Masses at St. Stephen Church on Grand Island. His administrative leave was announced to parishioners at Masses this past weekend.

Smith was working at Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta parish in Depew. Parishioners there also were informed at Masses this past weekend in a letter from the bishop that was read to them.

Diocesan spokesman George Richert confirmed the leaves Monday. Richert did not say when the diocese learned of the allegations. He also wouldn't specify when the alleged incidents involving the priests happened, other than to say they were not recent.

Malone's letter stated that the priests were put on administrative leave as an investigation continues.

"Please note that this administrative leave is for the purpose of investigation and does not imply any determination as to the truth or falsity of the complaint," Malone's letter also stated.

Venne and Smith are the second and third instances of active or retired priests being put on leave, after Malone for the first time publicly identified 42 priests as having had credible allegations of sexual abuse against them.

The Buffalo Diocese currently has 246 active and retired priests. Most retired priests continue to assist in parishes, particularly by celebrating Masses on weekends throughout the diocese and filling in for sick or vacationing pastors.

The Rev. Dennis G. Riter, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Dunkirk, was the first active priest to be put on administrative leave following Malone's announcement in March about the list of 42 accused priests. Parishioners learned of Riter's leave at Masses the weekend of March 24 and 25.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, to guide them in handling allegations of clergy abuse. The charter was revised in 2005 and 2011. The charter states that when a diocese receives an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon, it must conduct a preliminary investigation in accordance with canon law.

When there is sufficient evidence that sexual abuse of a minor occurred, the diocese must then notify the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican judicial body. The bishop must remove the priest from public ministry if "even a single act of sexual abuse" is admitted or is established "after an appropriate process in accord with canon law," according to the charter.

Smith left unexpectedly from a parish before. He was replaced as pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Church in Hamburg in 2012, after less than two years in the post. A pastor's appointment typically spans six years, and diocesan officials gave no explanation at the time as to why he left.

Rev. Arthur Smith of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta Church in Depew. (Diocese of Buffalo's 1995 Priests' Pictorial Directory)

Prior to St. Mary of the Lake, Smith served from 1996 to 2009 at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in South Buffalo. Other assignments, according to Diocese of Buffalo directories, included SS. Brendan & Jude in Almond; campus ministry at Alfred University; director of program development for Catholic Telecommunications Network of America in Staten Island; Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna; St. Bernadette Church in Orchard Park; Our Lady of the Angels in Cuba; and St. Mark Church in Rushford.

Venne has been assigned to St. Stephen for about 10 years, according to the directories.

Before that, Venne was assigned to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Depew; All Saints in Buffalo; St. Anthony in Batavia; St. Martin in South Buffalo; Good Shepherd Nursing Home in Pendleton; and St. Mary of the Cataract in Niagara Falls, according to the diocesan directories. Venne also has been active as a chaplain and scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts.

The Rev. Paul Nogaro, pastor of St. Stephen, said he was made aware of no details about the complaint against Venne.

"I was told it had nothing to do with St. Stephen's. Other than that I don't know. And certainly no one here has complained to me about him," said Nogaro.

St. Stephen parishioners "were sad that I had to make the announcement," he said. Many parishioners also expressed their support and sympathy for Venne, he said.

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

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