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Allegations surface against Buffalo Diocese priest on leave since 2015

A Buffalo priest removed in 2015 from a Lancaster parish due to an allegation of inappropriate behavior with a child was the target of similar complaints decades ago at two other parishes.

A 37-year-old woman who is married to a Major League Baseball manager and now lives in Phoenix, Ariz., said the Rev. Dennis A. Fronczak repeatedly fondled her when she was 9 to 12 years old in the 1990s at St. Stephen parish school on Grand Island.

Kristen Lovullo, who grew up on Grand Island, said Fronczak would call her over to sit on his lap, amid the hubbub of students lining up for school dismissal. Then he would slip his hands underneath her skirt and run them up her legs, stopping just short of caressing her buttocks, she said.

"He'd rub up the back of my Catholic school girl skirt, up my legs," she said of Fronczak, who was an associate pastor at St. Stephen Church. "It wasn't a one-time thing. It was often."

Lovullo is married to Torey Lovullo, the former Buffalo Bisons player and manager who now manages the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball. She contacted The Buffalo News following the publication Monday of a story on Fronczak's abrupt and unexplained removal nearly three years ago as pastor of Our Lady of Pompeii Church in Lancaster.

In the story, Bishop Richard J. Malone said Fronczak, 69, was removed from his Lancaster parish assignment due to a "sensitive investigation" into concern "about past actions on his part." Without giving any specific information about the allegations, Malone also said the investigation is continuing and the case has been referred to the Vatican.

Lovullo, who agreed to be identified, said she has waited years to see Fronczak held accountable for his actions.

Two friends of Fronczak told The News earlier this month that after the priest was removed from Our Lady of Pompeii in October 2015 he denied ever doing anything inappropriate with a child. Fronczak has retained a canon lawyer to help him regain his post as a pastor, according to the priest's friends and other sources.

Complaint in Holland parish

But according to the parents of a Hamburg teenager, Fronczak also was the subject of a complaint lodged in 2003 with the Diocese of Buffalo, when he was pastor of St. Joseph Church in Holland.

The Hamburg mother and father said they sent a letter complaining about "disconcerting" and "inappropriate" behavior by Fronczak toward their 3-year-old daughter at a family party in Holland.

The girl is now 18. Her parents spoke to The News on the condition that they would not be identified by name.

"When we first arrived, this priest made a direct beeline for our daughter. It just seemed very strange. The hairs went up on the back of my neck," the girl's mother said. "Later on, our daughter was playing in a room with another toddler, around her same age. Father Fronczak kind of pushed the little boy out of the room and went into the room to be alone with our daughter. It just didn't look right, and I just went right in and took our daughter out of there."

Later, according to the woman and her ex-husband, their little girl was lying on the floor on her belly, looking at a book. They said Fronczak walked over and stood over the girl.

"He was straddling her and kept touching her with his feet and legs, squeezing her with his legs. It was very weird behavior for someone who had just met this little girl," the mother said.

The girl's grandmother quickly got the girl away from the priest, she said.

"Our daughter was not harmed, but it was very strange behavior, very upsetting, and after struggling with it, we decided to report it to the bishop's office," the mother said.

The father said he wrote to the bishop about a week after the incident. The parents said they received a response from the bishop's office two weeks later, saying the diocese would look into the matter.

"I never heard anything more from the diocese," the father said. "I felt that, at the very least, I was putting the diocese on notice that they had a priest who had engaged in some creepy behavior."

The diocese assigned Fronczak to work in parishes after that, however.

Fronczak remained in parishes

Fronczak, a priest since 1975, served at St. Joseph from 2000 until June 2014, when the bishop appointed him as pastor at Our Lady of Pompeii for a term of six years. Sixteen months later, Fronczak was unexpectedly pulled from his position at the church in Lancaster. Parish members were told by a diocesan official that Fronczak had been placed on administrative leave, but the reason for the action was not disclosed.

In response to a series of questions from The News, diocesan spokesman George Richert on Friday issued a written response: "Fr. Fronczak was removed from ministry in 2015.  Information regarding complaints, including some from his time at the parishes of St. Stephen and St. Joseph, was sent to the Vatican.  The matter is now the subject of pending canon law proceedings.”

Richert declined to comment further when asked why Fronczak was assigned to parishes after there had been complaints about him. Terrence M. Connors, who has served for decades as the lead attorney for the Buffalo Diocese, also declined to comment.

Fronczak has not responded to numerous messages from The News seeking his comment.

But two years ago, Fronczak suggested on Facebook that the complaint that prompted his removal from Our Lady of Pompeii Church was without merit. In June 2016, a parishioner posted a message on Fronczak's Facebook page stating that she missed the priest and hoped he was returning to Our Lady of Pompeii Church soon. "What are they waiting for?" the woman asked the priest.

Fronczak responded in his post: "It took them six months to interview less than 10 people. The investigation is over. Waiting for final report ('much ado about nothing:)"

Fronczak's attorney, Robert J.B. Flummerfelt of Las Vegas, declined to comment Friday. An assistant to Flummerfelt told The News there is a "standard of secrecy" that must be observed during canonical investigations.

Lovullo: 'I was violated'

Lovullo said she contacted The News because she wanted to help prevent other children from suffering what she experienced with the priest. She said she's been in therapy for years because of what Fronczak did to her.

"I don't want any other little girl to feel what I felt. That's just really important to me," she said.

Lovullo said she remembers dreading the encounters with the priest and hoping she wouldn't run into him at the end of the school day.

"He'd be sitting on the blue bench waiting. He'd call me over to him," she said. "I knew I was uncomfortable, didn't like it and didn't want it. I was violated."

The groping happened while other students and some teachers were around, Lovullo said, but because the priest's hands were hidden and there was so much commotion at the end of the school day, nobody seemed to notice.

Lovullo said she would try to avoid Fronczak by not making eye contact with him, and she recalled at least one instance in which the priest rebuked her for trying to stay away.

"He got mad at me, so that scared me even more," said Lovullo, whose maiden name was Burwell.

Priest was family friend

In the early to mid-1990s, Fronczak was more than a parish priest to the Burwell family. He was a family friend. He invited the Burwells to his cottage on Lake Ontario for weekend picnics, according to Lovullo and her father, Mike Burwell.

Burwell and Fronczak sometimes went to Buffalo Sabres games together, Burwell said.

Lovullo's parents didn't really believe her when she explained to them why school children had nicknamed Fronczak "Father Touchy Feely," according to Lovullo and her father.

Burwell remembers discounting what his daughter told them because it seemed so implausible. How could a priest get away with such strange, disturbing behavior with a young girl, he thought, while other children and adults were nearby?

"We pooh-poohed it. I stood up for him. I had a hard time believing it," said Burwell.

And when Burwell heard the rumors going around St. Stephen Church about Fronczak, he wanted to put a stop to it. He said he went to the rectory late one night to inform the pastor, Monsignor Richard Cahill, that he believed the rumors to be unfounded.

"I went up there and told Monsignor Cahill there's nothing to it," he said. "Back then, the priest abuse wasn't as prevalent or we weren't aware of it going on as much as it was. I didn't want some gossip torpedoing the guy."

Burwell said he realizes how wrong he was not to have believed his daughter.

Sometime after his visit with Cahill, Burwell said he joined Fronczak in attending a Sabres game. On the car ride to the game, Fronczak confided to Burwell that he was worried about being sent to Washington, D.C., for a psychological evaluation, Burwell said.

"He was very, very concerned about going, and he was also concerned that it could ruin his career," said Burwell.

But Fronczak returned to the parish within a few days, said Burwell.

Parish wonders what happened to pastor removed 3 years ago

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