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'Creepy,' but not criminal: DA's investigation of priest ends with no charges

The Erie County District Attorney's Office found no grounds to charge a Diocese of Buffalo priest, following a complaint from a girl that the priest had touched her inappropriately this past January.

"While his conduct wasn't criminal, I would say, to me, his conduct was creepy," District Attorney John J. Flynn said at a news conference Wednesday. "I wouldn't say this was a false claim. There's nothing false about this. It just doesn't rise to the level of criminal conduct."

Flynn declined to identify the priest, other than to say he was elderly. The priest was not a parish pastor, but was retired and saying Masses at a variety of churches, he said. Flynn would not comment on the girl's age or where the incident took place.

The girl told someone at her school about the incident with the priest, according to Flynn. The DA's office became aware of the allegation within the past month or so and launched an investigation.

"The allegations had to do with some sort of touching," he said. Flynn declined to elaborate. The alleged incident didn't amount to even a low-level harassment violation, he said.

Flynn said he will let diocesan officials know of his office's findings.

"I would hope that he doesn't say Mass anymore," Flynn said. "I would hope that the diocese would find fit not to allow him to be around children."

The DA's Office has received about 15 to 20 calls in recent weeks regarding alleged clergy sexual abuse, and all but the one call about the incident in January were in reference to events that occurred many years ago, well outside New York's statute of limitations for prosecuting molestation crimes, the DA said.

In March, the Diocese of Buffalo notified the DA's Office about a sex abuse allegation against the Rev. Dennis G. Riter. But that allegation was determined to be from a time outside the statute of limitations, said Flynn. Under current law, victims of most childhood sexual abuse have until age 23 to seek criminal charges against the perpetrators.

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The allegation that the DA's office investigated involved a priest other than Riter, and the diocese probably was unaware of the investigation, said Flynn. The Buffalo Diocese did not respond to a request for comment.

The diocese has been rocked in recent months by scandal over a cover-up of clergy sexual abuse dating back decades. Retired priest Norbert Orsolits' admission to The News in February that he had molested probably dozens of boys during his stints at multiple parishes in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s led to revelations of other sex abuse cases and the uncovering of how those abuses were kept secret for so long.

Under pressure from victims and their advocates, Bishop Richard J. Malone in March publicized the names of 42 diocesan priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors. He also created a program to compensate victims of abuse.

But new allegations continued to surface. The diocese is currently investigating claims against five additional priests, including Riter, who have been suspended from ministry.

At the same time, some victims and their advocates said the diocese hasn't been forthcoming enough. They have criticized the bishop as more concerned with protecting the diocese’s reputation and assets than with getting to the bottom of the scandal, protecting children and helping victims heal.

Few priests of the Buffalo Diocese accused of sexual abuse were ever arrested or charged with a crime.

Sex abuse cases in general are difficult to prosecute because victims often are unwilling to come forward, said Flynn.

The deference given to priests probably made coming forward with an allegation against them even more difficult decades ago, when Catholic culture permeated Western New York, he said.

"I grew up in a Catholic household. I was an altar boy. I went to a parochial school," said Flynn. "The culture was that priests were considered royalty. They were idolized, not only by children but by the entire parish community."

Some victims no doubt hesitated to come forward then because of the status of the individuals who abused them, he said.

Three or four decades ago, Flynn added, most people would have considered it "beyond the realm of possibility that a priest would ever engage in criminal behavior."

All of that has changed with the revelations of clergy sex abuse across the world.

"Obviously we know that it can happen. That mindset is no longer there," he said.

Flynn said he will not hesitate to prosecute a priest who has committed a sexual abuse crime. He also said he will prosecute anyone who attempts to cover up a sexual abuse crime, as long as it falls within the statute of limitations.

Since 2003, the Buffalo Diocese has had an agreement with the eight district attorney offices in Western New York regarding how it handles sex abuse allegations. The agreement stipulates that the diocese forward any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor to the appropriate district attorney "without prior screening regarding the truth of the allegation" and tell the district attorney if the accused priest has been transferred or reassigned.

The agreement does not require the diocese to report to prosecutors any allegations of sexual abuse made more than five years after the abuse and more than five years after the victim turns 18.

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