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Will Buffalo Diocese pay victims of sex abuse by religious order priests?

Gary Astridge and Robert Swierat are two Buffalo area men in their early 60s who say they were repeatedly raped by Catholic priests decades ago.

The two have something else in common – they say the Diocese of Buffalo has so far refused to accept any responsibility for the incidents because the abuser priests were members of religious orders and not ordained by the diocese.

Astridge said he was molested as a young boy by the Rev. Edward Townsend, who belonged to a religious order based in California but who worked for the diocese as a teacher at the old Cardinal Dougherty High School in Buffalo.

"It really upsets me that the priest who abused me worked for years in a school run by our diocese, under the supervision of our diocese … but the diocese doesn’t want to take any responsibility for his actions," said Astridge, 61, the drummer in the BBC Band, a popular classic rock group. "They sent me a letter telling me to contact a lawyer in California who represents the religious order that this priest belonged to."

Astridge is one of an estimated 90-plus individuals who have applied for financial compensation from the Buffalo Diocese's Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which was set up in March to help priest abuse victims.

But Swierat, 62, of Depew, said a Buffalo Diocese official – whom he identified as Jacqueline Joy, victim assistance coordinator – told him three times in recent months that he should not bother applying for financial compensation from the IRCP.

"Three times I called her, and three times she told me the diocese will offer to help me get counseling, but I should not apply to IRCP," Swierat told The Buffalo News. "She told me I would not qualify for the program because I was the victim of an order priest. So I didn’t apply."

The issue is important to clergy abuse victims and the diocese's finances. According to Buffalo Diocese records, nearly one-fourth of the 370 priests currently serving in the diocese are members of religious orders – such as the Jesuits or Franciscans – and not diocese priests. On The News' list of 62 priest who have worked in the Buffalo Diocese and have been publicly linked to sex complaints, 12 were from religious orders.

Related: More than 60 Buffalo priests linked to sex allegations

In recent months, Buffalo Diocese officials have given mixed signals about whether it accepts any responsibility for child molestation committed by religious order priests whom it allowed to work in diocese schools or churches.

A diocese lawyer recently told The News that the IRCP would not automatically reject those compensation claims.

But in a March interview with The News, Bishop Richard J. Malone said the diocese is not responsible.

"They do not come under my authority," Malone said. "When they come into the diocese, I have to give them the authority to say sacraments and the Mass. But their coming and going depends on the order. When we get an allegation of abuse by a religious order priests … we immediately offer that victim who called, that alleged victim, counseling and pastoral outreach. But all of the information goes from us to the religious order authorities. It's their responsibility to take it from there. They are not really my responsibility."

The Buffalo Diocese's website says the IRCP is intended to help those who have made claims that they were sexually abused as a child "by a member of the clergy in the Diocese of Buffalo." The application for IRCP compensation says it is for victims of sexual abuse by "Diocesan clergy."

"From the wording of the Buffalo program, it is very clear that victims of order priests are not eligible," said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who specializes in representing clergy abuse victims.

Amherst attorney Steve Boyd, who also handles clergy abuse cases, said the Buffalo Diocese's compensation program "very clearly" appears to be confined to complaints about diocesan priests.

But in a recent interview, Lawlor F. Quinlan III, an attorney for the diocese, told The News that every complaint submitted to the Buffalo Diocese's IRCP program is evaluated on its own merits. He said the Buffalo program – unlike a similar but much larger program run by the Archdiocese of New York City – does not automatically reject complaints about abuse committed by religious order priests.

“Generally,  a diocese or a religious order – like all employers – is not automatically liable for the wrongful acts of a priest, especially if the diocese had no idea beforehand that the priest was abusive. Likewise, a diocese, as a rule, is not liable for the actions of an order priest," Quinlan said. "Recognizing that there may be circumstances in which a diocese could have some responsibility for an order priest, our program, unlike many other programs, does not categorically exclude claims concerning alleged abuse by an order priest.”

Quinlan said that Swierat or anyone who feels they were "misled by a communication with the diocese" will now be allowed to file a complaint with the IRCP program "and it will be fairly evaluated." Previously, the diocese had said that no complaint filed after June 1 of this year would be considered for the program.

Quinlan was also the diocese official who in November 2016 sent a letter to Astridge's lawyer. The letter stated that Astridge's alleged abuser "did work within the Diocese of Buffalo" but "was not a diocesan priest." Quinlan's letter advised Astridge to contact a California attorney for the alleged abuser's religious order.

Liability dispute erupted elsewhere

The disagreement over liability for the actions of religious order priests has come up many times in clergy abuse cases throughout the country, according to Garabedian and three other legal experts.

The experts – two of whom specialize in helping clergy abuse victims – all maintain that it is incorrect for any diocese to claim it is not legally responsible for the actions of a religious order priest working in that diocese.

"It's disingenuous to argue that the diocese bears no responsibility," said Michael Reck, a California attorney for clergy abuse victims. "There is nothing particular about New York law that exempts a diocese from liability for its sexually abusive priests. The basic concepts are contained in the principles of negligence law. In the most basic terms, if the institution knew or should have known of the danger a perpetrator priest poses … the institution has responsibility."

That legal concept is in force whether the offending priest is an "order priest" or belongs to a diocese, said Reck and Patrick J. Wall, a former priest who works with Reck as a victims advocate in the Jeff Anderson & Associates law firm.

Reck said there have been cases in the U.S. where dioceses have paid millions of dollars to victims of religious order priests.

Here are some examples:

• The Rev. James V. Fitzgerald, formerly of Squaw Lake, Minn., sexually abused children. After a trial in 2015, a Minnesota jury awarded nearly $8.2 million to one Fitzgerald victim abused in the 1970s. Fitzgerald belonged to an order called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, but was serving in the Duluth Diocese. Much of the trial focused on whether the order or the diocese was liable. The jury found that the diocese was 60 percent at fault, and the Oblates were 40 percent at fault.

• The Rev. James F. Rapp is a religious order priest who grew up in Lockport and worked at a Catholic high school in Lockport in 1979-80. In 1987, he was accused of molesting two students at a Catholic high school in Jackson, Mich. Rapp was sent to a psychology clinic for treatment by his religious order, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. Then he was reassigned to a parish in Oklahoma, where he again was accused of molesting teenage boys. According to the Washington Post, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Oblates religious order both contributed toward a $5 million settlement of a lawsuit filed in Oklahoma by Rapp's victims. Rapp is now serving time in a Michigan prison for molesting teenage boys.

Astridge's abuse 

Astridge's complaint to the IRCP program alleges Townsend, who died in 1998, sexually abused him numerous times over five years in the 1960s.

Rev. Edward Townsend

Astridge said he was 7 years old when Townsend first molested him, as they sat under a tree watching older boys play football on the Cardinal Dougherty High School property in Buffalo's Black Rock neighborhood. He said Townsend later molested him inside a school shower room, in a chapel in the school and in Crystal Beach, Ont., where the priest would take him and other boys to a popular amusement park.

"Sometimes I would cry and scream during the sex, and he would put his hand over my mouth," Astridge said. "After it was over, he would always tell me, 'You're a good boy.' "

Astridge said the music of the Beatles helped him survive the torment. There was no one he felt comfortable confiding in, so he would go into the bedroom of his St. Florian Street home, close the door and listen to his favorite Beatles songs. Later, he started playing drums and founded the BBC band.

"With all I've been through, music has always been my happy place … my comfort zone," said Astridge, who lives in the City of Tonawanda.

Gary Astridge, at age 6 or 7, and his sister, Doreen, pose for a photo with Cardinal Dougherty High School in Buffalo in the background. (Provided photo)

In addition to Astridge, another man who grew up in Black Rock in the 1960s has claimed to a News reporter that Towsend sexually abused him. The man spoke on the condition he would not identified.

Now in his 60s, the man called Townsend "a monster" and said the priest "put his hands down my pants and fondled me" on several occasions at Cardinal Dougherty. He said the incidents occurred when he was 7 and 8 years old. He said he has never filed an official complaint.

Astridge said he first complained to the Buffalo Diocese about Townsend in 2006. Then-Bishop Edward U. Kmiec wrote back to him, saying the diocese would offer to provide counseling to Astridge. Astridge said he never took him up on the offer.

Townsend, a member of the Eudist religious order, was assigned to teach at Cardinal Dougherty from 1963 to 1969, according to a news story and the diocese's annual directories.

Officials of the Eudist Fathers – also known as the Congregation of Mary and Joseph – have not responded to more than a dozen requests from The News for comment on Astridge's allegations.

Astridge said he is "very disappointed" that the Eudists and the Buffalo Diocese appear unwilling to take responsibility for what happened to him.

Today, Astridge runs a medical supply company. He also has become known as an archivist and lecturer on the drums used by one of his music idols, Ringo Starr of the Beatles. Astridge has met the Beatles drummer several times, and has spoken about Starr and his drumming at Beatles fan events in the United States, Canada, England and Scotland.

In August, Astridge's BBC Band will travel to the Beatles' hometown of Liverpool, England to play several concerts there during an event called International Beatles Week.

Robert Swierat says he was sexually abused as a boy by the Rev. Loren Nys, a teacher at St. Mary's High School in Lancaster. He said a Buffalo Diocese official told him he was not eligible for compensation from the diocese because Nys was from a religious order. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Swierat's abuse 

Swierat said he was abused for two years, beginning when he was 14, by the Rev. Loren Nys in the rectory of St. Mary's High School in Lancaster in the early 1970s.

As a teen, he had a part-time job cleaning the high school, Swierat said, and because of some turmoil in his family life, he lived in the rectory for about two years. He said Nys, a St. Mary's teacher who belonged to the Society of the Divine Savior Salvatorians, raped him repeatedly in a shower room and in a bedroom.

Swierat said he reported the incidents to the Buffalo Diocese in 2016. Quinlan, the diocese attorney, said the complaint was forwarded to officials of the Salvatorian order, based in Milwaukee, Wis.

By that time, Nys was in trouble. The Milwaukee Diocese in 2014 removed Nys from active priestly ministry because of allegations of "inappropriate conduct with youth," according to the official newspaper of the Milwaukee Diocese.

Contacted by The News, an official of the Salvatorians said the order is investigating several complaints about Nys, and will look into Swierat's allegations.

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