Victims of childhood sexual abuse involving Catholic clergyman often say they want, above all else, acknowledgement of the crimes against them. That’s why it must be especially frustrating for two Western New York men featured in Sunday’s Buffalo News when the Diocese of Buffalo refuses to take responsibility for abuse the two suffered as boys at the hands of priests working in the diocese.
The diocese says it is not responsible for the actions of priests who are accused of raping the two men, Gary Astridge and Robert Swierat, because the priests were members of religious orders, and not ordained by the diocese. This surely is a technicality that seems contrary to the spirit of the diocese’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which was set up in March to give financial compensation to victims of priest sex abuse. The policy cannot be that some victims are less equal than others.
Astridge attended the old Cardinal Dougherty High School in Buffalo. He says he was molested as a boy by a priest who taught at the school but belonged to a religious order based in California.
Swierat says in the early 1970s he was abused for two years in the rectory of St. Mary’s High School in Lancaster. The accused priest, the Rev. Loren Nys, a St. Mary’s teacher at the time, belonged to the Society of the Divine Savior Salvatorians, based in Milwaukee, Wis.
Astridge applied for compensation from the IRCP and was told by the diocese to contact the order in California instead. Swierat has been advised by the diocese not to even apply.
Nearly 25 percent of priests now serving in the diocese are members of religious orders, such as Jesuits, Franciscans or Benedictines. According to the list compiled by The News of 62 priests who have worked in the Buffalo Diocese and were publicly linked to sex abuse complaints, 12 were from religious orders, or 19 percent. Is excluding potentially one-fifth of the applicants really worth the savings to the diocese when you consider the ill will it will foster among victims whose compensation claims won’t even get a hearing?
Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone said in a March interview that the diocese bears no responsibility for child molestation committed by religious order priests who worked in diocese schools or churches.
“When we get an allegation of abuse by a religious order priest … we immediately offer that victim who called, that alleged victim, counseling and pastoral outreach,” Malone said. “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.”
A lawyer for the Buffalo Diocese was not so quick to slam that door shut.
Lawlor F. Quinlan III, in an interview with The News, said each complaint submitted to the diocese IRCP program would be judged on its own merits, and not automatically rejected if it involved a priest from a religious order.
Quinlan added that the Archdiocese of New York City has no such flexibility, and automatically rejects complaints involving priests from religious orders.
A 2016 article in Business Insider examined the issue in New York City. Edward Mechmann, a civil attorney and head of the New York Archdiocese’s Child Protection Office, told the magazine that canon law specifies that the bishop isn’t liable for what clerics from religious orders do outside of “sacramental duties,” such as hearing confession and marrying couples.
Incidents of abuse are unlikely to happen in church confessionals or on the altar. Abusive priests have preyed on boys and girls in more private settings. It defies common sense that victims should be denied compensation if they were victimized by members of certain religious orders who were working inside the diocese. Care for the church’s victims, then worry about which pocket the money comes out of.