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Buffalo Diocese criticized in Pennsylvania priest abuse report

A Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse involving more than 300 priests in that state criticized Buffalo’s Catholic Diocese for its handling of allegations against the Rev. Michael R. Freeman, a former Buffalo priest.

Freeman was moved from Buffalo churches to parishes in Pennsylvania even after the Buffalo Diocese learned in 1981 that he had been involved in “criminal behavior” and “admitted inappropriate sexual behavior” with young men and children during five assignments in the Buffalo area, according to the report issued by Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney general.

Shapiro said investigators found no records that church leaders in Buffalo or Pennsylvania ever alerted law enforcement to Freeman’s admissions of “sexually violating children.”

“The Buffalo Diocese continued to permit Freeman to serve in active ministry until March 1989 and continued to provide financial aid to Freeman until July 31, 1999,” the Pennsylvania report stated. “The Grand Jury found no documentation in Freeman’s file that indicated that the Dioceses of Buffalo or Erie ever notified law enforcement officials, despite the fact that Freeman admitted to sexually violating children in at least five of his six ministry assignments.”

In March, the Buffalo Diocese included Freeman's name on a list of 42 priests that it said it had received “credible accusations" of abuse against, but it provided no details about the allegations. According to the Pennsylvania report, he was removed from the priesthood in 1989, while serving in Pennsylvania. The Buffalo Diocese in March said Freeman died in 2010.

Buffalo Diocese officials did not respond on Wednesday to telephone and email questions from The Buffalo News about Freeman.

Calls for New York investigation

But information about Freeman in the Pennsylvania report, and other clergy abuse incidents in Western New York, prompted Voice of the Faithful, a national Catholic reform organization, and an Amherst attorney who represents clergy abuse victims to call on New York State on Wednesday to conduct its own statewide investigation into clergy abuse.

Voice of the Faithful, an organization of Catholic Church members seeking greater accountability from church leaders, called on New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood to conduct a statewide investigation similar to the Pennsylvania probe.

“Pennsylvania is the first state I’m aware of that has done this statewide,” said Nick Ingala, communications director of the Massachusetts-based organization. “We absolutely would like the attorneys general in New York and other states to find the confidence or courage to move forward in a similar way. In watching the way the clergy abuse scandal has proliferated all over the world, it takes a government agency to get behind the secrecy.”

Steve Boyd, an Amherst attorney who represents accusers of some Buffalo priests, said he, too, would like to see a statewide probe headed by New York’s attorney general.

“From the Pennsylvania report, you can see that the problems were systematic,” Boyd said on Wednesday. “To think that people from a single organization – the church – were responsible for hundreds, probably thousands of acts of child molestation across the state, that is a crime of epic proportions. The perpetrators could depend on fellow priests, church leaders, school administrators and even sometimes parents to look the other way, but if law enforcement decides to look the other way, that is really sad.”

A spokeswoman for Underwood and Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn told The News in late June that their offices don't have the authority to investigate a diocese for its handling of sexual abuse allegations, although district attorneys in Westchester and Suffolk counties used grand juries to do that 16 years ago.

"My only jurisdiction is against individual people," said Flynn. "I have no authority to bring a case against an organization. That would be something the attorney general would need to look into."

Flynn said the state’s statute of limitations also prevents him from prosecuting crimes that happened more than five years ago, and he noted that almost every sex crime allegation made against priests in Erie County falls outside the five-year period.

Amy Spitalnick, spokeswoman for Underwood, said investigation of sex abuse crimes falls outside the jurisdiction of what the AG's Office does and should be handled by district attorneys.

Spokespersons for Underwood and Flynn both told The News on Wednesday that the prosecutors’ positions have not changed as a result of the Pennsylvania clergy abuse report.

“It would take some courage for our attorney general to conduct this kind of investigation, but the Pennsylvania attorney general found the courage to do it,” Boyd, the Amherst attorney, said.

Report cites cover-up

According to Buffalo Diocese directories and the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Freeman was ordained in 1972 and was removed from ministry in 1989.

He worked in the following parishes or locations as a priest: 1972-74, St. Margaret, Buffalo; 1975-76, St. Lawrence and part-time teacher, Bishop Turner High School, both in Buffalo; 1976-80, Sacred Heart, Niagara Falls; and 1980, chaplain, U.S. Army, Fort Benning, Ga. The grand jury report said Freeman served at churches in Pennsylvania from 1982 to 1989.

The report said Freeman “may have sexually abused children” while serving in the Pennsylvania counties of Bradford and Lancaster. The report said he “admitted prior sexual misconduct” at St. Margaret and St. Lawrence churches in Buffalo.

Unveiling the report on Tuesday, Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general, said 301 priests in that state had abused children. The grand jury received detailed accounts of more than 1,000 children victimized, and it believed the real number of victims was in the “thousands,” Shapiro said.

“Pennsylvanians can finally learn the extent of sexual abuse in these dioceses,” Shapiro said. “For the first time, we can all begin to understand the systematic cover up by church leaders that followed. The abuse scarred every diocese. The cover up was sophisticated. The church protected the institution at all costs.”

The 884-page report said senior church officials, including bishops, monsignors and others, knew about the abuse committed by priests, but routinely covered it up to avoid scandal, criminal charges against priests and monetary damages to the dioceses.

The report contains some harsh criticism of Buffalo native Donald Trautman, a former top aide in the Buffalo Diocese who was bishop of Erie, Pa., from 1990 until 2013. Trautman issued a public response to the report, saying he removed 16 priests for sexual abuse during his tenure as bishop and personally met and counseled sex abuse victims. He said the grand jury report did not mention any of the positive steps he took to address clergy abuse problems.

Priests committed acts of sexual abuse upon children, and were routinely shuttled to other parishes – while parishioners were left unaware of sexual predators in their midst, the grand jury report also alleged.

“Senior church officials, including bishops, monsignors and others, knew about the abuse committed by priests, but routinely covered it up to avoid scandal, criminal charges against priests, and monetary damages to the dioceses,” Shapiro said.

A full investigation into the handling of clergy abuse cases throughout New York State would produce similar findings, said Boyd, the Amherst attorney.

“You can refer to statute of limitation questions,” Boyd said, “but how do we know this is still not happening today? You can’t turn away from this.”

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