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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Survivor grieves death of wife who helped him get past priest's abuse

Denis Riley brought home the ashes of the woman who saved his life.

His wife, Lynn, died of cancer a few weeks ago in Florida. They were together for 49 years, a romance that began when they were teenagers in Dunkirk. Riley lived with a childhood wound he believed no one could understand. For years, Lynn was the first and only person he could really tell.

As an altar boy at St. Joseph's parish in Fredonia, he said, he was repeatedly assaulted and abused by Monsignor Edward Walker, a Catholic priest. Riley often served Mass on weekday mornings. The priest, he said, would tell him to stay behind and then abuse him in the sacristy, where the priests and altar boys put on their vestments.

Walker would tell him “he was going to make me into a man,” Riley said.

After it was over, he would send Riley to school, to go to class.

Riley, 71, retired from a banking and finance management career in Williamsville, traveled last week from his Florida residence to Dunkirk, to inter his wife’s ashes in her hometown. It was an impossibly hard farewell. Lynn always appreciated a searing truth, how abuse that happened to him as a child almost 60 years ago could still haunt Riley's life, even as it is today.

In speaking out about those assaults, Riley said he is trying to reaffirm the deepest measure of what it means to be a Catholic. His thoughts are with so many others who were hurt, those still carrying the burden of what they endured. Riley said his commitment is to his faith as it was meant to be, "the one thing that none of this can take away."

He made the decision to tell his story months ago, before a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a devastating report about crimes against children within the church, before Pope Francis responded with a letter that spoke of the "abuse of power and the abuse of conscience," before Rep. Brian Higgins and Catholic deacon Paul L. Snyder III were among the civic leaders in Buffalo who called on Bishop Richard Malone to resign.

Riley shares their frustration at what they see as resistance to full sunlight. While he is heartened by the number of rank-and-file Catholics who want the diocese to completely open its files on sexual abuse, he remains troubled by those who say the wave of revelations equates to "a war on the church," that it is a calculated means of undermining the faith.

He knows what faith looks like, in its purest form. Riley saw it every day, in Lynn.

She learned she had stage four ovarian cancer in 2008. The doctors warned her she did not have much time. The couple responded with an overseas visit to Medjugorje, a place where many pilgrims say the Virgin Mary has miraculously appeared.

Riley found something there, a peace that had eluded him since his childhood ordeal. Lynn lived another 10 years after that journey. Those years were precious, time she shared with her husband, their two sons and their grandchildren, and she spoke of that extra decade as a gift from Medjugorje.

She had a kind of joy, an unshakable belief, that to Riley offered solace when he needed it most. He remains a Catholic, and he said it is impossible to understand how so many perpetrators – and administrators – allowed the church to conceal and often accommodate the agony of children.

That belief has burned in him since he sat in a sixth- or seventh-grade classroom, stunned and sickened, moments after he was attacked. It was with him as he stood by the grave of his wife, whose grace and patience helped him come to terms with what was done to him.

In Buffalo, a diocesan spokesman declined comment on Riley's account, except to confirm that Walker is among the priests on a list of those credibly identified as abusers. Still, Riley’s case appears to be one of the most longstanding to come before a new diocesan review board that determines if survivors should be offered a settlement.

Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo, with diocesan lawyer Terrence Connors, as the diocese announced a reconciliation and compensation program for survivors of abuse, in March. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

According to letters shared by Riley, he first brought his story to the Diocese of Buffalo in 1999. He was not looking for money, he said. Riley wanted a face-to-face meeting with Walker, who was alive at the time, as well as a diocesan investigation. He knew other altar boys, from his childhood, who said they were either abused or witnessed disturbing behavior by the priest.

Diocesan officials told him Walker denied everything and did not want to see him, Riley said. He responded by asking another survivor, now dead, to contact the diocese and share his own story of being assaulted.

While Riley said the second call led administrators to say they believed the accounts, they offered no remedy except for counseling. Riley, who chose to pay for his own therapy, declined. What he wanted was for the church to independently investigate his claims, and then to reach out to others who were hurt.

Three years later, when Walker died at 95 as the oldest priest in greater Buffalo, his obituary noted how Bishop Henry Mansell – the top Catholic official in the diocese – would serve as principal celebrant at his funeral.

Amid survivors, there is widespread understanding that the death of an abuser hardly ends ongoing pain from the abuse. Once you are assaulted, Riley said, it leaves you in a spiral of doubt and self-contempt. He describes the humiliation, the physical pain, as “a song you can never get out of your head.”

For years, he said, “it made me obsessed with proving things that might disprove the way you feel about yourself.” He points to 14 months in a Navy flight program as an example, the idea that by establishing his manhood in the air, he might cleanse or remove how he was damaged as a boy.

Riley grew to realize that his greatest blessing, his true route to peace, was always Lynn.

Monsignor Edward Walker, who died in 2002. (Buffalo News/file art)

Her well-being remained his first concern last March, even as he read of new revelations in Buffalo. Norbert Orsolits, a retired priest, admitted that he abused dozens of boys within the diocese. Amid cascading accusations, Bishop Richard Malone released a list naming 42 diocesan priests, living and dead, who had been credibly accused of abuse.

Walker, who died in 2002, was on it.

[RELATED: Retired Buffalo-area priest admits sexually abusing 'dozens' of boys]

Riley, who is 13 years my elder, contacted me because I had known his family since childhood. While I attended St. Joseph's when I was young, my family left Fredonia when I was in kindergarten. To reaffirm his story, Riley told me of another man, someone well-respected in his profession, who had also been abused. I called that person, who quietly confirmed it.

Yet Riley's wife soon entered hospice care, and the story went on hold until after her death. Riley sees meaning in the timing. He read last week of how the state Attorney General and the Erie County District Attorney's office are talking about the possibility of a joint investigation into abuse within the church, and he predicts that revelations from survivors will only accelerate.

While his assailant is dead and the case falls beyond the statute of limitations, Riley would welcome a chance to meet with investigators. He wants to offer a full account of what happened, as well as a description of his interaction with diocesan officials in 1999, and an exchange of letters with them, 12 years later.

He said he has childhood friends who still speak of how Walker would sometimes bring groups of altar boys together in a room. Riley said the priest would randomly select one child from the group and tell him to sprawl on the priest's lap, often face toward the floor, while Walker touched and stroked the boy in ways that seemed deeply intrusive.

As for the worst of it, the solitary assaults, Riley said they continued for about 18 months. He guesses there were at least a dozen separate instances. He was terrified to tell his parents.

Finally, he simply stopped showing up when he was supposed to serve Mass. The church sent home a note warning his parents of his absence.

Riley’s father, Joseph Riley, called the boy aside and demanded to know why his son was dodging his altar boy assignments.

“Dad,” Riley said. “I don’t want to be anywhere near Father Walker.”

He remembers the flash of awareness, the way Riley believes his father abruptly understood.

“I’ll take care of it,” Joe Riley said.

While the son never learned exactly what his father did, the priest — after that — stayed away from the child.

St. Joseph's Church in Fredonia. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Still, Walker remained a prominent and respected figure for many in the region. According to his obituary, he was dean of the Northern Catholic Clergy in Chautauqua County and chaplain for the Newman Club, a student organization at SUNY Fredonia. After leaving St. Joseph’s in 1966, he served as pastor at Holy Name of Jesus in Buffalo until he retired in 1981.

The reverence that Walker generated publicly – he would eventually be named a prelate of honor – only made Riley question his own value, his own self-worth.

Friendships were hard to sustain, and “it became incredibly difficult to work with people,” he said.

It was Lynn, he said, who helped him rebuild a sense of self. Ask Riley to describe an example of true grace, and he speaks of the way his wife endured almost 70 radiation treatments to buy a little more time with her family.

In remembering her, Riley said, he still finds strength. He is speaking out, even as he grieves, because he believes the only hope for survivors, and the church, demands an open reckoning.

“This is not the past,” Riley said. “For me, it’s present every day."

For the diocese, he said, real healing demands far more than the review process now underway. It lies in publicly revealing a detailed history of each case of abuse, explaining why some of those priests were reassigned, and then removing any administrator - no matter his rank - linked in any way to looking past criminal behavior.

At 71, Riley said, he has come to fully grasp the most catastrophic trauma, caused by abuse:

“It makes you into a person you were never meant to be.”

Without his wife, without her faith, that crime could never be undone.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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