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Paul Snyder III: Speaking truth to power about the Buffalo Diocese

Paul Snyder III dropped a thick stack of papers on a conference room table inside the Buffalo Hyatt Regency, where his family’s company, Snyder Corp., is headquartered. These are hard copies of emails he’s received since writing a letter last week calling for the resignation of Buffalo’s Catholic bishop.

There were more than 300 emails; he has stopped printing them.

He started reading one from a woman whose son recently shared his story of being abused by a priest: “Thank you so much for speaking up and saying what you did,” she wrote. “I would love, in confidence, to share with you what’s on my heart. It would not take much time.”

The woman wrote on to tell Snyder, who is a deacon at her church, St. Mary's, “Unfortunately, you are one of the few I can trust.”

After reading that message aloud, Snyder returned the paper to its stack. “That would be a relatively tame one,” he said, “and her son was assaulted.”

The emails are excruciating and heartbreaking: Stories from people abused by priests. Stories of people who were abused, but can’t tell their own tales anymore, because they took their own lives. These are the stories that have come Snyder’s way since Aug. 23, when in a stark departure from church protocol, he called for the resignation of Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone. Snyder did that as reports emerged that Malone, who is the leader of the eight counties of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, was aware of abuse allegations against two priests in his jurisdiction, yet lauded them and allowed them to continue their ministries. One of those priests, the Rev. Robert Yetter, was the long-serving, and soon-to-retire pastor of St. Mary's, where Snyder has been a deacon for 15 years.

In his Aug. 23 letter to Malone, Snyder pointed out the bishop’s self-chosen motto – “Live the Truth in Love” – and wrote, “Your dereliction of duties and the betrayal of your own Episcopal Motto leave me with no alternative but to speak out on behalf of those I feel duty bound to protect.”

Buffalo Diocese Bishop Richard J. Malone tells reporters Sept. 4, 2019, at St. Joseph's Cathedral Rectory in Buffalo that he won't resign despite criticism of his handling a clergy sexual abuse scandal and a complaint that a priest sexually  harassed an adult  seminarian. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

A few others – but only a few – joined Snyder in the call for Malone’s resignation. That included a handful of politicians – Rep. Brian Higgins, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, among them – but few, if any, callouts from clergy or influential businesspeople.

Snyder, 57, said he has heard from others who have applauded him, but who won’t speak out as he has. Priests and deacons, who serve at the pleasure of the bishop, are afraid of being punished with reassignment. As for what’s keeping other prominent professionals quiet – people who serve on boards, and donate large sums, but don’t report to the diocese – Snyder can only offer this. “The reason it’s not being called for more loudly,” he said, “is people are intimidated by this bishop.”

Malone refused to resign. In an Aug. 26 appearance before members of the local media, the bishop admitted mistakes in the handling of sexual misconduct allegations but said, “The shepherd does not desert the flock in a difficult time.”

The tumult enveloping the Catholic Church is not abating. Snyder is now part of the story. This is unfamiliar for him. Although he grew up in a wealthy and well-known family, Snyder has long avoided the spotlight.

“He’s a very serious, matter-of-fact, respectful guy from a respectful family,” said Higgins, the Democratic congressman from South Buffalo who is also Catholic. “Paul is not a guy that is outspoken about a lot of issues. This is the first I’ve really heard of him take on an issue beyond his core business interests, which is refreshing.”

So why did he do it? Why did he take on a powerful church figure, while knowing that doing so would invite the notoriety he has long avoided, and with it, intense scrutiny?

Snyder pointed to a yellowed copy of the Buffalo Courier Express, which was also sitting on his conference table. The 1981 newspaper had a photo of his father, Paul L. Snyder, above the fold and beneath this headline: “Paul Snyder’s Saga: Partners With the FBI.”

The younger Snyder was in his early 20s when his father wore wiretaps on behalf of the FBI in an effort to break up an organized crime business scam. That, too, invited discomfort and notoriety. But some time ago, the elder Snyder told his son, “Sometimes, Paul, the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do in your life is the right thing to do.”

The son keeps reminding himself of that today.

“I never imagined in my life,” he said, “that I would be having to rely on those words and his example.”

•••

Although he grew up in a wealthy and well-known family, Paul Snyder III has long avoided the spotlight – until now.  He said he already is feeling the effects of his decision to make public a letter he sent the bishop calling on him to resign. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Snyder entered the world with advantages. His father was a self-made entrepreneur who became wealthy by founding, and later selling, the frozen food company Freezer Queen. The elder Snyder was the owner of the NBA’s Buffalo Braves, and he also owned Darien Lake amusement park, among other businesses. But Snyder and his wife, Marie, were determined to build a solid work ethic in their five children.

Each of them had jobs at Darien Lake, for example, and they were mostly unglamorous ones. Paul III, the only boy, drove a septic truck around the park, pumping waste on summer days. The Snyders also instilled a keen sense of competitiveness in their children. In a 2015 profile in The Buffalo News, Paul’s sister, Janet, who is a morning host on WKSE-FM, described it as “winning, period, in everything you do.”

Paul and his sisters – Kathy, Susan and Sandra – went to Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. (Janet studied communication at nearby Ithaca College.) Today, three of them work for Snyder Corp., where their father is chairman. Paul, as CEO, oversees a portfolio of holdings that include the Hyatt in downtown Buffalo; Beaver Hollow Conference Center and the Biggest Loser Resort Niagara in Java Center; and We Care Transportation, which serves people with disabilities and is on the city’s East Side.

Though the Snyders grew up Catholic, Paul’s devotion to his faith was built in adulthood. At 24, six months after he married his wife, Susan, he was diagnosed with a stage 4 malignant tumor that was wrapped around his heart. He didn’t realize it then, but the survival rate was 12 percent. “I’m glad nobody told me,” he said.

Watching Snyder discuss his cancer today is a reminder that he is an executive: precise in his message, measured in his words, and deliberate in how deep he’ll probe on a topic.

Sitting in his office, for the purpose of discussing a crisis at his church and in his diocese, Snyder wasn't diving deep into his cancer battle, except to say he won, and it changed him.

“My cancer, while pretty tough, was a blessing,” he said. “That made me think about how to help other people.”

One of those ways, which came two decades later, was becoming a deacon. Snyder realized that he could affect lives by becoming more involved in his church, and in 1999, he entered the seminary. At first, he wasn't sold on the idea.

Paul Snyder III was ordained a deacon in 2003, which allows him to preach sermons and assist in ministry. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"I didn’t think I was worthy of this,” he said. “I thought there were holier people, better people. Someone said to me, ‘Paul, if everybody felt that way, no one would serve.' ”

In 2003, Snyder was ordained as a deacon, which allows him to preach sermons and assist in ministries. He began serving at his home parish, St. Mary's, and has also been an emergency room chaplain at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, which forced him to confront his own cancer-rooted discomfort with hospitals.

“I thought, if I’m uncomfortable with it, I should deal with that,” said Snyder, who brings an eloquent presence to his ministry. Though he can be outspoken, even searing when the occasion calls – say, in a closed boardroom, or when detailing his concern about the bishop’s leadership – people who know Snyder as a deacon say he is warm, engaged and willing to listen.

“It was ingrained on me that being there for people is fundamentally the most important thing a deacon can do,” Snyder said. “It’s not your words. It’s your presence.”

That’s why being a deacon is “one of the most important aspects” of Snyder’s life.

It’s also why he is so passionately questioning the leadership of his church.

•••

Last week, the Diocese of Buffalo communications staff alerted their colleagues in the rectory at St. Mary's that WKBW was about to run an expose on Yetter, the church’s longtime pastor who was set to retire that weekend. The reports were damning, and for the parishioners at St. Mary’s, one of the largest churches in the diocese, the revelations were an emotional earthquake.

“The pain is overwhelming,” said Snyder, who said he attempted to set up a meeting or conversation with Malone through three intermediaries, including Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz, with whom Snyder and other St. Mary’s staff did speak by phone. He was told the bishop would not be available.

“(Malone) lied when he said, ‘A shepherd does not abandon his sheep, so I’m staying,’ because he abandoned our entire parish,” Snyder said.

A diocesan spokesperson offered a different take in an email to The News, saying, “If Deacon Snyder had asked Bishop Malone for an appointment, Bishop Malone would have met with him.”

To that, Snyder responded, “I find it odd, or unusual, that the bishop is making the point that I haven’t reached out to him correctly.” He suggested the question be reframed: In a large parish, with a 160-year history in the heart of the diocese, he asks rhetorically, “Why wouldn’t the bishop think it would be natural to reach out to us?”

Snyder’s frustration with the seeming cover-up, followed by what he considered to be the bishop’s inaccessibility, prompted him to go home to his wife Susan and say, “I think I need to send a letter to the bishop, and I think I need to release it publicly, because if I don’t it’ll just be covered up.”

She said, “Paul, what does your conscience tell you? What does your heart tell you?”

Snyder’s heart on this hearkens to the early 1980s, when his father made the choice to become an FBI informant. Sitting in his conference room, Snyder pointed to that copy of the Courier Express and told the story: The elder Snyder had started a company, Niagara Trading Corp., that he intended to become one of the largest school lunch providers in the United States. As Snyder was preparing a bid for a contract with the New York City school system, he was approached by organized crime figures and political types who told him “the way to win the business was to be in concert with the mafia.”

He continued: “My father has always been a man of the highest integrity, and without any second thought he decided it was his civic duty to go to the FBI.”

Snyder ultimately participated in undercover operations that helped bring down the scam. He was cited for his service by the director of the FBI. But there was a cost: The Snyder family received death threats. The business took a deep financial hit.

The younger Snyder knows there could be a cost for him, too. Financially, he’s fine; he doesn’t draw a salary as a deacon. But he loves the job, and he serves at the bishop’s pleasure. He pointed out as much in his letter to Malone: “As any Deacon, I serve at the discretion of the Bishop and my decision to speak ‘Truth to Power’ will likely come at a cost to me personally,” Snyder wrote. “However, my first loyalty is to my Catholic faith and my Community.”

Snyder said he already is feeling the effects of his decision. He said he was denied permission to speak this weekend from the pulpit of St. Mary's, a charge the diocese denies. When The News asked the diocese if there would be be a tangible “cost” to Snyder – as in repercussions or consequences that affect his status or assignment as a deacon – a spokesperson responded in an email, “No.”

Still, this position is an uncomfortable and unfamiliar one for Snyder. Passionately as he speaks out against the bishop’s leadership and in support of an independent investigation, he doesn’t like this attention. He agreed to The News’ request for an interview but made clear that he wishes there wasn’t a need to do it.

With the exception of preaching a homily, Snyder says he doesn't like being out front and finds it difficult now that he's in that position.

In deciding to speak out, Snyder weighed his wife’s input. He thought about the example he would set for his three grown children — one an executive with Snyder Corp., another a Navy officer, and the youngest, a graduate student. And he thought of his dad turning down millions in dirty profits to instead risk perhaps everything to do the right thing.

“I was left with two choices,” Snyder said. “Be a coward, or do what my father did.”

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