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AG launches statewide clergy abuse probe, subpoenas Catholic dioceses

New York State Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood has launched a statewide investigation into the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, with a particular focus on the Buffalo Diocese.

The Attorney General's Office on Thursday sent out subpoenas seeking information from the seven dioceses and one archdiocese across the state, a source familiar with the investigation said.

The office also announced in a news release Thursday that it set up a clergy abuse hotline and online complaint form for anyone to provide information confidentially.

The office's Charities Bureau, which oversees nonprofit organizations, is conducting the civil investigation into allegations of sexual abuse of minors in Catholic dioceses. At the same time, the office's Criminal Division continues to try and work with local district attorneys on investigating and potentially prosecuting anyone within the dioceses on criminal charges related to sex abuse or cover-up of abuse.

Unlike Pennsylvania, the Attorney General's Office in New York doesn't have the power to convene grand juries without an executive order from the governor's office. Underwood said last month she would partner with district attorneys, who do have the power to convene grand juries, on a criminal investigation into dioceses.

A Buffalo Diocese spokesman said the diocese would not challenge the investigations.

"Our diocese will cooperate with any investigation initiated by the New York State Attorney General or District Attorney," said the spokesman, George Richert.

A source familiar with the investigations said the Buffalo Diocese will be a priority of both the civil and criminal investigations.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse welcomed the investigations.

"It's about time that somebody got off the dime and did this," said John A. Polvino 56, of Amherst.

Polvino accused the Rev. Donald W. Becker of sexually assaulting him in a remote cabin in North Java when he was a 13-year-old parishioner of SS. Peter & Paul Church in Hamburg. Becker, who is retired and lives in Florida, was included on a list of 42 priests identified by the diocese this past March as having been "credibly" accused of abuse. Becker denied molesting boys in a brief interview with The News.

"I'm wondering how far in depth they will go and whether it will lead to any investigation into the diocese's legal representation, as well," added Polvino. "I want this all brought to light."

More than 30 additional priests who were not on the Buffalo Diocese's list have been linked publicly to sex allegations. Since March, the diocese has put 12 priests on administrative leave while investigating complaints of child sexual abuse against them.

Stephanie McIntyre, 50, said her prayers were answered with the news of the Attorney General's investigation.

"Victims are finally going to be heard. All of them. Not just the ones hand-picked to be heard by the bishop," said McIntyre, who alleged that the Rev. Fabian J. Maryanski sexually groomed and abused her for years in the mid 1980s, starting when she was 15.

Buffalo Diocese officials kept Maryanski, 77, in ministry for more than a decade after McIntyre first reported the abuse to them in 1995. The priest was put on administrative leave in May following a detailed account of the alleged abuse in The Buffalo News.

Exclusive: Priest accused in 1995 of having sex with teen still offering Masses

The New York investigation followed the release last month of a bombshell Pennsylvania grand jury report that said 300 priests molested more 1,000 children in six of the state’s eight dioceses and archdioceses.

The investigation also comes on the heels of more than six months of media reports about Buffalo Diocese sexual abuse allegations, unraveling a cover-up of alleged clergy sex abuse dating back decades.

A retired priest's admission to The Buffalo News in February that he had molested probably dozens of boys during his stints at multiple parishes in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s led to revelations of other sex abuse cases and the uncovering of how those abuses were kept secret for so long.

Several prominent Catholics including businessman Paul L. Snyder III, who serves as a deacon; Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and U.S, Rep. Brian Higgins called for Bishop Richard J. Malone to resign in the wake of a leak of internal church documents to WKBW-TV showing that Malone kept two priests in ministry despite complaints of misconduct. Malone has said he won't resign.

Three survivors of abuse protested Thursday afternoon on the sidewalk outside the headquarters of the Buffalo Diocese on Main Street, continuing the calls for Malone to step down.

One of the protesters,  James Faluszczak, called the announcement of a statewide civil investigation in New York a start, but he also urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to issue an executive order that would allow the Attorney General's Office to use a grand jury to pursue a statewide criminal investigation, like Pennsylvania did.

"If it requires the governor to issue an executive order, I think that's what needs to happen, because you're talking about criminal matters," said Faluszczak, a clergy abuse survivor and former priest who attended Christ the King Seminary in Aurora and now lives in Buffalo.

Two years ago, Faluszczak called the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office hotline to report his own experiences. He ended up testifying before the Pennsylvania grand jury regarding abuse in the Erie Diocese. He's encouraging survivors of clergy abuse in Buffalo and other dioceses in this state to contact the New York Attorney General's hotline.

The AG's Office clergy abuse hotline is 1-800-771-7755. Complaints also can be filed at ag.ny.gov/ClergyAbuse.

The Attorney General’s Office already has subpoenaed dioceses for church documents with any information about allegations of sexual abuse by priests and other diocesan employees. Such documents would include personnel files, letters to victims or their families and financial records showing payments to sex abuse victims, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

In the Pennsylvania investigation, the Attorney General used search warrants to remove those kinds of documents from chanceries across the state. The Catholic Church's historical emphasis on maintaining secrecy makes it likely the same will need to happen in New York state, said Faluszczak.

"It might require search warrants before it's all said and done. And I'm not saying that to be dramatic. I'm saying that because it happened in Pennsylvania," he said.

The Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Rockville Centre were previously the subject of grand jury investigations in 2002.

A grand jury investigation by the Westchester County District Attorney's Office found that the New York Archdiocese had engaged in a "concerted effort … to mislead the community: defending the abuser while simultaneously attempting to humiliate victims and their families — even in the face of mounting credible evidence against a particular abuser."

And a Suffolk County special grand jury issued a 181-page report concluding that Rockville Centre diocesan officials "agreed to engage in conduct that resulted in the prevention, hindrance and delay in the discovery of criminal conduct by priests" and used "deception and intimidation to prevent victims from seeking legal solutions to their problems."

Neither report identified priests who molested kids by name, nor did the investigations result in any charges.

The Pennsylvania grand jury probe, which rocked the Catholic Church worldwide, covered the dioceses of Erie, Allentown, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Harrisburg and Greensburg.

Included among the findings in the Pennsylvania report was an assertion that Buffalo Diocese officials knew that the Rev. Michael Freeman had molested young men and children, did not alert law enforcement and allowed him to stay in ministry, including at locations in Pennsylvania.

Malone said in a statement at the time of the release of the Pennsylvania report that he shared "in the sense of horror at the magnitude of damage wrought on victims by ministers of the church, who, of all people should be eminently trustworthy. It's a different church now in the way we respond to any claims of abuse."

Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. is continuing to examine the possibility of a criminal probe in conjunction with the Attorney General, according to a spokeswoman for the office.

"Our office remains in consultation with the Attorney General's Office on a potential joint investigation," said Kaitlyn Munro. "We support the initial steps that the AG has taken today."

The new probe marks a stark change in direction for the AG's Office on investigating clergy abuse. This past July, a spokeswoman for Underwood maintained that such investigations were the responsibility of local district attorneys and fell outside the scope of the AG's Office. Flynn also said at that time that he didn't have the authority to pursue a criminal investigation against an entire diocese.

Underwood was appointed attorney general earlier this year and is not running for election in November.
When questioned in August about whether they will pursue an investigation in clergy sex abuse if elected, two candidates who are vying for the state's top law enforcement post said they would investigate dioceses, while the other three candidates said they would collaborate with local district attorneys on an investigation.

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