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Six Buffalo bishops let priest accused of sex abuse in 1980s remain in parishes

Six Buffalo Diocese bishops or auxiliary bishops allowed the Rev. Brian M. Hatrick to remain in parishes for decades after a teenage boy complained Hatrick sexually abused him in the early 1980s.

Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz, the current No. 2 ranking administrator in the Buffalo Diocese, and current Syracuse Diocese Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, formerly a high-ranking administrator in Buffalo, kept Hatrick in ministry even after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops set its “zero tolerance” policy.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, more than two years into his tenure, quietly removed Hatrick from priestly duties in 2007. But it wasn’t until March that the current leader of the diocese, Bishop Richard J. Malone, publicly identified Hatrick on a list of 42 priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abusing a child.

“This was a covered-up mess,” said Monica Lesniak, a Cheektowaga mother who first reported the alleged abuse in the early 1980s, after her son told her that Hatrick had molested him.

Instead of alerting the police, Lesniak immediately called her church pastor – a decision she has anguished over for years.

 

Lesniak said Monsignor Joseph Coughlin, then pastor at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church in Depew, where Hatrick served as assistant pastor, told her he would take care of it.

 

Rev. Brian Hatrick (Buffalo Diocese's 1995 Priests' Pictorial Directory)

Within days, Hatrick was gone from the parish, Lesniak recalled.

“We felt he was taken out of the priesthood, and they handled it,” she said.

But unbeknownst to Lesniak, Hatrick continued working for decades as a priest in other Buffalo Diocese parishes.

The diocese kept the sexual abuse allegation against Hatrick a secret while allowing him to work with Catholic youths at churches in West Seneca and North Evans.

Lesniak said that around 2003 – after the clergy sexual abuse scandal broke in Boston – she discovered that Hatrick was still a priest, overseeing altar boys at St. Vincent de Paul Church in North Evans.

Confronting the diocese

Lesniak said she confronted Hatrick over the telephone.

“He said, and I’ll never forget it: ‘I just want you to know, I’m OK and the church is OK,’ ” said Lesniak. “I thought, ‘You bastard,’ and I just hung up. There wasn’t much else I could have said.”

Distressed, Lesniak said she and her husband met with Grosz in March of 2004 to find out why Hatrick was still working as an associate pastor.

Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz. (News file photo)

"He acted like he didn't know anything about Hatrick having that problem in the '80s. This was a surprise to him," she said. Grosz assured her he would take care of it.

Grosz met with Lesniak's son maybe a few days or a few weeks later, she said.

Lesniak said her son didn’t ask for money from the diocese. He wanted a written apology and an assurance in writing that Hatrick was not a priest anymore, she said.

He received neither, said Lesniak.

At the time, the Buffalo Diocese was in between ordinary bishops. Bishop Henry J. Mansell had departed in December 2003 to become archbishop of the Hartford Archdiocese. Cunningham was elected to serve as administrator, the top official, of the Buffalo Diocese while the Vatican mulled Mansell’s replacement.

Then, Cunningham was named bishop of Ogdensburg, and Grosz was tapped as the administrator of the Buffalo Diocese until Kmiec arrived.

Hatrick remained in a parish until 2007, five years after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops set its “zero tolerance” policy, which dictated that any clergy credibly accused of even one instance of abuse must be prohibited from ministering in public.

The six Buffalo bishops or auxiliary bishops who allowed Hatrick to remain in parishes were Bishop Edward D. Head; Auxiliary Bishop Donald W. Trautman, who became bishop of Erie; and Auxiliary Bishop Bernard J. McLaughlin; Mansell; Grosz; and Kmiec.

During parts of Hatrick's service, Trautman and McLaughlin were the diocese's No. 2 officials, but Head would have had final say over priest assignments.

Cunningham was chancellor and vicar general in the Buffalo Diocese, but not a bishop until he left in 2004.

Malone, who is being pressured to resign as Buffalo's bishop because of the sexual abuse scandal, did not arrive in Buffalo until after Hatrick's removal.

Filled with regret 

The past seven months of revelations of abuse and cover up brought back for Lesniak all of the shock and torment that parents face when they discover their child was sexually abused.

Lesniak, 70, wonders what might have been if she had gone to the cops when her son first told her he was molested by a priest.

She looks back with regret, not only for her son, but for any children who were sexually abused by a Buffalo Diocese priest in the years since.

She sometimes thinks that if Hatrick had been arrested, maybe other predatory priests would have been stopped in their tracks, out of fear of facing a similar fate.

“If I would have done what I should have done in 1980 and gone to the police, I think I could have saved a lot of kids,” said Lesniak. “It could have been ended right there in the 1980s.”

“I just can’t believe we didn’t do anything,” she said. “We were young parents. The church was the only thing we had. As young people, the church was our backbone.”

She and her husband recently sat down in the kitchen of their Cheektowaga home to discuss the emotional toll the abuse imposed on their entire family, over a period of decades. She said she was coming forward with their story to help put a stop to the diocese’s deceit in protecting problem priests and to encourage parents to alert law enforcement if they suspect abuse.

Their son declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he did not want to relive the abuse again. He also did not want to be identified by name in the story, but he gave his approval for his parents to talk with The News. Lesniak’s husband requested that his name also not be used, but he confirmed his wife’s recollections. 

“As parents, we felt so guilty that we didn’t do our job watching out for our son,” he said.

It’s not clear what Coughlin, their pastor, reported to chancery officials, but Hatrick's move out of the parish would have been authorized through the chancery, because only a bishop has the power to assign priests. Coughlin died in 2005.

The abuse

Hatrick, 72, was ordained in 1979 and assigned to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament.

Lesniak said she can still remember the bearded priest riding his bicycle in the neighborhood and stopping by the house, asking if her son was around. She and her husband weren't suspicious at the time. In hindsight, Lesniak said she believes “it wasn’t an accidental thing” for the priest to end up on their dead-end street and that it was part of a process of grooming her son.

“He was always after him. We didn’t realize it,” she said.

The abuse happened after Hatrick took Lesniak’s son, who was 14, to see the movie “Popeye,” starring Robin Williams.

Soon, the youngster who had enjoyed being an altar boy was no longer interested in serving at Masses. Lesniak repeatedly bugged her son about why he gave it up, until one day he broke down and cried,  she said.

Lesniak said her son told her that Hatrick climbed atop him in a car, fondled his genitals and kissed him. She also said her son blocked out memories of other abuses.

The Vatican assigned Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio to investigate the Buffalo Diocese through an "apostolic visitation." (Getty Images file photo)

After leaving the Depew parish, Hatrick was assigned to work in Fourteen Holy Helpers Church in West Seneca from 1983 to 1987, when he was listed in Catholic directories as "awaiting assignment" with an address of 795 Main St., the site of the Buffalo Diocese headquarters.

He was assigned to St. Vincent de Paul from 1988 to 2007, according to the diocesan directory.

He now lives in rural Allegany County, near the Pennsylvania border. He did not respond to multiple telephone messages seeking comment. The News also went to his home in Friendship, but no one answered the door. Hatrick did not respond to a note left at the house by a reporter.

A spokeswoman for the Buffalo Diocese did not respond Friday to questions about why Hatrick was allowed to remain in ministry so long. A Syracuse Diocese spokeswoman also did not respond to The News' inquiry about Cunningham's role in not removing Hatrick.

Lesniak stayed with her parish for many years after the abuse of her son, but she said she grew increasingly frustrated with the church. She rarely attends Mass now.

“Our whole family has fallen away,” she said. “I feel cheated. We used to love to go to church on Sunday mornings.”

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