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Editorial: A hard lesson on sexual abuse amid another accusation

The mother of an alleged molestation victim called it “a covered-up mess.” A Catholic priest who was accused of sexually abusing a teenage boy was allowed to remain in ministry for several decades, on the watch of six bishops or auxiliary bishops in the Buffalo Diocese.

Her mistake, she realized too late, was that she reported the crime not to police, but to the church, which was all too eager to cover it up. In her pain is a lesson for others.

Monica Lesniak, of Cheektowaga, shared her story with The News’ Jay Tokasz last week. Lesniak said the incident took place in the early 1980s. Her son went to see a movie with the Rev. Brian M. Hatrick, who was assistant pastor at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church in Depew, the family’s parish. Afterward, Lesniak says, the priest fondled and kissed the teenager inside a car.

Lesniak reported the incident to her pastor at the time, Monsignor Joseph Coughlin, she says. After Lesniak told Coughlin about the assault, he said he would take care of things. Hatrick was moved out of the Depew parish and sent to other assignments, apparently suffering no consequences. He worked for decades in other Buffalo parishes.

The mom, now in her 70s, says she regrets not going to the police. When children are sexually abused by adults, that is a crime, no matter who the adults happen to be. Reporting it to law enforcement is a necessity.

It would be comforting to think that church officials would take action, minister to the afflicted youth and hold sex offenders to account, but evidence shows that too often, that was not the case.

According to the story in The News, there were six bishops or auxiliary bishops on whose watch Hatrick continued to work in parishes. The six were Bishop Edward D. Head, Auxiliary Bishop Donald W. Trautman, Auxiliary Bishop Bernard J. McLaughlin, Bishop Henry J. Mansell, Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz and Bishop Edward U. Kmiec.

Kmiec “quietly removed Hatrick from priestly duties in 2007,” The News’ story says. That was two years into his tenure as bishop.

Hatrick was long gone by the time Bishop Richard J. Malone took over as diocese leader in 2012. Still, it took until March of this year for Malone to identify Hatrick on a list of 42 priests credibly accused of child abuse.

Radio silence from the diocese on sexual abuse allegations has been all too common.

There have been public calls in the past two months for Malone to resign, including in this space. Some high-profile members of the Catholic community have lost faith in his handling of the clergy abuse scandals, with lack of transparency cited as a major complaint.

The cliché about the cover-up being worse than the crime does not apply, since the crime of molestation is so horrific. Still, the covering up is what produces culpability for the people in charge. In a Catholic diocese, the buck stops with the bishop.

The case of the Rev. Hatrick can’t be blamed on Malone, but it’s another reminder that the diocese’s culture of secrecy and obfuscation needs to change – and that when children are sexually abused, the first call should be to police.

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