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Public accusation of abuse in February led to federal probe of Buffalo Diocese

Michael F. Whalen Jr. never imagined federal investigators would be probing the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo about clergy sex abuse nearly eight months after he publicly accused a priest of molesting him as a boy.

Diocesan officials confirmed Thursday that the U.S. Department of Justice subpoenaed some of its records, and The Buffalo News learned that FBI agents recently interviewed a local woman about a clergy abuse case dating back to the 1980s.

Whalen on Friday returned to the same spot outside St. Louis Church on Main Street where he accused the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits of sexually abusing him on a ski outing more than 35 years ago.

“It means the world to me, especially for victims, to see all of this exploding as big as it has, as fast as it has. It’s overwhelming,” Whalen said. “I didn’t expect anything like this.”

At a news conference on a cold, sunny Tuesday morning in late February, Whalen told reporters that Orsolits gave him alcohol and marijuana prior to the abuse in 1979 or 1980 inside the priest’s cottage home in the Town of Ashford.

The same day as the news conference, in an interview with The News at his home, Orsolits responded by saying he didn’t remember Whalen. But the priest confirmed that he took many teenage boys on ski trips. Orsolits also said he molested “probably dozens” of boys in the 1970s and 1980s.

The stunning admission triggered what has become an unrelenting scandal of revelations of clergy sex abuse and cover-up in the Buffalo Diocese, including:

  • Accusations of abuse against dozens more priests, many of whom were still in active ministry and are now suspended while the diocese investigates the claims;
  • The leaking of secret internal diocesan documents and emails that show how Bishop Richard J. Malone kept in ministry two priests who were accused of inappropriate behavior;
  • Calls for Malone’s resignation from two church deacons, a Catholic radio station, Rep. Brian Higgins and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, among others;
  • A civil investigation of all eight New York dioceses by the state Attorney General’s Office, with a focus on the Buffalo Diocese;
  • A federal probe that includes a subpoena and FBI agents conducting field interviews.

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Federal agents are involved in investigating allegations of clergy sex abuse in Buffalo, The News has confirmed.

CBS News on Thursday reported that the U.S. attorney in Buffalo has subpoenaed the Buffalo Diocese. The news outlet said the focus involves the "alleged trafficking of minors across state lines for the purpose of sex abuse."

FBI agents recently interviewed a local woman regarding allegations of sexual abuse against a Buffalo Diocese priest in the early 1980s.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, said two federal agents spoke to her in her home in an apparent effort to learn more about whether the diocese had covered up abuses.

“They did say they’re investigating the situation in Buffalo and they’re hoping for leads, and they said they never know who you’re going to talk to who gives you the next thing,” the woman said. “They did tell me they had leads the next day they were following up on.”

The woman said her son was molested by a priest in the 1980s. She said the agents were interested in whether the accused priest had taken her son, then a teenager, into another state or into Canada.

The Diocese late Thursday released a statement regarding the federal subpoena.

"Several months ago, we received a call from the local U.S. Attorney’s office with a request to review documents.  A subpoena was provided and after some discussion, an agreement was reached to produce documents. We have heard nothing since early June. As far as we know, our response has nothing to do with the current Pennsylvania investigation that has just begun," read the statement issued by Kathy Spangler, director of communications for the diocese.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office Western District of New York would not confirm or deny an investigation into the Buffalo Diocese, nor would a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Buffalo field office.

The FBI spokeswoman also did not confirm or deny that agents had spoken with the woman.

“We do talk to people, all kinds of people, for all kinds of reasons, every day,” said the spokeswoman, Maureen P. Dempsey.

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Advocates for childhood victims of clergy sexual abuse, who for years have urged the federal government to investigate the Catholic Church, applauded the subpoenas in Buffalo and in dioceses in Pennsylvania.

“To see the Department of Justice stepping in right now, that’s major,” Whalen said. “It’s absolutely mindblowing how it all came down.”

Whalen called facing the television cameras in February one of the most frightening experiences of his life.

“I was so scared,” he said.

Robert M. Hoatson, an advocate for victims of clergy sex abuse, appeared with Whalen in February and gently reassured him that everything would be fine.

“As you can imagine, Michael was as nervous as can be. I just kept reaffirming. Michael, you will never know the number of people you will help from this. You never know how many people will say, not only 'Me Too,' but ‘Wow, this guy’s really courageous,’ ” Hoatson said in an interview on Friday.

Within days of the news conference, Whalen was receiving calls from around the country from people applauding his bravery.

“He was just flabbergasted, and he would call and say, ‘You were right,’ ” said Hoatson.

Hoatson also said he had no idea at the time of Whalen’s announcement that it would lead to such far-reaching fallout in the Buffalo Diocese.

“It sort of was like the John Geoghan case in Boston,” Hoatson said.

Geoghan, despite abusing more than 100 children, was transferred from parish to parish for years and became the most dramatic example of the Archdiocese of Boston abuse scandal.

Whalen on Friday stood behind the cameras on Main Street, offering quiet support for Hoatson and James Faluszczak, who were holding another news conference to discuss the clergy abuse scandal in Buffalo.

Whalen was almost unrecognizable from the man who stood trembling on the inside last February in front of the cameras. He shed weight, shaved his mustache and goatee and cut off the flowing dark hair that extended well past his shoulders.

“I looked at myself on the TV and I said, ‘I look liked a homeless guy on the corner,’ ” Whalen said of his former look. “I said, ‘I can’t believe that was me.’ ”

The change isn’t just a physical one, Hoatson said.

“You can tell he’s much more jovial. He laughs more,” he said. “Michael’s a new man. He went from victim to survivor, as far as I’m concerned. He stopped blaming himself.”

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