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Buffalo Diocese keeps priests off abuser list as it offers their accusers money

The Buffalo Diocese has offered to pay Thomas W. Travers because he was a victim of clergy sexual abuse as a boy.

But the diocese refuses to add Monsignor Sylvester J. Holbel — the man Travers says raped him — to its list of 80 priests who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children.

Travers said Holbel, a former superintendent of Catholic schools, groomed him from the age of 9 and then had molested him multiple times by age 11.

Also missing from the diocese's list is Monsignor Joseph J. Vogel, the founding pastor of Queen of Heaven Church in West Seneca, even though the diocese offered a woman $75,000 through its compensation program to settle a claim that Vogel molested her decades ago when she was 12.

Diocese spokeswoman Kathy Spangler said those names are not on the diocese's list because the priests are deceased and had just a single abuse complaint against them.

Bishop Richard J. Malone won't publicly identify as abusers 48 deceased priests who each had a single allegation against them. Diocese officials said they wrestled over how to balance providing more transparency in their response to child sex abuse while also ensuring that a dead priest’s legacy isn’t tarnished when that priest had no opportunity to defend himself against a claim. Malone decided that if a deceased priest had at least two credible allegations against him, his name would go on the list.

The Vatican does not have a universal church standard for publicly identifying abusive priests, so bishops are free to determine their own criteria.

“If there’s only one allegation on the priest, we’ll note it, we’ll record it and keep it in the file, and if a subsequent allegation comes in, that priest will be moved on to the list,” said Lawlor F. Quinlan III, a lawyer for the diocese.

Victims and their advocates said that policy doesn't make sense.

Across the country, more than 70 dioceses have released lists of abuser priests, said Terence McKiernan, co-director of BishopAccountability.org.

The Buffalo diocese is not alone in leaving many dead priests off its list, although that is becoming less common, said McKiernan.

A blanket policy of not naming deceased priests with a single allegation “serves to protect those priests who really ought to be on the list,” he said. It also discourages a fuller accounting of the extent of a priest’s abuse, he said.

“They’re creating a situation in which the second and third and fourth victims of those priests don’t have the prompt to come forward that the release of the names would offer them,” said McKiernan.

Vogel's accuser

The woman who accused Vogel of abuse is now 61. She asked to be identified only by her first name, Annie. Vogel died in 1988. Annie said she was not looking to smear Vogel's name or to upset his family. But she said making his name known will help other victims who are still suffering in silence.

“It opens the door for people to come forward if the name comes out, because then they can say, ‘Me too,’ ” she said. “I believe it would give other people a chance to heal.”

Annie said she was a student on recess in 1970 when Vogel called her and another girl into the Queen of Heaven rectory. Inside, the priest started talking about sex and what he wanted to "teach" her, she said. He then proceeded to grope her breasts, put his hands between her legs and put his tongue in her mouth, she said.

Annie said she struggled with alcoholism early in her life and has received psychotherapy for many years. The diocese offered her $75,000 as compensation for the abuse, and she planned to accept it.

“They basically acknowledge it, but still continue to hide his name,” she said. “This is not transparency or healing.”

“I think they believe that the fewer the number of priests’ names they put out there, the better it will look,” she said.

Holbel ran diocese schools

Travers, who told the diocese in 2015 about the abuse he suffered, was one of the area’s most outspoken advocates for passage of the Child Victims Act, in part because he believed the legislation would help identify child molesters and hold institutions accountable for allowing abuse to happen.

Travers declined to say whether the diocese offered him money through a compensation program launched in 2018, but he said he turned down offers of $20,000 in 2015 and a subsequent $50,000 offer. The diocese helped Travers pay for some therapy costs, he said.

From 1941 to 1961, Holbel served as superintendent of Catholic schools, overseeing as many as 100,000 students who were enrolled in more than 200 parish schools. Holbel also served for many years as chaplain of St. Mary School for the Deaf, where he would have had access to an especially vulnerable population of children.

He was named secretary of education for the diocese and appointed pastor of Nativity of Our Lord Church in Orchard Park in 1961.

Holbel was in the twilight of his priesthood when Travers was a Nativity parishioner and a student in the parish school. Travers said he started attending Nativity school as a third-grader in 1975. Holbel would have been 72 at the time and a priest for more than 45 years.

Travers said Holbel began grooming him after Masses by offering him wine, rubbing his shoulders and engaging him in conversations under the guise of “spiritual development.” Travers said he remembers feeling uncomfortable when he sat on Holbel’s lap and the priest became aroused and told him it was “the spirit of God” moving through him.

The abuse progressed from fondling to oral sex to a ritualistic sodomy with religious candles. The priest then raped him, he said. Afterward, Travers said he remembers wrapping his blood-stained underwear in paper towels and burying it at the bottom of a trash bin so that no one would see it.

The abuse nearly destroyed Travers, who said he had thoughts of suicide at age 10, turned to alcohol and drugs throughout his 20s, had panic attacks in his 30s and was ultimately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at age 48.

Holbel died in 1983 at age 80.

Travers, who lived outside the area for about 20 years, moved back to Western New York in 2014. He said he reported the abuse to the diocese after visiting Nativity Church and standing in the same room where he was raped.

Travers, 51, said he doesn’t know if Holbel abused other children. And he said the diocese doesn’t seem interested in finding out.

Travers gave the diocese names and numbers of counselors who would run support groups for victims, he said. He urged the diocese to give other victims his name and number.

The diocese did not create a support group, however.

“As a victim I can say unequivocally that we have a special kinship with other survivors of abuse and that being able to meet and talk about it is incredibly healing because there’s a certain understanding that no one else has. And the Buffalo Diocese has been completely negligent in providing that service for us,” he said. “Divide and conquer. It’s that simple. If they keep us apart, then we can’t communicate about all the different priests that are named.”

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