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Diocese obscured depth of crisis by scrubbing dead priests' bios, victims say

Monsignor J. Grant Higgins was a Catholic priest for 60 years, but when he died in 2016 at age 90, the Buffalo Diocese tried to make it seem as if he wasn't a priest.

A paid death notice for Higgins omitted the honorific title of "Reverend" that is standard in priest death notices and obituaries. The Mass of Christian Burial for Higgins was held at a church in North Buffalo, more than 25 miles away from his last parish assignment in the Village of Angola, where he was well-known and had served for 14 years. The diocese did not publish an obituary on Higgins in its own Western New York Catholic, a monthly newspaper that assiduously chronicles the deaths of area priests, deacons and nuns. Nor did the diocese send The Buffalo News the priest’s assignment history, as it usually does when a priest dies, so that The News could write an obituary.

When Higgins died, diocese officials gave area Catholics no explanation as to why they were obscuring his life as a priest.

They did it because Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone decided in 2013 that funeral arrangements for priests credibly accused of molesting children needed to be handled differently.

But for nearly five years after that, the bishop was unwilling to publicly identify priests, living or dead, who were accused of sexually abusing minors. Malone didn’t name names until 2018, after a clergy abuse scandal erupted.

Monsignor J. Grant Higgins died in 2016. The Buffalo Diocese publicly identified him as a priest who had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct with a minor in 2018. (Buffalo Diocese's 1995 Priests' Pictorial Directory)

That's the first time parishioners found out about Higgins.

Malone explained in a 2013 internal memo obtained by The Buffalo News that the new funeral policy was to be more sensitive to survivors of clergy sex abuse.

But now some abuse survivors and their advocates said the guidelines helped shield clergy abuse cases from the public, even in the aftermath of reforms that called for bishops to be more transparent about abusive priests.

"This, it seems, is another method to keep it under cover. To me, it's a consistent policy of the church, going back decades, of hiding and covering up," said Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national organization. "At all costs, the reputation of the church is more important than anything."

Diocese spokeswoman Kathy Spangler offered no comment on the policy when contacted by The News.

In the 2013 memo, Malone set new internal diocese guidelines on handling funeral arrangements for priests who, due to substantiated child sex abuse allegations, had been “restricted from public ministry but not dismissed from the clerical state.”

The guidelines banned the title of “Reverend” or “Father” in death notices for such priests. The bishop also prohibited a Mass of Christian Burial for offending priests to be held in a parish where that priest had been assigned.

The guidelines allowed the titles of reverend or father to be used on grave markers, and Higgins' tombstone identifies him as Rev.

The diocese was obligated to act “in such a way as to show the greatest sensitivity to any who have been harmed by priests in the past,” Malone said in a memo to Buffalo diocese priests.

Events such as the death of an abuser may trigger survivors to experience again the trauma of their abuse.

But some advocates for abuse survivors said Malone implemented the guidelines because he was concerned with limiting public knowledge of the extent of the abuse in the Buffalo diocese – more than he was with helping victims.

The diocese’s silence and lack of clarity on clergy abuse cases make it easier to keep victims silent about what they experienced, said Judith Burns-Quinn, who lives in Hamburg and has met with clergy abuse victims for decades.

“If it’s kept quiet, they just fade into the night,” said Burns-Quinn.

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

Terry McKiernan said dioceses around the country have tried to be more considerate of the feelings of survivors and parishioners when it comes to putting out death notices and obituaries and arranging the funerals of offending clergy.

But it’s a tricky balancing act, and dioceses tend to “edge across into a cone of silence,” said McKiernan, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, which chronicles the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal across the U.S. and in other countries.

“This dovetails with that whole question of ‘What do you do with memorials named after priests?’” said McKiernan. “An approach that seems tactful for survivors can shade into rewriting history.”

Parishioners in Western New York didn’t know at the time of his death that Higgins was accused of abuse, nor did they know about the funeral arrangements policy.

It wasn’t until March 2018 – 16 months after Higgins died  – that Malone released an initial list of 42 priests identified by the diocese as child sex offenders. Higgins was on the list.

Since November, Malone has added the names of 38 more priests to his initial list of priests against whom allegations had been substantiated, for a total of 80 priests. But he has refused to release any more information about the priests, such as where they were assigned, how many children they abused, and what sort of discipline they faced.

Most of the 80 priests on the list are either still alive or died prior to the 2013 guidelines on funeral arrangements. But the policy makes it clear that at least some, if not many, accused priests were never removed from the priesthood, despite substantiated allegations.

Besides Higgins, at least three other priests who died since the adoption of the guidelines were listed without titles in paid death notices in The Buffalo News. Those priests were Roy K. Ronald, Loville N. Martlock and Charles M. Werth. In addition, Robert D. Moss died March 29, 2018, but did not have a death notice in The News. It's not clear if Moss was still a priest at the time of his death.

The diocese also did not publish obituaries on Ronald, Martlock, Werth or Moss in Western New York Catholic.

Like Higgins, Ronald and Werth were first identified publicly as abusers by the diocese in 2018. Ronald died in 2013, Werth in 2017.

Martlock was first publicly linked to sex abuse allegations in 1994, when he was sent for residential treatment following an accusation that he has abused an 8-year-old boy in the 1970s. Martlock died in 2014.

A year later: More than 100 Buffalo priests linked to sex allegations

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