More than 100 priests who worked in the Buffalo area have been publicly linked to sex allegations, according to Buffalo News reports, public records and lists of abusers prepared by the diocese and religious orders.
That has led some to wonder: How pervasive is the problem? And why haven't more priests gone to prison?
Those were among the questions readers have had about ongoing coverage of the clergy sex abuse scandal. Reporter Jay Tokasz answered questions compiled by Digital Engagement Editor Qina Liu.
From Rebecca Emans: How many priests are in Buffalo Diocese? What percentage of priests are linked to sex abuse allegations? I've tried to find out by searching on the net, but I don't find the answer. Can The Buffalo News?
Tokasz: The answer to the question of “what percentage of Buffalo priests are linked to sexual abuse allegations” is a bit of a moving target. Readers, fairly, have been asking this question for some time.
Bishop Richard J. Malone recently stated that more than 2,300 priests were assigned to the Buffalo Diocese since 1950. Malone also said that 176 priests serving in Buffalo have been accused of sexual abuse, although he has not revealed the names of all of those priests. Using those numbers, accused priests would make up about 7 percent of the total population of priests assigned to the Buffalo Diocese.
But the number of accused priests could change yet. Over the years, the diocese has been inconsistent about how many priests were accused of sex abuse. Malone didn’t reveal until November that the diocese had received complaints against 176 priests. He has identified just 80 of them and provided no other details, such as when the alleged abuses happened or how many people reported abuses.
In March 2018, Malone said the number was 42 priests. In 2004, Monsignor Robert Cunningham, who at the time was the top administrator of the Buffalo Diocese as it awaited the appointment of a new bishop, said that 53 priests had been accused of sexually abusing minors, representing 2.6 percent of the 2,046 clergy who served in the diocese between 1950 and 2002. (Cunningham later became bishop of the Ogdensburg Diocese and currently is bishop of the Syracuse Diocese.) In 2002, Cunningham told The News that the diocese had removed a total of six priests from the priesthood for molesting children and that “12 to 15 priests” had been accused of sexual impropriety, with children or adults. And in 1994, Cunningham downplayed the diocese’s sexual abuse problems as limited to a “handful of complaints.”
Another variable to consider in the diocese’s numbers is religious order priests.
Over the years, dozens of congregations of priests served in the Buffalo Diocese, such as the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Jesuits, the Vincentian Fathers and Brothers and the Conventual Franciscan Friars, to name a few. The diocese included 44 order priests in its tally of 176 accused clergy. But most orders have yet to release data or names of its offending priests, so it's difficult to know if the orders have information about offending priests who served in Buffalo that the diocese might not have.
A 2004 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that, across the country, 4,392 priests between 1950 and 2002 were accused of sexually abusing children – 4 percent of the total 109,694 priests active during those years. But A.W. Sipe, a former monk who for decades studied the priesthood, has estimated that abusive priests represented as much as 9 percent of all priests.
From Frank Perillo: Child molesters in community are prosecuted and in jail if convicted. Aren’t priests U.S. citizens and subject to the same laws and punishment if guilty?????!
From Heather Lynn: Why does this keep being handled within the church and not with outside authorities? Although many of these cases fall outside the statute of limitations ... people need to go to the authorities to report these cases in the first place ... not the church! Legislation also needs to change to remove any timeframes of limitations for child sexual abuse!
From Patricia Mitrowski: Why aren't these priest behind bars like other people??
Tokasz: The Buffalo News found just three instances of a priest serving in the Buffalo Diocese being prosecuted for a child sex crime. A priest was sentenced in 1986 to probation after pleading guilty to attempting to sexually abuse two teenage boys in Wyoming County. A priest was charged in 1999 with exposing himself to two teenage girls. And a priest was sentenced in 2004 to three years in federal prison for possessing child pornography. Two other priests who had served in the Buffalo Diocese were prosecuted for child sex crimes in other states.
It’s too late for prosecutors to do anything about other cases that involved other priests known to the diocese as having been accused. For one, many of the 176 accused priests are dead.
Most incidents of alleged abuse occurred decades ago and were never reported to law enforcement. Victims often struggle to speak about what happened to them, with research showing that many survivors suffer in silence for many years before reporting their abuse. In cases where alleged abuse was reported to the diocese, the information was not passed along to law enforcement. It wasn’t until 2003 that the diocese signed an agreement with the eight district attorneys in Western New York to report any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor “without prior screening regarding the truth of the allegation” as long as the alleged abuse happened within the past five years or within five years from the victim’s 18th birthday. The agreement was renewed in 2018, with more expansive reporting guidelines for certain sex abuse cases. Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said last year that his office has not received reports of any prosecutable cases against priests – that is offenses that fell within the criminal statute of limitations for child sex crimes.
Years ago, those statutes were restrictive. By law, an alleged perpetrator generally had to be charged within five years of a sex crime or within five years of the victim’s 18th birthday. The statutes still apply for old cases. But the Child Victims Act adopted earlier this year expands the statute of limitations until the 28th birthday of the victim, in felony cases going forward.