Fifty years ago, Catholic priests who sexually abused children in the Buffalo Diocese would have no worries about getting arrested.
But they had to worry about something else: Monsignor Franklin M. Kelliher, a stocky, tough-as-nails former boxing champion who also fought as a professional wrestler known as “The Masked Marvel.”
Kelliher served an unofficial role as a disciplinarian for the diocese, according to Thomas Whelan, a retired Erie County sheriff’s deputy and former superintendent of the county’s Holding Center, retired Buffalo Police Detective Edward C. Niemann and Msgr. William J. Gallagher, who served for 13 years as chaplain of the Buffalo Police Department during parts of the 1970s, '80s and '90s.
“If priests were drinkers, or if they suspected some problem with kids, they would send them to Monsignor Kelliher,” said Gallagher, 79, a priest since 1969. “In those days, the attitude was, ‘Punch them in the mouth, that’ll get their attention.’ ”
“The bad priests were terrified of Kelliher,” said Whelan, who got to know the former wrestler well when Kelliher served for 37 years as chaplain of the jail. "He was a no-nonsense guy who wouldn’t stand for anyone hurting a kid. He was the disciplinarian.”
A retired Buffalo Police detective recalled the time he and his partner were told to pick up a priest in North Buffalo and deliver the priest to Kelliher's rectory on Vermont Street on the West Side.
“If a priest did something wrong, we didn’t arrest them. Our orders were to take them to Monsignor Kelliher,” recalled the retired detective. “The monsignor came to the door, looked at this priest, and said, ‘You again!’ He grabbed the guy, pulled him inside and threw him across the floor.”
The detective said he did not know the North Buffalo priest's name and never found out what he was in trouble for. He said the incident occurred at least 50 or 60 years ago.
Saying he is embarrassed and regretful about the way such situations were handled, the former detective spoke on the condition that his name would not be published. During a career of more than 30 years that included many investigations into pedophiles, the former detective said he never remembers the Buffalo Catholic Diocese ever telling his department that a priest molested children and needed to be investigated. He said it upsets him because he now realizes that many molester priests were able to avoid prosecution.
“If we had jailed these guys, this whole problem with priests probably would not have escalated the way it has,” the retired detective said. “We were part of a cover-up, plain and simple.”
Current Buffalo Diocese officials are unaware of Kelliher – who died at age 80 in 1985 – serving as an unofficial disciplinarian, said Kathy Spangler, a spokeswoman for Bishop Richard J. Malone.
No one knows how many molester priests were sent to Kelliher for punishment.
But people who knew him said Kelliher was serious about his role as a protector and role model to Buffalo teenagers.
“If I have to get tough with mad dogs and sadists to protect worthwhile lads, I will do it,” he once said, according to “Coming of Age in Buffalo,” a book by historian William Graebner.
Born and raised in Holyoke, Mass., he took up boxing as a youngster and became one of New England's top heavyweight amateur boxers in the 1920s.
He moved to Buffalo and became a priest in 1930. For several years after that, he also competed as a professional wrestler, wearing a black mask and calling himself “The Masked Marvel” when he performed in Buffalo, Toronto and other cities.
The burly priest’s fighting career came screeching to a halt when someone pulled off Kelliher’s mask during a bout, according to an article about him on boxing.com. The Buffalo Diocese bishop at the time – William Turner – did not want one of his priests performing in the wrestling ring.
Kelliher influenced the lives of hundreds of Buffalo teens as director of the old Buffalo Working Boys Home on Vermont Street, and as a promoter and trainer of Golden Gloves boxers. He was named to the Buffalo Ring 44 Boxing Hall of Fame, the International Golden Gloves Hall of Fame, the American Amateur Boxing Hall of Fame and the Canadian Amateur Boxing Hall of Fame.
“Monsignor Kelliher was one of the finest men I ever met in my life. He influenced my life, and the lives of many young boxers,” said Niemann, a retired Buffalo police officer who won two Buffalo Golden Gloves championships in the 1960s. “I met him when I was 12 years old … Even as a teenager, I heard about the monsignor being the guy who was in charge of punishing the bad priests. If you did something bad to a kid, the last person you’d want to deal with would be the Masked Marvel.”
Kelliher was an imposing figure, standing “well over 6 feet tall and weighing about 250 in his prime,” according to his obituary in The Buffalo News.
One of Buffalo’s most well-known priests from the 1950s through his retirement in 1980, Kelliher died in his North Buffalo home on Feb. 22, 1985. In his will, he left $1 million, including $120,000 to a home for retired priests in New Mexico, $1,000 to a Buffalo synagogue and individual bequests to 16 friends and relatives.
"A tough man, if you got out of hand, he'd pick you up and throw you against the wall," was the description used by boxing writer Clarence George in a 2015 article about Kelliher on boxing.com.
Story topics: Clergy sex cases