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COMMENTARY

Steve Boyd shined light on church abuse. Now he's representing its victims.

There are always tissues available in Steve Boyd's Williamsville law office.

His clients have been going through plenty of them.

So has he.

The former television reporter has become a key advocate for people who say they are victims of the sexual abuse scandals enveloping multiple institutions in Buffalo and elsewhere, fighting for them in lawsuits against priests in the Buffalo Diocese, teachers and adult Boy Scout leaders.

After one particularly rough meeting with a client, Boyd’s wife, Kathleen, asked if she could bring him coffee. He said yes and expected her to come in.

“I just sat there,” recalled Boyd. “My 15-year-old daughter Georgia was coming in with the coffee. I was crying my eyes out, this really ugly cry, because I had heard one of the most depraved stories I had ever heard. It wasn’t about the sexual act. It was about the psychological manipulations. My wife kind of came in behind her. But I didn’t want to cry in front of my daughter like that. But I was already was crying."

As a former altar boy, a former journalist and a current lawyer, Boyd is in a unique position to address the crisis in the church. During an hourlong interview in his law office, he discussed his switch from TV to law, his disillusionment with the church he loved growing up and what he hopes for the clients who have sued under the Child Victims Act.

He has been witness for decades to the ugliness that has caused tears across Western New York homes. Before WKBW-TV reporter Charlie Specht became the face of television coverage of the scandal, Boyd was on the same station covering sexual abuse allegations against diocesan priests a quarter of a century ago. He won awards in the early to mid-1990s for his coverage under the headline “Crisis in the Clergy.”

Boyd praised Specht’s work and said he discussed with him how he struggled as a Catholic reporting on the church scandal.

“I told him there was a time in 1995 that the station sort of got sick of it and backed off,” Boyd said. “There were many other stories to be told. I don’t know if they got sick of it, or advertiser pressure or whatever, but I got shut down.”

Steve Boyd, with back to camera, embraces survivor Michael Whalen, in his law office. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Specht was prohibited by station management from being interviewed. However, he previously said he told former Channel 7 General Manager Michael Nurse about Boyd being shut down and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.

“We’re not stopping this time,” Nurse replied.

Boyd is used to hard work, holding simultaneous jobs at WHTT-FM and WKBW-TV for five years. He dropped his radio job when he attended the University at Buffalo Law School in 1995 with former WKBW photojournalist Mickey Osterreicher while both worked full-time at Channel 7.

Steve Boyd and Mickey Osterreicher in1999 the day they were sworn in to practice law in NYS at the Fourth Appellate Department in Rochester. (Photo courtesy of Mickey Osterreicher)

He decided to attend law school to fill out his broadcasting resume in hopes of becoming a national network correspondent.

“I had no intention to be a lawyer," he said.

He got into law school the year he married Kathleen. He and Osterreicher would find time to study whenever they could. On one Election Night, they were given a conference room to study in between live shots.

“If we could find an hour to study, we would study,” Boyd said.

His wife, an appellate lawyer at the time and the daughter of a trial lawyer, looked over the briefs and essays he wrote late at night.

“She would get up before me, it had red ink all over it,” Boyd recalled. “I would make corrections and hand it in. So, she really kind of got me through law school. She was so supportive.”

The career goal of the Hutchinson Central Technical High School and Canisius College graduate changed when their first child, Jack, was born. He saw the sacrifices his former roommate, WGRZ-TV reporter Steve Brown, made when he worked for Fox News.

“I just wanted my kids to grow up where their grandparents were, and where their cousins would be,” Boyd said of his four children. “When my second son, Patrick, was born between second and third year of law school, that sealed the deal. We just wanted to live the happy North Buffalo life that we were blessed with.” The Boyds have a third son, Stephen.

Boyd said he initially took a pay cut when he switched professions but acknowledges there eventually was a salary upgrade.

There are some similarities in the professions.

“For example, when you put out a legal document you have to have a good faith basis for alleging what you are alleging,” Boyd said. “When you are a reporter, you have to have confirmed and double confirmed the factual information. There are also differences.

“I remember thinking the first time I showed up in court in front of Judge Frank Sedita. I thought this will be just like another live shot. I argued my argument and I thought it went really well. But then I realized the difference between live shots and in court is in a live shot nobody stands up after you to tell the judge you are full of crap. I lost that first motion.”

However, reporters are told to be dispassionate. As a lawyer, Boyd is an advocate for clients. His work on behalf of people who allege they were abused by priests as children has taken an emotional toll on a former altar boy who remembers asking his mother how to iron his cotton and pleated server surplice for Mass.

"The first time my mother washed and ironed it probably looked fine to everyone else but to me it wasn't quite right," recalled Boyd. "I was so proud to be an altar boy and I needed it to be perfect if I was going to wear it on the altar. So I asked her to teach me to iron so that I could make every pleat perfectly even. I went through a lot of starch."

Osterreicher, a good friend who worked with Boyd on the sexual abuse stories in the 1990s along with several other station staffers, has seen the impact the current situation has had on him.

“As a journalist and now as a lawyer he has a very strong sense of right and wrong,” Osterreicher said. “Just as strong is his deeply held religious beliefs as a Catholic. Telling these horrific stories of abuse takes its toll as a journalist but seeking justice for his clients raises that burden to a whole new level. I know this past year has aged him and tested his faith in ways he never could have imagined. I also know that same belief allows him to be compassionate to his clients while being their unassailable advocate.”

Boyd knows some of the priests who are accused of sexual abuse.

“I served Mass for two of them, one married my brother,” Boyd said. “I also know many priests are not on that list and never could be on that list. They are really good people. And I always keep them in mind when we fight this fight.”

Boyd has filed 83 lawsuits and has close to 200 clients in Buffalo and Rochester.

Boyd, whose first job after graduating from Canisius was producing a TV show for the Buffalo Diocese, still identifies as a Catholic but no longer is a regular churchgoer.

“Yes, I struggle with it and I struggled with it back then,” Boyd said of the 1990s. “It has not impacted my faith in God, not impacted my faith as a Christian. It has obliterated my faith in the organized church.”

He struggled more when he was a reporter than he does as a lawyer.

“I really struggled with it as a reporter,” Boyd said. “This feeling like you are going up against the church. Am I betraying the church? I really struggled with it a lot back then. I had worked for the diocese and I was proud to work for the diocese. I was proud that I knew Bishop (Edward) Head and I was one of his employees. And I was a pretty faithful young Catholic man.

“So when we started doing these stories, I thought we had a problem, but I did not believe at that time we had an epidemic. And now I think we have an epidemic."

Steve Boyd, right, was on hand in June when James Bottlinger talked about why he rejected a $650,000 settlement offer from the Buffalo Diocese. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

He wasn’t a father in the 1990s and said his perspective shifted after he became one.

“I think my perspective as a father has given me far less struggle with anyone who would protect a rapist,” Boyd said.

He said he believes the church has had plenty of opportunities to clean things up and has failed.

“They taught me the elements of an apology … where you admit what you did, take responsibilities for your actions, you make it right. In many ways, I learned the difference between right and wrong in my house and in Catholic school. So most Catholics know the difference. And turning your head the other way when you know somebody is raping children, turning your head the other when you even suspect somebody could be endangering children, in my mind is pure sin.”

He knows some people may think he is partly in it for the money. He gets 33% of whatever his client is awarded.

“I have friends who will ask me that, ‘Well, you are going to make a lot of money doing this, aren’t you?’ ” Boyd said.

His answer is simple: “If I make a lot of money doing this, that means something really wrong happened.”

“I didn’t come into this … because these are great cases and I am going to make a lot of money. We’ve done very well over the years. I come to this place because I personally understand the betrayal. I know how much it meant to be an altar boy on the altar serving Mass, feeling the excitement of being a young Catholic feeling I was starting to play a role in that world. I didn’t experience the betrayal that my clients experienced but I think I can relate to it because I remember how much I loved being an altar boy and how much I loved being a young Catholic.”

His journalism background has made him concerned about the potential to name innocent priests, though that reportedly is very rare.

“We know there are good people out there, good priests out there,” Boyd said. “So we want to be extremely careful about when we raise a name.”

He said his hope for his clients and the church after he puts the tissue boxes away is simple.

“At the end of this, I hope our clients feel they have received some measure of justice,” Boyd said. “And when it is over, the church will get on with its mission. I think they could have done that a long time ago. When I say some measure of justice, you can’t give a person their childhood back, you can’t undo the mistakes they made as adults, you can’t relive their lives for them, so no one is going to receive real justice here. They will only get the kind of measure of justice that the law allows.”

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