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Accused of sex abuse, Buffalo priest fires back with defamation lawsuit

A Buffalo priest who was accused in a Child Victims Act lawsuit of sexually abusing a boy in the 1980s is firing back with a lawsuit of his own that alleges his accuser lied about the abuse and slandered the priest.

The Rev. Roy T. Herberger, former longtime pastor of SS. Columba & Brigid Church, filed the defamation suit Tuesday in State Supreme Court in Erie County. The lawsuit is the first known defamation case in Western New York filed against a person over allegations made in a Child Victims Act suit.

Herberger said he wanted “to take a stand” to prevent people from making false claims.

“Know that you can be sued. It’s not just so simple that you can make an accusation,” Herberger said in an interview with The Buffalo News.

The Buffalo Diocese put Herberger on administrative leave in June 2018 after receiving a complaint that the priest had sexually abused an 8-year-old boy in the 1980s. Herberger vehemently denied the allegation in a letter to parishioners and friends. Following a diocese investigation that determined the allegation was unfounded, he was returned  to active ministry in December 2018.

The man who complained to the diocese sued in August 2019 under the Child Victims Act, naming the diocese as a defendant, but not Herberger. The case is slated to go to trial Feb. 10, 2021.

Herberger's accuser, who is 42 and lives in Niagara Falls, is named in Herberger's defamation lawsuit. The News is not identifying the man because he says he is a child sex abuse victim and hasn’t consented to the use of his name in a story. The News does not identify sex crime victims without their consent.

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The accuser's lawyer, Stuart Mermelstein of  New York City, did not immediately respond Wednesday to The News' request for comment on Herberger's lawsuit.

Herberger, 77, has been a priest since 1968. He retired as a pastor in 2017 but still celebrates Masses and performs other priestly ministries at the University at Buffalo Newman Center and other churches.

Herberger said in the lawsuit that he has been humiliated by the sex abuse allegation and has suffered severe emotional distress, as well as a loss of income due to the accuser’s claims.

Attorney Scott Riordan, who was hired by the diocese to investigate the allegations against Herberger, determined that the claims were “completely false.”

Riordan found several inconsistencies in the accuser’s story, according to a copy of a report Riordan submitted to the diocese that was obtained by The Buffalo News.

Among those inconsistencies, according to the report:

  • When the man reported the alleged abuse to the diocese in 2018, he said he was a student at St. Ann School in the mid-1980s, but Riordan couldn’t find any record of him there.
  • The man said the priest abused him 10 times in a room inside the St. Ann rectory. But St. Ann parish was run by the Jesuit order, and Herberger, a Buffalo diocese priest, would not have had a room there or a key to the rectory. Herberger was assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Boniface parishes, not St. Ann, at the time of the alleged abuse. Herberger didn’t become associated with St. Ann until 2008, when the parish merged with SS. Columba & Brigid.
  • The accuser also alleged much of the abuse happened at the priest’s home in Lackawanna, but Herberger never owned or rented a home in Lackawanna. Riordan did track down a Lackawanna house that Herberger had been associated with, because the priest was granted power of attorney for a parishioner who owned the home. The house in 2018 matched how the accuser described it, with beige siding and a white picket fence. But photographs of the house from the 1980s, when the accuser alleged he was brought there by Herberger, showed an exterior painted in multiple colors and no fence. The beige siding and white fence weren’t installed until the late 1990s. The accuser described being in a blue bedroom room filled with a porcelain doll collection during the abuse. The family of the parishioner who had owned the home submitted affidavits saying Herberger never had a key to the house and the home didn’t have a bedroom painted in blue, nor a porcelain doll collection.

Despite being cleared by the diocese, Herberger said he stills feels the stigma of having been publicly accused.

“The accusation is there: no proof, no evidence, not even an inkling, just an accusation and all of a sudden, people like me are put on the front page of papers, picture, name on television, and I mean, that’s just not fair,” he said.

The accusation resulted in Herberger's not being able to officiate at several weddings, funerals and baptisms of family and friends. Nardin Academy, where he had been chaplain, hired another priest, he said.

Herberger said he’s gained weight due to the stress of carrying a reputation damaged by a child sex abuse allegation.

“It’s just sleepless nights and overeating and wondering, ‘What do people think?’” he said. “I’m afraid, do I even say hello? Do I shake hands with a child at Mass or after Mass? Do I have to be afraid that people are going to say, ‘He’s too close to that child? What’s he doing? What’s he up to?’ It’s just horrible, having to live with that.”

Herberger's lawsuit, which was filed by attorneys Steven K. Long and Olivia T. Paulo-Lee, seeks in excess of $100,000 in punitive damages from his accuser.

Herberger said he doesn’t expect to get any money from his accuser.

“I mean, I’m going to be spending money on a lawyer to get no money, because I’m sure that the person accusing me doesn’t have any. That’s why he did what he did,” said Herberger.

Herberger acknowledged in his initial 2018 letter defending himself that he knew the man accusing him.

He said he had helped the man's father, who struggled with alcoholism and was homeless for stretches of time on the streets of Buffalo. Herberger said he sometimes took the man's father for treatment and returned him home. He met his accuser maybe three or four times, always in the presence of his parents and never alone with him, he said.

He has no idea why the man, decades later, would accuse him of sexual abuse, “except that maybe I’m the only priest he ever knew by name,” said Herberger.

[RELATED: Read Herberger's defamation lawsuit  |  Read the lawsuit accusing Herberger of sexual abuse]

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