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Judge orders Buffalo Diocese to hand over secret files on accused priests

Confidential Buffalo Diocese personnel files on the Rev. Norbert Orsolits and the Rev. William F.J. White corroborate what has been reported in news stories about the two priests accused in multiple lawsuits of molesting children, a Buffalo lawyer who has reviewed the files said.

“It pretty much confirms everything that is known and alleged about these guys,” said attorney J. Michael Hayes. “It confirms that everything that’s been reported is pretty much true and accurate, as far as I can tell.”

State Supreme Court Justice Deborah Chimes in February ordered the diocese to give Hayes more than 1,000 pages of documents from the personnel files of Orsolits and White, who combined have been accused in 16 Child Victims Act lawsuits.

The diocese had opposed Hayes' motion to force it to turn over the personnel files.

The files appear to be the only diocese documents so far to end up in the hands of a plaintiff’s attorney since the Child Victims Act lawsuits first started being filed against the diocese last August.

Chimes stipulated that the diocese hand over the files by Feb. 25. Three days later, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which put on hold all Child Victims Act cases in which the diocese is named as a defendant.

Orsolits’ admission to The Buffalo News in 2018 that he had molested “probably dozens” of boys in the 1970s and 1980s led to a stream of revelations of childhood sex abuse involving dozens of other priests, a civil investigation by the state Attorney General's Office, an FBI probe, international media attention, more than 250 lawsuits against the diocese and the resignation of Bishop Richard J. Malone.

Abuse survivors and their advocates had expected discovery in Child Victims Act cases in state courts would help them pry free records that proved the diocese protected molester priests and covered up abuse cases. They criticized the bankruptcy filing as an effort by the diocese to avoid full disclosure, although diocese officials maintained that a Chapter 11 reorganization was the only fair way to settle all the lawsuits without going out of business.

Hayes represents one client who accused Orsolits of abuse in the 1970s, when Orsolits was assigned to St. James Church in Depew; one client who accused White of abuse in 1986-87, when White was assigned to Queen of Heaven Church in West Seneca; and one client who accused both Orsolits and White of abuse in the mid and late 1960s, when White was at St. John the Evangelist in South Buffalo and Orsolits was at St. James in Buffalo.

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In an attempt to get around the bankruptcy, Hayes filed two cases on behalf of each client: One case named the Buffalo Diocese as the lone defendant, while a second lawsuit for each client excluded the diocese and instead named as defendants the parishes and other entities that were involved at the time.

Hayes said that while the cases against the Buffalo Diocese were transferred into bankruptcy court, the cases against the parishes continue to proceed in State Supreme Court as usual because those entities have not filed for bankruptcy protection.

“We’re still fighting. We haven’t been slowed down,” he said. “The bottom line is this stuff is discoverable. It is clearly material and relevant and discoverable. They just didn’t want to give it to us.”

As part of the Attorney General’s Office investigation, the Buffalo Diocese turned over many boxes of documents related to its handling of clergy sex abuse cases, but the AG’s Office has declined to comment on the status of its investigation.

Hayes said Chimes’ order prohibited him from sharing the documents he received or commenting directly on what is in them.

The files on Orsolits and White contained nearly 700 pages for each priest, said Hayes, who planned to use the information to prepare depositions and subpoenas for the cases that are still active in State Supreme Court.

Orsolits, 80, told The News last fall that "somebody is out to make money" when he was asked why seven people had filed lawsuits against him alleging abuse.

The Buffalo News reported in 1994 that two men had alleged White molested them as children in the early 1970s when the priest was assigned to the Working Boys Home on Vermont Street. Those allegations followed the newspaper’s report of White’s suspension in 1993, due to abuse that allegedly happened in the late 1960s in the home of the priest’s parents.

By 2002, White was forbidden from functioning as a priest and had moved out of state. He died in 2016.

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