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Diocese says abuse victims can see secret priest files, but blocks access

Gary Astridge has spent much of his adult life cobbling together dribs and drabs of information about the Rev. Edward Townsend, the priest he says molested him multiple times in the 1960s, starting when Astridge was 7 years old.

So, when Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger first suggested in January that abuse survivors could examine Buffalo Diocese files on their alleged abusers at the chancery offices, Astridge left three messages with Scharfenberger’s office seeking an appointment.

Two months later, the City of Tonawanda resident said he has yet to receive a return call.

“To me, once again, it’s just words, empty,” said Astridge, who last August sued the diocese over the abuse. “Emotionally, it’s so disheartening, so discouraging. It’s a slap in the face.”

Scharfenberger took the helm as apostolic administrator of the Buffalo Diocese when former Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned in December and immediately pledged that the diocese would be more transparent in dealing with abuse survivors.

But Astridge and other plaintiffs said that under Scharfenberger, the diocese has continued trying to conceal information that could be helpful to abuse victims.

They pointed to the diocese’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing on Feb. 28, which put on hold more than 250 lawsuits in State Supreme Court, outraging many plaintiffs who said they had sued to force the diocese to reveal documents and answer for its handling of abusive priests.

Even prior to the bankruptcy, the diocese’s lawyers fought for weeks in State Supreme Court against the release of more than 1,000 pages of confidential documents from the personnel files of two priests who have been accused in more than a dozen lawsuits. A judge eventually ordered the diocese to hand them over, but only to attorney J. Michael Hayes, who had filed motions to get the material. Justice Deborah A. Chimes, at the request of the diocese's lawyers, ordered Hayes not to share the documents.

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger.

Scharfenberger has defended the bankruptcy filing, saying it was the only way to settle equitably so many lawsuits and continue the church’s mission. He said the move was not an effort to limit discovery in the lawsuits, and he told The Buffalo News on the day of the bankruptcy filing that he will do “everything possible” to make documents available to victims “for whom it will be helpful in their process of healing.”

He also told The News that he would be open to a public accounting of the diocese's handling of priests who had many claims of abuse against them.

"We could certainly take isolated cases where there was particular egregious actings out, take a look at that and examine those records, and make some sort of accounting for that," he said.

Diocese spokesman Greg Tucker last week reiterated Scharfenberger’s intent, saying that the bishop wanted to give people who brought claims access to “essential information” in priest personnel files, to the extent he can without violating confidentiality laws.

Tucker said several people have reached out to the diocese requesting access to files, and the diocese is working on it.

Scharfenberger has formed a “working group” to advise him on disclosure of information related to those who have been credibly accused, said Tucker.

“His priority is to provide access to those individuals who require information in their pursuit of justice – he has assured all that those who need information to pursue their cases, will have what they need. There is an issue with just releasing personnel files, of course. There are privacy regulations related to HIPPA laws, and confidentiality protections that must be respected,” Tucker said.

Bishop 'just talks a good game'

Like Astridge, Kevin J. Koscielniak said he called the diocese in January and has yet to hear back about looking at the personnel files of the Rev. James Burson. Koscielniak accused Burson, a former librarian at Cardinal Dougherty High School, of molesting him in 1979 on a weekend retreat in Amherst.

Koscielniak said Scharfenberger’s remarks about transparency so far have resulted in no action.

“He just talks a good game,” said Koscielniak.

Kevin Koscielniak alleges the Rev. James Burson, a librarian at the former Cardinal Dougherty High School, molested him in 1979 on a weekend retreat in Amherst. He has sued the Buffalo Diocese. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Beyond allowing access to files for individuals, there is a broader question of whether the diocese will release personnel documents more broadly to the public, as has been done in some other dioceses and archdioceses.

Child Victims Act (updated 2/13/20)

Some victims advocates said many abuse survivors are afraid to come to the chancery to review records, and the files of one priest in isolation from others don’t tell a complete story anyway of what measures the diocese took or didn’t take to curb abusive priests.

“There is a concern that the diocese will try to use bankruptcy to say, ‘We don’t need to focus on anything that happened in the past. Let’s focus on the bankruptcy, compensating people and moving forward,” said attorney Jason Amala, whose Seattle-based firm represents dozens of clients. “Of course, people want to be fairly compensated for what they went through, but for most of our clients, what’s more important is that they get some understanding of what happened.”

The bankruptcy proceeding allows for discovery, but because there are so many potential claims, the creditors committee will have to weigh the costs of producing the discovery and any litigation versus the diocese’s ability to pay for it, while at the same time fully compensating victims, said Amala.

“There’s tension there,” he said.

If the diocese really wanted to take accountability and improve its reputation, it would voluntarily release files publicly, said Amala.

“Redact the names of abuse survivors but put it out there. Put the files out there and show that you’re taking some responsibility,” he said.

Some dioceses more transparent

Some dioceses and archdioceses already have posted that information on their websites.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee includes links to thousands of pages of internal documents related to 48 priests who were removed from ministry due to abuse allegations or were deceased and had substantiated allegations of abuse against them. The disclosures were required as part of the non-monetary terms of a 2015 bankruptcy settlement with abuse survivors.

In 2008, Archdiocese of Chicago agreed to a legal settlement with abuse victims that led to the 2014 release of more than 6,000 pages of internal documents related to 30 priests. Later in 2014, the archdiocese voluntarily posted online nearly 15,000 more documents related to an additional 36 priests accused of abuse.

Attorney Stephen Boyd said the Buffalo Diocese doesn’t have to wait until it is bound by a court agreement to disclose confidential documents on abuse.

“There’s nothing stopping them from doing that,” he said.

Buffalo Diocese accusers still waiting

Astridge said he has always wondered about Townsend's history and whether anyone did anything to stop the priest. He heard that someone else came forward with a complaint about Townsend in 2006, but he's never been able to verify it.

"I just keep thinking, for all the kids that were in that neighborhood at that time, were there others?" said Astridge.

If the diocese doesn’t release confidential documents voluntarily, the creditors committee will work to make sure that they are disclosed, said Richard Brownell, one of seven plaintiffs who was appointed last week to the committee.

Brownell alleged in his lawsuit that he was molested multiple times by the Rev. John Aurelio, beginning in 1968 or 1969 when he was 11 or 12.

“People want the records released. The reason that the records need to be released is it shows a pattern over decades, and not just a pattern, but a whole system, systematically facilitating pedophile priests,” said Brownell. “That’s why the files need to be released, because it tells the story.”

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