Buffalo Bishop Edward U. Kmiec has suspended a Cheektowaga pastor following an accusation that the priest behaved inappropriately years ago with a teenage boy.
The Rev. David W. Bialkowski denied any wrongdoing and has hired a lawyer to clear his name.
"We deny these allegations that have been made against him. We're complying with everything that we have to do when such allegations are made," said the lawyer, Kevin W. Spitler. "We're going to allow the process that the diocese has set up to work itself through."
Spitler would not elaborate on what has been alleged.
The accusation against the priest came from a former parish altar server, James J. Herr II.
Herr, 24, confirmed to The Buffalo News that he had "sought the advice of an attorney, and we have been in contact with the diocese." The attorney is Kevin T. Stocker.
Herr, a multimedia journalist at Channel 2 News, said he did not seek out media attention or a monetary settlement from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.
Herr said Bialkowski exhibited "inappropriate behavior" that he said he encountered as a teenager.
"I thought the diocese should be made aware of it," he said. "I'm not going to comment on the specific behavior. That's between my attorney and the Diocese of Buffalo."
According to sources, Herr at some point told diocesan officials through his lawyer that the priest put his hand on Herr's upper thigh and made suggestive comments. The incident allegedly occurred a decade ago when Herr was 14.
The pastor told friends that nothing inappropriate transpired between him and the accuser, sources said.
Diocesan officials initially informed parishioners of St. John Gualbert Church in Cheektowaga, where Bialkowski has ministered for more than 15 years, that the priest was ill and requested a medical leave.
But sources told The News that the pastor, who is 49, has no illness. Instead, he was ordered to leave the parish and to not perform any priestly duties. He is currently living in a residence for retired priests.
A statement Wednesday from the diocese said that Bialkowski had been placed on "administrative leave" while an investigation continues.
"Whenever there is an allegation of inappropriate conduct against a priest or, for that matter, any employee of the diocese, certain policies and procedures are followed. This case is no different," the statement reads. "Once the investigation is concluded, the bishop will determine whether or not Father Bialkowski will receive another ministerial assignment."
Meanwhile, some parishioners criticized the bishop for acting too hastily and without credible evidence that Bialkowski had behaved inappropriately.
"I think it's a witch hunt out for him. It's ridiculous," said LaVerne Adamczyk, a longtime church member. "He's just being hung out to dry here. He can't even celebrate Mass publicly."
Several church members mailed letters of protest to Kmiec, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal representative based in Washington, D.C., and Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York.
Herr told The News that he left St. John Gualbert Parish in April 2010 and then sought Stocker's advice in late spring or early summer.
"I'm moving on with my life," Herr said, adding that he has no plans to sue the diocese. "This isn't a matter of money. This is all a matter of bringing attention to what happened."
According to sources, Bialkowski contends that Herr is retaliating because the priest reported to authorities that Herr and the church's former organist, Andrew N. Kowtalo, allegedly hacked into his private computer.
Neither Herr nor Kowtalo was charged with a crime following an investigation.
Bialkowski announced his departure during Masses on Feb. 19 and 20, even though his six-year term as pastor was not set to expire until June and the holy season of Lent begins next week.
The diocese assigned a temporary administrator, the Rev. Emil P. Swiatek, to take his place.
According to diocesan policy, a priest should be relieved of his responsibilities and placed on administrative leave "if there appears to be any credibility to a complaint deemed by the bishop or vicar general to be serious."
"This relief from administrative responsibilities is for investigation purposes only and is not intended to, nor shall it, imply any determination as to the truth or falsity of the complaint or the innocence or guilt of the individual involved," the policy reads.
The case, according to the diocesan statement, has been the "subject of an extensive review" by the Diocesan Review Board, a consultative body of Catholics appointed by the bishop to analyze cases of possible sexual abuse.
The review board was given facts about the case from diocesan officials and did not interview the priest, sources said.
The review board — established in 2002 in response to a national clergy sex-abuse scandal — was expected to examine the case again next week and make another recommendation to Kmiec, who has the final say on whether Bialkowski will be able to resume priestly duties.
Herr indicated that he was satisfied with the diocese's response to his concerns about Bialkowski.
"I guess I would have to say that I'm glad that the diocese listened and took the action that they thought was appropriate," he said.
Parishioners were stunned by the priest's abrupt departure. Bialkowski had served in the parish since 1995, as parochial vicar for nearly a decade and as pastor since 2005.
Ordained in 1988, Bialkowski was known for reintroducing traditional Catholic spiritual practices, such as devotions and novenas, into the life of the parish.
"He's a very spiritual man and very highly regarded here," said Kathryn A. Zaidel, a longtime parishioner, who wrote a letter to Kmiec defending the priest. "We have all treasured him here."
Zaidel said she did not have firsthand knowledge of why Bialkowski left, but was skeptical that he did anything that would warrant a suspension or removal.
"No way," she said. "If you could pick one person to be the least likely to have anything [negative against him], it would be him."
Anthony J. Lis, a parish trustee, expressed concern that the parish will lose members because of the diocese's action.
Lis described Bialkowski as "a phenomenal pastor."