Kevin J. Koscielniak drove 250 miles from his suburban Detroit home to report an alleged crime in Western New York from 40 years ago.
Koscielniak told police that the Rev. James Burson from the former Cardinal Dougherty High School in Buffalo molested him in 1979 on a weekend retreat in Amherst.
“I wanted a public record of it. I felt that was important to have. I know there’s a lot of people out there who think we’re just lying,” said Koscielniak, who drove back to Michigan that same day last June.
Koscielniak, 55, plans to sue the Buffalo Diocese in August, when New York State begins a one-year window suspending the statute of limitations in sex abuse lawsuits.
Some attorneys said they expected tens of thousands of lawsuits to be filed across the state within the window established by the Child Victims Act, against all varieties of institutions, not just Catholic dioceses.
“There’s a lot of Catholic Church. There’s a lot of state foster care cases. There’s a lot of schools,” said Samantha Breakstone, a former prosecutor who now handles child sex abuse and human trafficking cases at the Weitz & Luxenberg law firm in New York City. “I don’t think people realize how prevalent it is.”
“I think the numbers are going to be astounding,” she added.
Buffalo attorney Barry Covert said his law firm is now handling 45 to 50 cases that fall under the Child Victims Act. About 20 of those cases involve the Catholic church, said Covert.
"I would say on the first day of the window, and the first week or the second week, you're just going to see a flood of cases," he said. "I would not be surprised to see 400 or 500 cases being filed, just locally."
Diocese offered victims money
The lawsuits will follow on the heels of a Buffalo Diocese program created last year to pay childhood victims of clergy sex abuse who agreed not to sue.
Koscielniak was not eligible to apply for compensation through the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program because he had not told the diocese about the abuse prior to March 2018.
“Even if I was eligible for it, I would not take it,” he said, calling the diocese's offers "hush money."
The Buffalo Diocese repeatedly has declined to discuss any details about its compensation program, such as how many people applied or how much it has paid out in settlements. Beyond releasing the names of 80 priests with substantiated allegations of abuse against them, Bishop Richard J. Malone has refused to provide more information to the public about the depth and scope of clergy sexual abuse of minors in the diocese.
The Buffalo News learned through interviews with abuse victims and attorneys that more than 100 people applied to the diocese’s compensation programs and more than 50 settlement offers have been made so far, totaling at least $8 million. Abuse survivors who accept a compensation offer sign away their rights to sue, and the diocese is under no legal obligation to release details of settlements or of alleged abuses.
But it will become harder for the diocese to keep a lid on information once cases like Koscielniak’s end up in state court. Malone and other diocese officials will be at the mercy of the court to turn over church files and to answer the probing questions of trial attorneys alleging that the diocese was negligent in allowing abusive clergy to operate in parishes around children.
Koscielniak said he wants the diocese’s secrets out in the open, even if it means giving up some of his own privacy. “I’ve come to realize I own this. It happened. I’m not going to deny it anymore,” he said. “I asked myself the question: What’s the right thing to do? And the right thing to do is not to be silent.”
"Keeping silent," he added, "the only people it helps are the perpetrators, the pedophiles."
Covert said he was preparing lawsuits of behalf of several clients who were aware of the diocese's compensation program and chose not to apply, even though at the time there was no guarantee a Child Victims Act with a suspended statute of limitations on sex abuse cases would be enacted. “A lot of them said they just didn’t trust the church,” said Covert. “They thought [the compensation program] was a way to whitewash their story.”
Most dioceses in New York created compensation programs, and five dioceses have paid more than $200 million to nearly 1,200 victims through those programs, according to the administrators of those programs.
But many other clergy abuse victims either were denied compensation or were unaware of the programs, said Breakstone.
Attorney J. Michael Reck said he expected many cases to be filed against the Buffalo diocese because its compensation program was so restrictive. “The Buffalo Diocese turned away far more survivors than they ever considered,” said Reck, who is representing Koscielniak. “All of the survivors who were denied participation are now able to file lawsuits.”
Koscielniak started calling the diocese last April or May to report what happened to him, and left multiple messages. He didn’t get a return call until July or August, he said.
Koscielniak accused Burson of fondling him during a retreat with the high school library club. Burson was librarian at Dougherty for many years and is part of a congregation known as the Eudist Fathers that provided priests for the high school in Buffalo’s Black Rock neighborhood.
Malone has identified 80 Buffalo-area priests with substantiated allegations of sex abuse of minors against them. Burson, 84, is on that list.
He appears to be living in California. Until early November 2018, around the time Malone added him to a Buffalo Diocese list of offending priests, Burson was a priest “in residence” at St. Patrick Church in Carlsbad, Calif. A website for the Eudists says that Burson was "well-loved for years as the librarian at Cardinal Dougherty High School in Buffalo" and continues to do ministry at St. Patrick on weekends and in the retirement home where he lives. Messages left for Burson and for the Rev. William Rowland, pastor of St. Patrick and superior of the U.S. region for the Eudist Fathers, were not returned.
Koscielniak said he was a 15-year-old sophomore when he went on a winter weekend retreat with seven or eight other students in the library club to Consolata Mission Center in Amherst. On the first night of the retreat, Koscielniak said he was in a dorm room alone, sleeping on his back in bed when he awoke to Burson sitting on the mattress, fondling him. “I froze, and I couldn’t believe what was happening. I didn’t know what to do. I said to myself, ‘OK, just pretend you’re still sleeping,’ ” said Koscielniak. “I rolled over and tried to hug the wall.” The priest grabbed his midsection to turn him over, but Koscielniak said he kept his body pressed against the wall until the priest eventually left the room.“I didn’t sleep that whole night,” he said. Burson came back the next night and tried again, but Koscielniak again pressed himself to the wall until the priest gave up and left, he said.
Koscielniak told no one, especially not his parents, who were devout Catholics. “You don’t talk about this in the '70s with anybody, especially not in the neighborhood where I came from,” he said.
Koscielniak said he thought he was strong enough to deal on his own with the trauma of the abuse. After all, he grew up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood on Buffalo’s East Side. He lifted weights and played offensive line for the football team. But in hindsight, Koscielniak said he was trying to hide from the trauma.
Months after the alleged abuse, Dougherty closed and Koscielniak went to St. Mary’s High School in Lancaster, where he continued to play football. He broke his jaw in a game – an injury that made it difficult to eat and led to his losing 80 pounds. He looked like a different person.
Koscielniak remembers punching himself in the damaged jaw to keep it from healing, so he wouldn’t be able to eat and would continue to lose weight. “That was my way of changing who I was,” he said. “I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time.”
After college, Koscielniak pursued a career outside of Western New York in the music business.He said he now recognizes he was trying to escape. He went by the name Kevin Kay while working in marketing and promotions for several large record labels in big cities such as Houston and Detroit, where nobody knew anything about his past. He drank a lot. He felt out of place everywhere. He thought about suicide. He had trouble sleeping. Three years ago, he had a nervous breakdown.
“It was just the culmination of dealing with this for so long by myself,” he said. “The shame, it just swallows you.”
Counseling and therapy got him to the point of being able to talk about the abuse, he said. He has told his wife, two sons and his sisters, as well as a handful of close friends. Talking about the abuse is part of Koscielniak's healing process, and he wants to encourage other survivors to come forward with their stories. “It’s like a million pounds off your shoulders,” he said.
Reck said he intends to file a lawsuit on behalf of Koscielniak against the Buffalo Diocese and the Eudist order as soon as possible. The window opens Aug. 14 and runs through Aug. 14, 2020.
"The first day," said Koscielniak, "I'm in line."