Brother Michael T. Duffy was appointed St. Francis High School’s principal in 2021 by a Franciscan order, despite a finding by a Massachusetts college that he had inappropriately touched a male student months before while working as a nurse there.
Duffy fondled a college student’s genitals during a medical examination at College of Our Lady of the Elms, the college determined after conducting a Title IX investigation and hearing, according to documents obtained by The Buffalo News.
Duffy denied he had fondled the male student and two female students who had also accused him of inappropriate touching while he performed heart and lung medical examinations of the student athletes at Our Lady of the Elms in September 2020.
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The college determined he had not fondled the female students.
A spokesman for the Franciscan Friars Conventual order confirmed Monday that officials of the order were aware of the college students’ accusations against Duffy when it assigned him to work as principal at St. Francis, a Catholic school for boys in the Town of Hamburg.
Brother Michael Duffy, OFM Conventual, principal of St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, has been suspended pending an investigation into a claim of non-physical inappropriate behavior, school officials reported.
The regional province of the Franciscan Friars Conventual, which oversees St. Francis and assigned Duffy as principal, told The News in a statement Friday that a law firm it hired to investigate the college students' accusations had cleared Duffy of any wrongdoing. The province's investigators did not interview the college students who accused Duffy. The province criticized the college's investigation as being possibly biased against Duffy.
However, the province said that Duffy – who was suspended from St. Francis in August because of an unrelated complaint that it also determined to be unfounded – will not return as principal of the private school.
“He will not, however, be returning to his post at St. Francis High School to spare the school which he loves any possible distraction based on the undue negative effects on his reputation,” Our Lady of the Angels Province said in a statement sent to The News.
Duffy, who will be allowed to return to ministry, could not be reached by The News for a comment.
Complaints at the college
Duffy had worked since 2011 at College of Our Lady of the Elms, a small Catholic college in Chicopee, Mass., rising to associate dean of the school of nursing and an associate professor.
He resigned from the college effective May 15, 2021, to become principal at St. Francis. That was 3½ months after the college found he had not fondled the female students and 1½ months after the male college student filed his complaint.
Duffy began at St. Francis on July 1.
Two months later, after completing a Title IX investigation and hearing, Our Lady of the Elms determined that Duffy had fondled the male student.
That prompted Massachusetts state health officials to also launch an investigation of the college students’ complaints because Duffy was a licensed nurse and nurse practitioner.
An investigator for the Massachusetts board concluded in a January 2022 report that it appeared Duffy did not adhere to the standards of nursing practice. “… the evidence supports that the Licensee on or about September 2020, while employed and on duty as a Certified Nurse Practitioner at Elms College in Chicopee, MA, conducted improper and inappropriate physical examinations on Student Athletes which included unnecessary contact with the student’s genitals,” the investigator wrote.
Duffy ended that investigation several days later by signing a “voluntary agreement” with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Board of Registration in Nursing that prohibited him from working as a nurse practitioner in that state.
Duffy did not admit wrongdoing, but acknowledged in the agreement that “based on the evidence and information related to the Complaint, the Board could find that the Licensee presents an immediate and serious threat to public health, safety, and welfare.”
Duffy had two St. Francis High School officials sign as witnesses his voluntary agreement with Massachusetts.
But the language in the voluntary agreement with Massachusetts did not prompt the school to remove Duffy as principal.
“I just signed it,” said Rev. Matthew Foley, the president of the school, in explaining that he did not read the document that Duffy had asked him to sign.
Nancy Smolinski, a St. Francis secretary, said, “I thought he didn’t want to write prescriptions anymore. I just glanced at it.”
Cleared by Franciscan order
Duffy continued to serve as St. Francis’ principal until August 2022, when he was suspended for an incident unrelated to the complaints at Our Lady of the Elms. Officials at St. Francis said at the time that he was suspended due to an accusation of “non-physical inappropriate behavior.”
The school did not disclose what specific accusation was made against Duffy and did not release any information about who had filed the complaint.
On Friday – one day after The News asked the Franciscan Friars Conventual about the complaints against Duffy, Foley notified students' parents that Duffy had been cleared of any wrongdoing related to the complaint that led to his suspension, but he would not be returning to work at St. Francis.
Our Lady of the Angels Province – the Franciscan order’s regional governing body in the eastern United States and Canada – said in a statement to The News that it had hired a St. Louis law firm to investigate the complaint against Duffy. Sullivan Advisors’ investigators “uncovered no evidence to substantiate the allegation,” the province said.
“In accordance with the Friars’ policy, Br. Michael, who had been suspended from public ministry pending the results of the investigation, has been returned to active ministry,” the order said in the statement sent to The News.
Our Lady of the Angels Province also said that Sullivan Advisors had previously been hired by the province to investigate the complaints made against Duffy by the college students.
Despite the college’s finding against Duffy, the law firm’s 6½ month investigation found the claim that Duffy had improperly touched the male college student to be unsubstantiated.
Sullivan Advisors’ investigators “concluded the college’s Title IX hearing panel was inexperienced, possibly biased towards Br. Michael, hearsay testimony was allowed, and during the hearing, the cross examination of witnesses by Br. Michael’s attorney was very limited,” according to Our Lady of the Angels Province.
“The college was less than cooperative with Sullivan Advisors, preventing multiple key potential witnesses from talking with investigators. The three individuals who made the accusations also refused to cooperate as did many of their friends and associates,” the province said in its statement.
“The preponderance of evidence weighed heavily in Br. Michael’s favor. That is why he was not removed from ministry,” said Our Lady of the Angels Province, which is headquartered in Maryland.
A spokesman for Our Lady of the Angels, Kevin Keenan, said the province’s leadership made the decision to clear Duffy of wrongdoing earlier this month.
Our Lady of the Angels Province had been responsible for assigning Duffy to be the St. Francis principal in 2021, said Keenan, of Keenan Communications in Buffalo.
The high school’s former president, Rev. Michael Sajda, announced Duffy’s appointment as principal in 2021, but Keenan said principals at high schools run by the province are selected by the province.
Complaints from St. Francis staff
The Franciscan province’s clearing Duffy of wrongdoing did not extinguish concerns shared by some former St. Francis High administrators who want to know why he was hired, given his history.
"It's clear they knew his past at Elms College and still put him in a position of leadership to form young Christian men," said Dr. Mary Louise Stahl, who served for 11 years as the high school’s assistant principal.
She noted the Franciscans did not think the college's investigation was flawed when it found that Duffy did not fondle the two female student athletes.
"The Friars need to take responsibility," Stahl said.
Stahl’s contract at St. Francis was not renewed in June. She filed a complaint Dec. 2 with the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo about Duffy’s appointment at St. Francis.
She claimed that Sajda knew about the inappropriate touching accusations when Duffy was hired at St. Francis and that he put students there in jeopardy. She claimed that six St. Francis employees quit in June 2022 because of Duffy’s unstable behavior at the school. She said her contract was not renewed at St. Francis because she filed a harassment claim against Sajda internally in 2020 and because she was suspect of Duffy's abilities to perform as principal due to his instability.
“We were not aware of what happened at Elms College during his year as Principal,” she wrote in her complaint to the diocese, adding that it seemed like a situation of "hide a religious person” when “they do something wrong.”
EthicsPoint, a company under contract with the diocese, investigated Stahl’s complaint. EthicsPoint concluded Sajda was unaware of Duffy’s past and was not responsible for his appointment as principal.
“When Brother Duffy was originally assigned to St. Francis H.S., he was simply appointed by his Provincial Superior. Fr. Sajda was never consulted about the appointment, and I believe he was unaware of Br. Duffy's previous misbehavior,” the EthicsPoint investigator wrote.
“I sympathize with your outrage, but it should be directed toward the governing body of the Conventual Franciscans who chose to send Brother Duffy to Athol Springs (Hamburg). Only they could explain why Br. Duffy was transferred to this diocese in spite of his history, and why he remained here despite his apparent inability to function satisfactorily in the job he was asked to undertake.”
Sajda is now assigned to St. Mark’s parish in Boynton Beach, Fla. He did not return voicemail messages seeking his comments.
Concern over Duffy’s appointment
Cindy Krug, who resigned in June after 16 years as St. Francis High School’s guidance department director, was also critical of the Franciscan province for clearing Duffy of wrongdoing.
“In the end, we find out that this person was inappropriate with college students in Massachusetts and yet was placed with our students with no regard to their safety,” Krug said. “It is so important that people know the high school staff and administrative team spent our careers protecting and caring for our students and families.”
She said she did not believe Duffy had the qualifications to run the school and that he refused to accept help from credentialed and experienced staff members.
Krug said she resigned out of frustration over the appointment of Duffy and others she felt were unqualified, plus the decision not to renew Stahl’s contract.