The pastor of a Roman Catholic parish in Lockport is accused in a civil suit of sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy during an overnight stay in the church rectory in 1991.
A Niagara County grand jury investigated and took evidence in the case last October, but issued no indictment after finding no other allegations.
Nonetheless, the family filed a $2.9 million lawsuit Wednesday in Erie County State Supreme Court, naming as defendants the Diocese of Buffalo and the priest, the Rev. Bernard M. Mach, pastor of St. Mary's Parish.
The plaintiffs, a Lockport couple and their son, now 14, are identified in the 20-page complaint as Jane, James and John Doe.
However, they once were close friends of Father Mach and lay leaders in a religious renewal movement that he founded with another diocesan priest, according to Jennifer A. Coleman, their attorney. Father Mach previously had been at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Buffalo's First Ward in 1990.
Ms. Coleman said she filed the suit after an attorney for the diocese cut off negotiations regarding the boy's claims.
But Terrence M. Connors, an attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, said the diocese conducted its own investigation and could not find any evidence to verify the allegations.
The diocese turned down an offer from the plaintiffs to settle the case out of court, he insisted.
"We were offered an opportunity to settle in the case, and we declined to settle. The diocese intends to vigorously defend this claim," Connors said.
And Father Mach's attorney, Daniel T. Roach, said the allegations are untrue.
"I think he (Father Mach) is confident that, when this case is heard in court by a judge and jury, he will be exonerated just as he was by the Niagara County grand jury and the diocesan investigation group," Roach said.
According to the suit, the incident occurred in late October or early November 1991, when Father Mach asked the couple to let their son stay overnight at the rectory to look after the priest's two dogs because he expected to be out late.
The boy said he became frightened watching television and fell asleep on the couch, where he was later awakened by Father Mach, who had returned home.
"Father Mach asked if John Doe wanted to sleep in Father
Mach's bed so John Doe wouldn't be afraid," according to the complaint, and the boy agreed. The priest then showed the boy pornographic movies, the complaint claims.
The youth said he went to a bathroom and stayed for 20 minutes because he was afraid. But when he returned to the room, the priest grabbed the youth, fondled him, and exposed himself before forcing himself on the boy, the complaint said, although there is no allegation of rape.
Following the incident, the suit continued:
"John Doe was crying and Father Mach hugged him and said: 'God forgives us for all our sins,' " telling the boy that what he did was "normal."
According to the suit, the priest urged the boy not to tell anyone what happened because it could ruin his reputation as a priest.
The priest also gave the boy an expensive camera and a coat following the incident, the suit claims, and the youth began having behavioral and emotional problems.
Both parents and the youth have sought psychiatric treatment following the incident, according to Ms. Coleman.
The boy began washing his hands frequently, sometimes using bleach because he felt "dirty" following the incident, according to the complaint.
The suit blames diocesan officials and Bishop Edward D. Head, claiming they "knew or should have known" about the behavior, which was "tolerated and thereby sanctioned" by officials.
Connors, representing the diocese, noted that: "One of the strengths of our legal system as well as one of the weaknesses of our legal system is that any person may bring a claim against another person, but that does not make it true."
Although the civil suit accuses the priest of other acts of improper behavior with parishioners, the criminal investigation by a Niagara County grand jury found no other allegations.
"The grand jury felt that there wasn't significant evidence to file felony charges," Niagara County District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III said. "There is no further investigation and there have been no further complaints."
In his own defense, Father Mach testified at the grand jury proceedings, sources said.
Members of the Niagara County Child Abuse Strike Force interviewed the youth and he was found to be "believable," according to a law enforcement official who was involved in the case.
"We interviewed the boy and he was believable, but we also conducted an extensive investigation of Father Mach and we could find no additional alleged victims in his past."
"We interviewed a number of his parishioners at St. Mary's and at other churches in Niagara Falls and Buffalo where he has served, and his personal friends and there were no similar allegations of that conduct," the investigator said.
Investigators did learn that Father Mach, who is known to many by the nickname Corky, is a non-traditional priest who is either loved or disliked by parishioners.
"There is quite a Corky fan club out there. Some of his conduct, I would say, is untraditional, such as his language and the off-color jokes he tells, but that does not make him a child molester," the investigator said.
And Roy Tripi, a close friend of Father Mach's for the past 15 years, said it is common for Father Mach to hug and kiss people.
"But it is done as a warm and loving gesture."
Tripi said Father Mach is the founder of "Mission" in the Buffalo Diocese. Mission, he said, is an eight-night spiritual journey that has been held in many parishes throughout the diocese.
"Corky is a warm and loving person and through Mission has brought many people to know the Lord and His peace in a personal way," Tripi said. "With all the allegations against priests today, I could see facts about Corky, his hugging and kissing people, being manipulated. I have seven children and would trust Corky with anyone of them or my five grandchildren."