is cautious in addressing dismissals
A year after a national edict pledged openness in cases
of abuse, the Diocese of Buffalo is circumspect in how much
it is revealing.
By JAY TOKASZ and LOU MICHEL
Buffalo News Staff Reporters
When the nation's Catholic bishops gathered last summer in
Dallas to confront the church's sexual abuse crisis, they
overwhelmingly agreed on a pledge to be more forthright with
their parishioners about how they handle abuse allegations.
"In the past," the bishops acknowledged in a document,
"secrecy has created an atmosphere that has inhibited
the healing process and, in some cases, enabled sexually abusive
behavior to be repeated."
The document - "Charter for the Protection of Children
and Young People" - called for bishops to develop a communications
policy in their dioceses "that reflects a commitment
to transparency and openness" when they address ministerial
misconduct involving minors.
But transparency and openness have meant different things
to different bishops.
Some bishops - such as the head of the Catholic diocese in
Albany - have publicly identified any priests they removed
or suspended because of credible allegations of abuse.
Others, including Bishop Henry J. Mansell of Buffalo, are
keeping secret the names of removed priests.
Last week, after being pressed for three days about the recent
and unannounced removals of two priests, Mansell would only
confirm that he had removed "various priests" because
of allegations from more than a decade ago.
Through a diocesan spokesman, the bishop said the diocese
was under no obligation to name names. He would not elaborate
and declined several requests for an interview.
Mansell's approach has prompted a mixed response from priests
"We've been asking for openness and honesty for so long.
What a strange way to do it," said Sally Orgren, a parishioner
of the University at Buffalo Newman Center and a member of
the local chapter of Call to Action, a national Catholic activist
organization. "People are going to start speculating,
"Well, who could it be?' It isn't fair to priests who
might be resigning for other reasons. And it isn't fair to
Some local priests are upset that Mansell had not taken action
to remove the priests last year, following the adoption of
the national policy, which was initially approved in June
2002, then revised in November.
Other local priests unwilling to be quoted by name said the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops let them down by adopting
a rigid policy that shows no confidence in them.
Several dioceses in 2002 removed priests against whom abuse
allegations had been lodged years ago.
"(Mansell) should have done it when everyone else did
it. (The controversy) would have dissipated by now. He has
stirred things up," said a diocesan priest who asked
that his name be withheld.
The priest also said the bishop should have named names for
the sake of clergy who are still working.
"It's difficult for priests out in the parishes, because
everyone looks at them and says, "Could he be one, too?'
" he said.
Another Catholic clergyman said the diocese's credibility
was on the line.
"It should have been taken care of a long time ago.
It hurts credibility that (diocesan officials) are not releasing
the names. The bishops in Albany and Rochester released the
names," said the cleric, who also requested anonymity.
"I can empathize with these guys over the heartache
it causes, because they went through treatment and thought
this was behind them years ago. But by not releasing their
names, you're causing suspicion to fall on every priest who
is retired or taking a leave of absence or resigning,"
the clergyman said. "I feel sorry for the next (priest)
who takes an early retirement or resigns, because everyone
will say it is sex abuse."
But some parishioners said they saw no reason to release
the priests' names.
"These things all happened years ago. There are too
many ifs, ands and buts," said Michael DiRienzo, a Lovejoy
resident who attended the bishop's morning Mass on Friday
in St. Joseph Cathedral.
Vincent J. Sorrentino, an attorney and former Erie County
Democratic chairman, who was also at the Mass, said he was
comfortable with Mansell's latest actions.
"Basically, he's addressing wrongs that are decades
old," Sorrentino said.
More than a year ago, diocesan officials revealed that as
many as 15 priests in the diocese had been accused of sexual
abuse over the past two decades.
The names of six of those priests were revealed in April
2002 - four of them through legal proceedings and two through
confirmation by the diocese. But, despite repeated requests
from The News over the past year, the diocese has declined
to discuss the remaining cases - including whether the accused
priests are still in ministry.
Diocesan spokesman Kevin A. Keenan on Friday said diocesan
officials were estimating when they said 15 priests had been
accused of sexual abuse.
"At the time, that was an estimate, and as far as we
know, there's no priest in active ministry in the Diocese
of Buffalo now who has committed an act of sexual abuse involving
a minor at any time," Keenan said.
Although the diocese says the abuses by priests occurred
a decade or more ago, at least one complaint has occurred
A Western New York man said he sent a statement to the diocese
just a few months ago, explaining that a diocesan priest abused
him in the late 1960s. The man said he was concerned that
the same priest might have abused others.
Diocesan officials told him they would look into his complaint
and "treat it fairly," he said.
The next time he spoke with the diocese, an official told
him the accused priest had retired.
"I was told that it was directly related to the complaint,"
said the man, who did not want his name used.
So far, revealing the names of accused priests who were removed
from ministry appears to be a judgment call by individual
According to Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, "transparency and
openness" should translate into "giving out information
unless there's a serious reason not to. That's the understanding."
Those reasons would include state laws or court orders prohibiting
the release of the information or victims' asking that the
information not be released, she said.
Kathleen McChesney, director of the conference's National
Office for Child and Youth Protection, said bishops had varied
approaches to naming accused priests.
"The charter wasn't real specific about it," she
said. "Transparency means providing all the information
about the problem and what's being done about it without violating
people's rights to privacy."
McChesney added that there isn't a "one size fits all"
approach to the identification question.
In Albany, Bishop Howard Hubbard has stated that it is the
diocese's policy to identify priests who have been removed
In Rochester, Bishop Matthew H. Clark identified six priests
he removed last spring because of sexual abuse allegations.
Both bishops made public announcements in the parishes about
the reasons for the dismissals.
Described as retirements
Instead, most of the removed priests described their departures
as retirements. Only one accused priest publicly acknowledged
- in a church bulletin - that he was being removed because
of an incident 16 years ago.
But the departures were abrupt and out of character from
a typical diocesan transfer, which is usually announced in
the Western New York Catholic monthly newspaper.
Three priests who were recently retired by the diocese under
sudden and unusual circumstances have refused to speak with
The News regarding their departures.
"I took a recommended retirement for health reasons,
and I'm enjoying my retirement," one said. "All
information has to come through the bishop."
Another priest, when asked about sexual abuse allegations
made against him, responded, "I have nothing to say on
But a South Buffalo woman who says her brother was sexually
abused by the priest expressed frustration that the diocese
did not act when the incident occurred in the 1960s.
"My dad went to the pastor of our parish the next day
and told him about the priest. The pastor assured us it was
an isolated incident and that the priest would be getting
help," the woman recalled.
Several months later, when the woman's father was in the
Southern Tier on business, he noticed a newspaper photograph
of the priest surrounded by children at a fund-raiser, the
"The "help' they got priests in the past was to
send them to the Southern Tier," the woman said.
A third priest hung up the telephone when contacted last
week by The News.
The recent removals have raised concerns among some priests
that the national no-tolerance policy might be shortsighted
"My concern is with priests who made a mistake 20, 30,
40 years ago, have gone to therapy and there's been no trouble
since," said the Rev. John J. Mergenhagen, a retreat
director who has been temporarily filling in at St. Joseph
parish in Varysburg. "I don't understand that. How can
this be? We're a church of sinners. Aren't we allowed to make
a mistake, repent and straighten out our lives?"
The Rev. Robert Wood, former pastor of the small rural parish,
was removed three weeks ago. Wood cited an incident 16 years
ago as the reason for his removal.
The church, said Mergenhagen, should have compassion toward
priests who reform their lives after making a mistake, although
he added that there is no room in the priesthood for persistent
The Rev. Stephen Rossetti, president and chief executive
officer of St. Luke Institute, a Catholic residential treatment
facility for clergy, where many priests are evaluated and
treated for a variety of disorders, said the church's approach
to handling abuse cases was dismantled by the charter - even
though it was working well for about 10 years.
Since 1985, the 320 priests treated at the institute for
sexual abuse had less than a 5 percent relapse rate, Rossetti
He maintains that sending accused priests to intensive treatment,
then placing them in ministries where they have no unsupervised
contact with minors, might ultimately be safer for children
than simply removing priests altogether.
"People say get rid of them. But the fact is, they've
got to go somewhere," Rossetti said. "I was disappointed
in the debate in the last year. People were not facing the
"The key is, what's the goal? The goal has to be the
protection of children."
Accused priests who are removed from ministry will no longer
hold a position of priestly authority, but they might still
have access to children, without monitoring by the church.
They might also be less motivated in keeping up with their
treatment, Rossetti said.
"The question is, is that better?" he said.