Charges by a local attorney that the process used by the Diocese of Buffalo to investigate priests ignores basic principles of due process were shot down by a representative of one of the pope’s chief advisors on handling sexual abuse matters.
Local attorney Michael Taheri represents The Rev. Samuel Venne, who remains on administrative leave for decades-old sexual abuse allegations.
Bishop Richard Malone substantiated the allegations in June, the day after his Review Board met to discuss the case.
Venne has maintained he is innocent and has asked the diocese to reinstate him. He has presented the Diocese with documentation showing that he passed a polygraph test and a sex offender evaluation. More recently, Taheri sent the Diocese and its investigator materials that allege Venne’s situation could be a case of mistaken identity.
None of that has swayed the bishop to change his mind. Venne’s case was sent to the Vatican, which could order a local tribunal.
“This system that the bishop has put in place has failed the priests at every level,” Taheri said.
Taheri raised his concerns with Pope Francis and his chief advisor on sexual abuse problems in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Sean O’Malley and asked that they review the procedures the diocese is using to investigate priests.
On Aug. 24, Mark Dunderdale, the director of the office of professional standards and oversight for the Archdiocese of Boston, informed Taheri that he is misunderstanding how the law of the church operates.
“As you acknowledged, your letter raises your concerns regarding a canonical process through the lens of a civil lawyer applying concepts of American civil law and procedure to a church matter,” Dunderdale wrote.
“It is because of those misunderstandings that accused clerics often obtain the counsel of a canon lawyer skilled in these matters.”
Dunderdale recommended that Venne raise his concerns through a canonical advisor, not a civil attorney.
“There was no response to our concerns about the due process situation,” Taheri said. “They totally ignored it.”
Taheri’s complaint to O’Malley and the Vatican included how the Diocese of Buffalo does not always provide priests, or their attorneys, with copies of the accusations and that the allegations are not notarized or signed by the accusers. Venne had asked the diocese twice for copies of the allegations against him, but he never received any.
A canonical lawyer near Albany told News 4 Investigates that it is unusual for dioceses not to provide copies of the allegations or let the priest and his attorney review the allegations together.
“It has always been made available to me,” said Michael Ritty, a canonical lawyer who has represented more than 250 priests in 100 different dioceses.
Taheri said he is disappointed that his complaint to O’Malley was not taken more seriously.
“It is regrettable, given the present climate, that Cardinal O’Malley will not discuss constructive suggestions, nor create an opportunity for us to come to the table and dialogue on this crisis facing our Catholic clergy,” Taheri wrote to Dunderdale, of the Archdiocese of Boston, on Sept. 4.
Terrence Connors, the chief attorney for the diocese, said that any time a priest’s name is released after a sexual abuse allegation, a statement is included that the church is not implying any determination as to the truth or falsity of the complaint.
Connors, in a prepared statement to News 4 Investigates, said he has reached out to Taheri twice to discuss details of Venne’s case, but has not gotten a response.
He said the Review Board’s purpose is to screen allegations to determine if they should be sent to the Vatican for a canonical trial.
“It is preliminary to a trial,” Connors said.
“Even though it is preliminary, if a priest is accused, he is notified of the relevant details of the complaint, specifically presumed to be innocent, and the matter is screened by an impartial Review Board which advises the Bishop. At the trial stage, an accused priest has a number of additional rights which can be asserted by both his canon lawyer and his private lawyer.”