Complaints about how the Diocese of Buffalo investigates allegations of sexual abuse have reached the Vatican and one of the pope’s chief confidants.
Michael Taheri, the attorney for The Reverend Samuel Venne, says the preliminary investigations process run by the diocese is flawed.
His complaints include how the Diocese of Buffalo does not always provide priests with copies of the accusation or allow the accused to meet with the Review Board that makes recommendations to the bishop on the merit of sexual abuse allegations.
“It’s absolutely the worst procedure I’ve seen in 30 years as a lawyer,” Taheri said.
Taheri raised his concerns with Pope Francis and his advisor, the Boston Diocese Archbishop Cardinal Sean O’Malley, asking both to intervene.
News 4 Investigates has spent weeks reviewing the diocese’s preliminary investigations process and found that Bishop Richard Malone has wide discretion in setting the rules.
For example, the allegations are not notarized or signed by the accusers even though the rulebook that guides dioceses says they should be.
The diocese does not make available to the accused priests any Canon lawyers, who are experts in the system of legal principles that guide the Catholic church, even though the rules “strongly urge” in some instances that this assistance be provided.
In addition, the bishop has been releasing names of accused priests at the outset of the preliminary investigation even though the law that governs the Catholic church states, “care must be taken so that the good name of anyone is not endangered from this investigation.”
The bishop took it a step further by announcing that the allegations against Venne and two other priests were “substantiated” after the preliminary investigation concluded and the diocesan Review Board made recommendations.
Taheri also raised most of these concerns with the Vatican and O’Malley through a package of materials he shared with News 4 Investigates.
“I’d like to say that the process can protect the priest’s reputation, but as its presently constituted, it does not because it creates this idea that the priest is guilty before there’s been a formal trial in Rome and that just shouldn’t be the case,” Taheri said.
“So, I don’t think there has been any effort to preserve the dignity or reputation of the priests under this process.”
Terrence Connors, the litigating counsel for the Buffalo diocese, said there is no perfect process when dealing with these issues. He said he’s personally seen the bishop agonize over some of the decisions.
“They are terrible flashpoint issues,” he said.
“You’re talking about an allegation of abuse of a child and it’s very difficult. How do you protect the priest’s reputation, yet give voice to the people who have not been able to voice their complaints? It’s a very delicate balance.”
Venne, 76, told News 4 Investigates that he never sexually abused anyone.
He was placed on administrative leave April 18, eight days after an allegation surfaced that he sexually abused a child in the 1980s, when Venne worked at Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church in Lancaster.
Venne was not among the 42 priests named by the Diocese of Buffalo in March.
On June 26, Venne submitted defense documents to the investigator hired by the diocese. They included a lie detector test that he passed and a psychological assessment that concluded his denial of the alleged sexual contact was credible.
The next day, the diocesan Review Board, a panel of local professionals that has included nurses, sexual abuse counselors, former police officers, businessmen and judges, met to discuss Venne’s case and others.
On June 28, Bishop Malone “substantiated” the allegations against Venne and two other priests. They remain on administrative leave pending action from Rome. Venne said there was no explanation of his rights or any mention of an appeals process.
Taheri said the diocese should withhold making such public statements until the process, which could include a local tribunal ordered by the Vatican, is completed. Otherwise, the bishop’s announcements “prejudices the process.”
“It creates this idea that the priest is guilty before there’s been a formal trial in Rome and that just shouldn’t be the case,” he said.
Protecting the reputations of both the priests and the accusers isn’t only a tenet of Canon Law. The policies and procedures manual for the Diocese of Buffalo states that “all appropriate steps shall be taken to protect the reputation of the accused during the investigation.”
Connors, the diocese’s attorney, said the bishop’s announcements always include a statement that the church is not implying any “determination as to the truth or falsity of the complaint.”
But in the court of public opinion, that message can get lost once there is a public that a priest is on administrative leave because of an allegation of sexual abuse.
Connors said parishioners begin to ask questions once a priest is placed on administrative leave and the bishop feels obligated to announce the reason.
“How much criticism would attach if they overlooked and said well, we have to always come down on the side of the priest, and you have a bishop like Bishop Malone who I’ve seen personally agonize over these decisions,” Connors said.
“I have seen him worry and wonder about whether he’s doing the right thing to protect the priest or to protect the children. Where does the balance lie? How do you make that decision? It’s extremely difficult.”
Venne twice asked the diocese for a copy of the allegations, which he never received.
Taheri, Venne’s attorney, said priests should receive copies of the allegations against them as a fundamental right to due process.
“So that packet of information should be right there from the start so that he can participate, investigate the motivation of the accuser, the background of the accuser, date, time and location of the accusation,” Taheri said.
Not getting a copy – or at the minimum access to the allegations with an attorney – is unusual, said Michael Ritty, a Canon law attorney near Albany who has represented more than 250 priests at 100 different dioceses.
“It has always been made available to me,” Ritty said about reviewing the allegations.
Connors said the diocese is not required to provide priests copies or access to the allegations. Typically, Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz orally presents the allegations “line by line” to priests in a private meeting, without attorneys, he said.
Those allegations, however, are usually not signed or notarized. That goes against the recommendations in the handbook that guides bishops in the investigations process.
The Handbook for Canonical Processes for the Resolution of Complaints of Clerical Sexual Abuse of Minors states that, “As a rule, the complaint should be made in writing.”
“It should be signed by the complainant, dated, and then notarized by an ecclesiastical notary.”
Connors said there is “no requirement on the diocese’s part that it be notarized or even sworn to.”
“I guess, according to the rules, it would be helpful if it were to be notarized. We don’t require it to be notarized,” he said.
Taheri said: “The fact that they don’t do it, I think really looks poorly on the present process that’s in use by the Buffalo Diocese.”
Taheri’s letter to the Vatican and O’Malley, said “basically, anyone can call the diocese and make an accusation, and that phone call alone may trigger a process resulting in a priest being put on administrative leave.”
The bishop can request a preliminary investigation once a priest is placed on administrative leave. An investigator hired by the diocese collects background information, interviews the accuser and the accused, if still alive, and attempts to piece together the events. His findings, and any defense the priest might have, is provided to the Review Board. The Review Board makes recommendations to the bishop of whether it believes the accusations have merit.
But neither the accuser nor the priest meets with the Review Board. Connors said the emphasis of the process is on the protection of children.
“The priest does not have a right to appear before the Diocesan Review Board nor does he have a right to confront the accuser and cross examine the individual who may have made an allegation against him,” Connors said.
“So, there’s a lot less that you’re entitled to under the Constitution.”
Taheri said the Review Board members only consider the information provided to them by the investigator.
“Hopefully that process can change,” Taheri wrote in his letter to the Vatican and O’Malley.
“It is respectfully submitted that the priest should have an opportunity to present his case directly to the body that will determine his fate in the immediate future.”
The process might run smoother if Canon lawyers were involved.
The diocese does recommend that accused priests hire a civil or canonical lawyer, but they do not help furnish one or pay for the services.
The rule book states that if a priest is invited to participate in the preliminary investigation – and Connors acknowledged the diocese does involve the priests in some fashion – then “it is strongly urged that he be provided the assistance of canonical counsel.”
“I would welcome canonical counsel assisting us in this matter,” Taheri said. “I think it would be a great testament to improving the fairness of the process.”
Ritty, the Canon lawyer near Albany, said each diocese does it differently.
“Some dioceses will pay for all services, some will pay for some, and others will pay nothing toward any counsel,” he said.
The question now is will there be intervention from the Vatican or O’Malley, who is president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which is a panel created by the pope in 2014 to propose initiatives for protecting minors and vulnerable adults and promote local responsibility at each church.
O’Malley’s office had no comment but did acknowledge receiving Taheri’s letter and exhibits. The package includes more than 100 signatures from parishioners who ask that the suspension of Venne be lifted.
“I think the whole process needs to be reviewed,” Taheri said.