Buffalo Bishop warns ‘credibly accused’ priests: join monitoring program or risk losing your retirement funds

News 4 Investigates

The attorney for one priest who has so far refused to join the program said the bishop has a “moral obligation to provide for these priests.”

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Suspended priest Samuel Venne has been fighting back against the Diocese of Buffalo since 2018, when allegations first surfaced that he sexually abused children decades ago.

But the fight he is in now could cost him more than the seven-year suspension he received late last year for being what the diocese deemed as “credibly accused.”

Venne, 79, refuses to join the diocese’s monitoring program for priests it deems as “credibly accused.”

His reluctance to sign up could cost him his modest living and result in him living in his old van, his attorney told News 4 Investigates.

The problem is Venne has never been charged or convicted of any such crime, said Mike Taheri, the priest’s attorney.

He has neither been tried nor has he had the opportunity to testify and present evidence that raised questions about the decades-old allegations against him, including that Venne might be a victim of mistaken identity and he passed a polygraph test. He has maintained he is innocent from the beginning.

Yet, the Diocese of Buffalo deemed Venne “credibly accused” after its Review Board in 2018 found the allegations credible. Former Bishop Richard Malone upheld the decision and kept Venne on administrative leave, pending a decision from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.

The Vatican’s decision came late last year when it placed Venne on a seven-year suspension.

Venne appealed the decision.

As a result, Venne has so far refused to join the monitoring program.

“This is an administrative decision that proceeds on the false notion that I am guilty of clergy sexual abuse – which I am not,” Venne wrote Buffalo Bishop Michael Fisher on June 14.

It is unclear if other priests have refused to join the diocese’s monitoring program. A spokesman for the Diocese of Buffalo did not answer questions posed to him on June 17. Bishop Michael Fisher was not available to be interviewed, the spokesman said.

The monitoring program is a requirement of the New York State Attorney General’s Office through the lawsuit it filed in 2020 on allegations that the diocese has failed to protect minors from sexual abuse by clergy.

The program includes unannounced visits, controls over where priests can live and their computer access, and possible limitations on where they can travel, among other restrictions.  

The state’s lawsuit says that monitoring accused priests is the obligation of the Diocese of Buffalo and that “their failure to do so is a breach of fiduciary duties.”

The lawsuit also cites testimony from former Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz, in which he said he was responsible, beginning in the 1990s, for monitoring priests removed from their assignments in the diocese because of sexual abuse allegations. Grosz also testified that the diocese lacked any policies and procedures on the supervision of priests removed from ministry for “many years.”

Taheri said the diocese is not the right entity to be managing this type of program. Rather, he believes the Office of the Attorney General should handle the monitoring of accused priests who have been removed from ministry.

“This is not church business,” Taheri said.

“This is exactly what the AG’s office should do, and if the diocese wants to have some input … but this really belongs with investigators, parole, probation – let them run it. I don’t think Bishop Fisher has training in this type of situation.”

On June 8, Fisher sent a letter to Venne to express his “great disappointment and concern” with Venne’s refusal to participate in the monitoring program.

“Your refusal to do so will leave me no option but to exercise the option to end your retirement plan payments in part or altogether,” Fisher wrote.

“While it is not my intention to leave you impoverished, which would be contrary to my obligations under Canon Law, I also take very seriously my obligations to the victims of abuse at the hands of priests of this Diocese.”

Taheri said ending or cutting Venne’s retirement payments very well could leave him impoverished.

Venne already lives on a modest Social Security check and the monthly payments from the diocese cover his basic needs of housing he has with a parishioner and insurance for his health, dental and vehicle. The diocese once covered Venne’s housing and insurance needs, but stopped once he was deemed credibly accused.

“They are trying to bully whip these priests,” Taheri said.

“So, I think the bishop needs to understand the implications while he’s living comfortably at the Cathedral. These elderly priests, if he wants to pull their [retirement funds] and not provide any protection or safety net for them, Father Venne may be in his van and that van may be parked in the diocese parking lot.”

Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here.

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