Priest on leave for allegations of sexual abuse says ‘I didn’t do it’

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A Catholic priest accused of sexual abuse of a minor almost four decades ago is denying the charges and fighting a process with the Diocese of Buffalo that his attorney calls “unfair” and “preposterous.”

The Rev. Samuel Venne passed a lie detector test administered by a credentialed professional. In addition, he had a certified psychological assessment that concluded he was “found to be credible in his denial of the alleged sexual contacts” and “failed to reveal” any indication that he had ever engaged in sexual abuse.

The Diocese’s Review Board on June 27 still found the allegations against Venne credible. As a result, on June 28, Bishop Richard J. Malone upheld Venne’s status on administrative leave, pending a decision from Rome.

“I didn’t do it,” Venne said.

“Why should I go ahead and say I did? That’s a lie.”

Venne and his attorney, Michael Taheri, are raising a series of criticisms about the Review Board process. For example, neither had an opportunity to appear before the Review Board or provide a statement contesting the allegations.

In addition, Venne twice asked for copies of the complaints filed against him, but was denied access.

“This isn’t a search for the truth,” Taheri said.

“This isn’t a search for justice. This is a proceeding with no constitutional or due process foundational pieces that exist to the accused or the accuser.”

J. Michael Ritty, an attorney outside Albany who specializes in Canon Law, the legal system under which the Catholic Church operates, said it is unusual for a Diocese to deny the accused copies of the allegations, or at minimum the opportunity to review them with an attorney.

“I don’t have a case in recent memory where I have not been allowed to at the very least review the allegation with the priest prior to any type of interview or prior to any type of response to the Review Board,” said Ritty, who has represented some 250 priests in more than 100 different dioceses.

Bishop Malone was on vacation and unavailable to comment.

Terrence M. Connors, the litigating attorney for the Diocese of Buffalo, said Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz went through the complaints “line by line” with Venne during a private meeting in April, without any attorney.

He said neither the priests nor their attorneys are entitled to the complaints, based on the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted by all dioceses in 2002.

“It’s spelled out specifically in the resource booklets that are provided to each Diocese,” Connors said.

“But the truth is we would give that to them if this is something that was really making it difficult for them to prepare a presentation that they wanted to make.”

Taheri said releasing the complaints now would be too late, as the Review Board process has concluded.

“We made two written requests for copies,” he said. “We have never received a response from the Diocese providing us with a copy. So, we are left in the dark as to who said what, when and where and how.”

Priest contests allegations

Venne, 76,  is a retired priest who would have celebrated his 40th year in October. He had been assigned to St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church on Grand Island. He’s been on administrative leave since April.

Venne also had stints at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Depew; All Saints Church in Buffalo; St. Anthony’s in Batavia; St. Mary of the Cataract in Niagara Falls; and he served as an assistant district commissioner for the Boy Scouts of America.

A letter from the Diocese to Venne states that a complaint was received on April 10, 2018 – less than a month after the Diocese released a list of 42 priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Venne was not on the original list. The letter did not contain any information about the allegation. The alleged incidents are said to have occurred between 1980 and 1982.

Venne said he decided to speak out publicly after Bishop Malone substantiated the claims, which “devastated” him.

“I never thought anybody would even think of making such an accusation,” Venne said in an exclusive interview with News 4 Investigates.

“Anybody who knows me knows it’s an impossibility,” Venne said.  

In a conference room at the law office of his attorney, Venne asked that the door be closed. He then unbuckled his pants.

Three WIVB reporters sat quietly as Venne dropped his pants and lifted his underwear, pointing to his upper thigh. One of the allegations was that the accuser saw up his shorts and could see black hair.

No hair, he said.

The odd introduction set the stage for a 40-minute interview during which Venne denied that he ever abused a child.

He has a sexual dysfunction disorder, according to his medical reports. The doctor wrote that given his condition, “this would give some substantiation to his claim that he did indeed have difficulty achieving erections and would call into question his ability to have performed, particularly in a quick fashion, as his accuser has claimed.”

 “It didn’t happen,” Venne said, “and it couldn’t happen.”

“We aren’t challenging the accuser,” added Taheri, Venne’s attorney. “We’re just saying Father Venne didn’t do it.”

Venne provided WIVB with a recent forensic mental health evaluation, sex offender assessment and polygraph test that he says helps prove he’s innocent.

The reports detail Venne’s rough beginnings. He was born premature.

At age 4, he almost died from measles and encephalitis. Before reaching his teen years, Venne was involved in a car crash, where he was pronounced dead. Hospital staff revived him, but he remained in a coma for 49 days. He had to re-learn how to walk and talk.

He acknowledged having viewed pornography between the ages of 19 and 30 prior to being ordained, but only images depicting “naked models with no sexual acts…”.

He passed the polygraph test by stating that since he reached the age of 18, he had never had sexual contact with anyone less than 18 years old and that no one has had any sexual contact with him during that same time.

Venne has his supporters who believe him.

In fact, 15 friends and parishioners joined him at the interview, where they read the Rosary.  

“Aren’t we innocent until proven guilty?” said Joan Allen, who has known Venne for more than a decade.

“And has he really been proven guilty? We haven’t seen anything that proves that.”

Transparency?

On April 26, Venne wrote Grosz asking for a “copy of the allegations.”

“I want to review those allegations and attempt to demonstrate that they are untrue,” Venne wrote.

On May 15, he wrote to attorney Lawlor F. Quinlan III, an associate with Connors, again asking for copies of the specific allegations made against him. He included a self-addressed stamped envelope.

But he never received the documentation he requested. 

An investigator was appointed to the case, launching the Review Board process. 

Neither the priests nor their attorneys are represented at the Diocese of Buffalo’s Review Board, a panel of community professionals that includes former judges, police officers, bank officials and nurses. Instead, the investigator paid for by the Diocese provides evidence that might exonerate the priest, while also piecing together the evidence he collected from the accuser.

All that the Review Board needs to find is that that the accuser’s allegation is credible.

Taheri called this process “preposterous.”

“Fundamentally, if a person is accused, they should have an opportunity to see the charge, defend the charge and at least testify on their own behalf and deny it in front of this Review Board, and then let the Review Board ask questions and say ‘these are our concerns,’” Taheri said.

Connors said the preliminary investigation for the Review Board is not a trial. Only Rome can order a trial, from what’s called the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.

On June 26, Venne was interviewed by the Diocese’s investigator, who was provided copies of the psychological and medical reports and the polygraph test. Two days later, Bishop Malone found the allegations “substantiated” and upheld Venne’s suspension. 

Connors said all accused priests remain innocent until proven guilty and that Bishop Malone’s decision to keep Venne on administrative leave should not be viewed as him establishing guilt.

“Once there’s a trial, there are rights that attach for the benefit of the accused priest that are very comparable to the rights of the Constitution that are for individuals charged,” Connors said.

Ritty, the attorney outside Albany who specializes in Canon Law, said the rules governing the process with the Catholic Church do not specifically give priests or their attorneys the right to review the complaint or appear before the Review Board. But he’s seen both happen.

Not having access to the written complaints against a priest at the preliminary stages can hamper the defense, he said.

“It’s important to see the complaint so that a person know what he’s being accused of, what is the complaint?” he said.

“Were you in this place at the time that you were said to be in this place? Do you know this person that is accusing you? What was the layout of the church in the buildings where these behaviors are alleged to have occurred? So, it’s important to be able to answer those questions.”

Venne’s attorney said having access to this type of information would have been useful before the Review Board met.

“Certainly, the proceeding was not transparent,” said Taheri.

“The decision isn’t transparent. We don’t know what they based it on. We don’t know the standard.”

According to the handbook used by dioceses to resolve sexual abuse complaints, the accused does not have the same procedural rights as he would in a trial. As a result, Connors said the Diocese must make the delicate balance of protecting the priest’s reputation while trying to give voice to the accusers.

“Under those circumstances, I know that the Diocese is complying with the Charter and I know that they are complying with the advice that they received from Rome and doing their best to work through a very difficult problem,” Connors said. 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith typically replies to the bishop within a year. One of the options on the table is a tribunal in Buffalo, which would operate similarly to a trial in the United States.

Even if he is exonerated and reinstated, Venne said he knows the court of public opinion will still likely view him as guilty. 

Until then, Venne said, he’ll continue praying.  

“I think the big thing is to say ‘thank you, Jesus’ and figure out what he wants me to do,” Venne said.

“What’s his will? I spend a lot of time in prayer because I think right now that’s what he’s calling me to do.”

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