A retired Diocese of Buffalo priest has appealed a decision from the Vatican to suspend him for seven years after being accused twice of sexual abuse of minors.
Samuel Venne, 79, has been a priest with the Buffalo Diocese for more than 40 years. He learned of his punishment through a Nov. 10, 2020, letter from Judicial Vicar Rev. Msgr. Salvator Manganello.
The letter came with a “Penal Precept” spelling out the restrictions against Venne, which included prohibiting him from celebrating Mass publicly and from wearing any clerical garb.
In other words, Venne, who has always maintained he is innocent, is not allowed to present himself as a priest.
Venne has refused to sign the precept.
“I cannot sign any document regarding my faculties until I have had an opportunity, in person, to present my evidence to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith,” Venne wrote last year in a letter to the Diocese of Buffalo’s bishop and the Vatican office responsible for processing sexual abuse complaints against priests.
Mike Taheri, Venne’s attorney, has long been a critic of the process that the diocese and Catholic Church follow to determine how accused priests will be punished.
Taheri told News 4 Investigates that he always was under the impression that Venne would have an opportunity to present evidence of his alleged innocence to decisionmakers in Rome in a trial-like environment.
But no such thing happened.
“I think it is a tremendous miscarriage of justice for both sides,” Taheri said.
“It just shows there is absolutely no due process, there is no one in the room managing this situation at all, to the harm of both sides.”
In June 2018, a Diocesan-appointed Review Board found the allegations against Venne to be credible and his case was sent off to Rome for a final decision.
It’s unclear what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reviewed to make its decision.
Unlike legal standards in the United States, the Catholic Church follows what is called Canon law, which has an entirely different set of procedures than what defense attorneys are accustomed to.
The decision to suspend Venne for seven additional years was made without any tribunal, and Venne said he was never offered an opportunity to rebut the allegations at any stage. He has never been charged with any crime.
Nonetheless, Taheri said he provided both the diocese and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with evidence that Venne was wrongly accused. The evidence included a lie detector test that Venne passed, medical records and information that Venne could have been a victim of mistaken identity.
Taheri said he has no information that leads him to believe the decisionmakers in Rome received his packet of documents, let alone reviewed them.
“It’s just a horrible process,” he said.
The decades-old allegations against Venne surfaced around the time New York State passed the Child Victims’ Act, which removed the statute of limitations to file a civil case against an alleged sexual abuser. The deadline to file claims was extended to Aug. 14.
Since then, more than 200 priests from Western New York have been accused of sexual abuse. The diocese has only publicly released the names of a fraction of those priests now accused in these civil suits.
The diocese said in a prepared statement that the Review Board, a panel of independent people appointed by the bishop, did consider the material Venne provided, and that was a “preliminary” investigation with “administrative” action.
“Therefore, the accused does not have a series of procedural rights to be protected as he would have at a trial,” the diocese said.
“Fr. Venne’s case was appropriately referred to the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and was returned with the penalty of ‘prayer and penance’ for a period of 7 years,” the diocese said.
That is a hard pill for Venne, and his attorney, to swallow.
Taheri said Venne had requested meetings with former Bishop Richard Malone, apostolic administrator Edward Scharfenberger and present Bishop Michael Fisher, but he never got a response.
“Since he has been placed on administrative leave in April 2018, he has not received a single phone call from any of the past leaders,” Taheri said.
“The Catholic Church doctrine of mercy just isn’t part of the equation down at that chancery.”
Taheri has appealed the Vatican’s decision, but has not gotten an update.
“Everybody is on notice and when we filed it frankly no one responds from the diocese, no one responds from the Vatican and this is what’s so troubling: they say there is going to be this process, this opportunity to present the case like a trial,” Taheri said.
“Well, where is it? If I were a priest in Western New York, I would be very, very concerned about the process that doesn’t exist to protect them.”
The diocese has canceled Venne’s medical, dental and car insurance policies, but he still gets a monthly pension, Taheri said. He lives with a parishioner since rent for his living quarters is no longer covered by the diocese.