BUFFALO, N.Y. — Christ the King Seminary is responsible for forming the vast majority of priests who have served the Diocese of Buffalo. It serves as a training ground for other dioceses, as well.
But it is also considered by many the primary reason the Buffalo Diocese is engulfed by a sexual-misconduct scandal, both by allegedly forming abuser priests and by allegedly perpetuating a toxic clerical culture that enabled sexual misconduct. And the problems at Christ the King are not a new phenomenon: An entrenched culture of sexual misconduct at the seminary dates back decades, according to sources who spoke with the Register and to other news media.
John (not his real name), a former Christ the King seminarian, told the Register that his own vocation came to a sudden halt at Christ the King in the 1990s, when a priest-professor took a sexual interest in him after a visit to an indoor pool at a Catholic college. The priest isolated him from the rest of the seminarians, effectively forcing him to ride alone with him back to Christ the King, which is located in a rural area, through backwoods roads on a rainy night.
John said the priest began engaging in sexually graphic conversation, revealing he was a homosexual, alleging all sorts of people in the Church were engaged in sexual activity and going into graphic detail regarding his sexual preferences. John said he had enough presence of mind to push back and say that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II would disagree — a comment that enraged the priest, who began fulminating about Cardinal Ratzinger and the late Pope. John said he feared sexual violence and had his hand on the door handle.
“I thought, ‘If I have to jump out of this car, I’m going to jump out of this car,’” he said.
Instead, they returned to Christ the King — but John, who is now in his 40s, said he was crushed by depression for a long time after the incident.
“I’ve never been sexually harassed before that, and I have never been sexually harassed after that.”
He reported the priest-professor, who subsequently was removed from Christ the King, to his satisfaction. However, he only recently learned, to his dismay, that the priest, who is now dead, had been transferred to a parish in New Jersey.
But the damage to John’s vocation was complete. He left the seminary, never to pursue again a vocation to the priesthood.
John’s traumatic experience was by no means an isolated case during that time period, according to other sources.
Beverly Malona, a former director of the diocese’s natural family planning office who served as a lecturer at Christ the King, told local media that she knew the seminary was “a hotbed of sexual activity” in the 1980s and 1990s. “I’d walk in, and the hair would stand up on my neck,” she said about the sexually charged atmosphere that was present.
Seminarians repeatedly stopped by her office to complain that they had been the targets of sexual advances by priests at the seminary. According to Malona, such priests justified their sexual activity by saying celibacy only meant not marrying a woman, not that they couldn’t engage in sexual acts themselves.
Father Beirnat’s Allegations
One of the concerns in play regarding the sexual-misconduct allegations involves foreign-born seminarians at Christ the King. Father Ryszard Biernat, who is currently on leave from his assignment as priest-secretary to Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone, has alleged that Father Art Smith sexually assaulted him on a parish assignment as a seminarian.
In September of this year, the Polish-born Father Biernat, who arrived in 2003 at the age of 23 to study at the seminary, alleged that Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz, who was a classmate of Father Smith, warned him that Father Biernat would lose his place in the seminary and be forced to return to Poland if he went public with his claims against Father Smith.
Father Biernat told the Register the seminary did not help him in the aftermath of the alleged assault.
“I’m struggling to get up in the morning, with anxiety, and they’re focusing on how my hair is not combed,” he said.
However, he said that laypeople helped him recover and continue in the seminary program. At the same time, Father Biernat said he remembered struggling a great deal with anxiety and depression, particularly when he learned Father Smith was honored at the seminary as “priest of the month” on the vocations website.
Father Biernat revealed in September 2018 he was assaulted in 2003, but only named Father Smith publicly as his alleged abuser only after gaining his U.S. citizenship in July. He accused Bishop Malone of also pressuring him into silence about fully disclosing his abuse as late as August.
Father Biernat secretly recorded and leaked to the media confidential discussions by Bishop Malone and his inner circle regarding the sexual harassment and attempted blackmail of then-Christ the King seminarian Matthew Bojanowski by Father Jeffrey Nowak (see Part 1 of this series). Part of the alleged blackmail involved Father Nowak’s alleged theft from Bojanowski’s Boston apartment and digital reproduction of a 2016 letter apparently written by Father Biernat to Bojanowski that has been read as either a love letter or a letter of intimate friendship. Both Father Biernat and Bojanowski have maintained they only have a chaste friendship and not a homosexual relationship.
Bishop Malone, for his part, had known (and informed the Vatican) Father Smith was alleged to have sexually abused Father Biernat as a seminarian.
When asked by the Register if he was investigating Father Biernat’s claims about Bishop Grosz, Bishop Malone replied via email that his auxiliary denied making “any intimidation or threat to Father Ryszard.”
Father Smith, meanwhile, has been the subject of other allegations of sexual misconduct not associated with the seminary. In 2011, he was suspended as a diocesan priest by Bishop Malone’s predecessor, Bishop Edward Kmiec, following allegations that he was sending inappropriate messages to an eighth-grade boy at St. Mary of the Lake School in Hamburg.
The following year, after succeeding Bishop Kmiec, Bishop Malone restored Father Smith to active ministry, reportedly after the accused priest spent time at a treatment center in Philadelphia. But Father Smith was placed on administrative leave again in April 2018, as a result of a separate allegation of sexual abuse of a minor, as detailed in a WKBW report that also cited a number of other allegations of problematic conduct involving adults. Then in February of this year, Father Smith’s 33-year-old nephew publicly alleged his uncle had abused him when he was 9 years old.
Father Smith is now on the diocese’s list of credibly accused priests and also faces a lawsuit under the Child Victims Act from another alleged victim. He continues to maintain his innocence of any wrongdoing.
Allegations Against Father Gatto
The seminary’s historical and recent sexual-misconduct scandals appear to intertwine in the person of Father Joseph Gatto, a veteran of Christ the King’s formation team, who Bishop Malone selected to lead the seminary as rector-president in 2013.
In the fall of 2018, two laymen came forward and alleged Father Gatto initiated unwanted sexual advances when they came to him as young adults in the midst of personal crises. One of the alleged incidents dated back to the 1980s, while the other allegedly occurred in May 2000.
After the first accuser came forward, Father Gatto told The Buffalo News, “I have never broken my vows as a celibate priest, ever,” but he was placed on administrative leave from his position as Christ the King’s rector.
On the heels of the two men’s allegations, James Faluszczak, a graduate of Christ the King Seminary who subsequently served as a priest of the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, for 18 years before he left the priesthood, went public with his own submitted sworn testimony to the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation regarding Father Gatto and with a letter he sent to Bishop Malone asking him to take action against Father Gatto.
Faluszczak stated Father Gatto abused his position as formation director to have sex with a seminarian who sought his guidance due to struggles with same-sex attraction. Faluszczak also alleged that Father Gatto blackmailed him into silence on the eve of his diaconal ordination by bringing up Falusczak’s earlier disclosure to Father Gatto of his own sexual misconduct with another seminarian.
Local Buffalo news WKBW reported that the Diocese of Buffalo had released a statement advising that Bishop Malone had met with Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie to discuss Faluszczak’s allegations and that Father Gatto’s alleged seminary victim, who is now a diocesan priest in Erie, had denied to them anything inappropriate had happened with Father Gatto. However, WKBW reported it could not confirm this account because the alleged victim had declined multiple requests for comment.
Faluszczak told WKBW that Father Gatto facilitated a culture of sexual license in Christ the King Seminary that resulted in negative consequences for the future priests who studied there.
“My experience among the Catholic clergy, both in Buffalo and in Erie, is that they are oversexualized, highly sexualized,” Faluszczak said. “When Father Gatto became the rector of Christ the King Seminary, the hypocrisy of that was part of the motivation for me to leave active priestly ministry.”
‘Colombian Pipeline’ Involvement?
As well as reporting on these allegations, in August 2018, Church Militant reported that while serving as Christ the King’s vice rector 20 years ago, Father Gatto had been instrumental in setting up a pipeline of seminarians from Colombia, who, according to an ex-seminarian, were either active homosexuals or vulnerable to sexual coercion by homosexual clergy in the diocese.
As documentation of that allegation, Church Militant posted online a September 1998 memo from Father Gatto to then-Buffalo Bishop Henry Mansell, printed on Christ the King stationery, that listed the names of nine future seminarians who would soon arrive from Colombia.
The continuing existence of such a Colombian seminarian pipeline, and its connection to the Diocese of Buffalo, also was indicated by the findings of a 2012 investigation into sexual misconduct at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, which resulted in the expulsion of 13 seminarians from the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, and the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey.
According to the investigation’s final report, some of the problematic seminarians at Holy Apostles “were discovered to be on a ‘blacklist’ of seminarians expelled from Colombian seminaries for engaging in unacceptable behavior/homosexual activity.”
“The evidence at Holy Apostles led us to a very systemic homosexual network of individuals, not only covering for each other, but actively sanitizing files, moving people around, engaging in all sorts of negative activity,” Father John Lavers, who led the investigation, told the Register last year. “That effort represented a large network involving several dioceses, including Paterson, Newark, Hartford and Buffalo — this last of which is coming out in the news now.”
Bishop Malone’s Response
Although Father Gatto denied that he had ever broken his vows as a celibate priest when the accusations surfaced last fall that resulted in his removal as rector of the seminary, he revealed in September 2018 he was being sent to Southdown Institute in Toronto for a psychological evaluation.
A new permanent president-rector, Vincentian Father Kevin Creagh, has now been installed, and Father Gatto currently has no active parish assignment. This May, Bishop Malone announced Father Gatto would be reassigned to St. Christopher’s parish in Tonawanda, but abandoned that decision in June in the face of a public outcry from Catholic parents.
The Register asked Bishop Malone if he was taking any further actions regarding Father Gatto’s alleged pattern of misconduct, or investigating what negative influence he might have had on the seminary.
The bishop said in an email to the Register, “We have no evidence that Father Gatto ever sexually engaged or pursued any seminarian.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.