BUFFALO, N.Y. — “How’d he get through?”
Huddled with his priest-secretary, vicar general and vicar for priests, Bishop Richard Malone repeated the question raised in the room: How did the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, end up with a priest whom they believed had not only aggressively pursued a seminarian for an inappropriate relationship and sought revenge when spurned, but had the ability to do an enormous amount of damage due to the blackmail he held over other priests?
As detailed in Part 1 of this report, Father Jeff Nowak, a graduate of Christ the King Seminary, faces allegations of sexually pursuing a seminarian, violating the seal of the confession, hearing invalid confessions via FaceTime and working with two other priests who came out of that seminary to emotionally blackmail and then slander in revenge his target after refusing his advances. That seminarian, Matthew Bojanowksi, quit in August, citing Bishop Malone’s failures to protect his seminary career and reputation.
But secret audio recordings taken in March by Father Ryszard Biernat, Bishop Malone’s former priest-secretary, reveal that the group is concerned about the seminary’s image if Father Nowak’s actions get out and that homosexual persons collectively would be unfairly blamed.
They characterized Father Nowak, and two of his seminary classmates who are now also priests, as an apparent “homosexual triumvirate” spreading rumors and “cat-fighting” against other priests in the diocese they wanted to take down, including Father Biernat.
The group noted the obvious signs that should have barred Father Nowak from ordination: He left seminary twice, refused to show up for seminary assignments; but despite this record, he was ordained in 2012.
Beyond looking into his file and wondering how he was deemed suitable for ordination, nobody in the recordings suggests the need for a formal investigation into how the priest made it through the seminary’s safeguards, or whether his actions and those of the other members of the alleged apparent “homosexual triumvirate” pointed to the existence of an active homosexual subculture at Christ the King Seminary.
In fact, the March recordings show Bishop Malone and his inner circle agree there is a “larger group” of possibly homosexual priests with “unresolved” personal issues, in addition to Father Nowak and his associates, who are “not gonna go down quietly” and “will take anybody down” they have issues with.
The fear of Bishop Malone and his inner circle regarding these priests, who are products of Christ the King Seminary, did not abate months later.
“Jeff’s out to get us all — let’s face it,” Bishop Malone told Father Biernat in an Aug. 2 conversation that was secretly recorded.
Another key figure involved in the recent allegations of sexual misconduct at the seminary is Father Joseph Gatto, a longtime central member of the seminary’s formation team who stepped down as its president-rector in September 2018 following allegations of sexual misconduct against two lay adults who sought his pastoral help.
As detailed in Part 2 of this report, Father Gatto also faces accusations of both abuse of power and sexual misconduct with seminarians, as well as involvement in setting up a “pipeline” that brought problematic seminary candidates to the U.S. from Colombia.
Such allegations of homosexual activity committed and/or facilitated by members of a seminary’s formation team raise serious questions about the integrity of the formation process. And according to some informed observers, the problems at Christ the King appear to be so deep-seated that closing the institution should be considered.
Deacon Paul Snyder, a former member of Christ the King Seminary’s board of trustees, told the Register that the diocese explored the possibility of closing the seminary as part of the restructuring plan conducted a number of years ago under Bishop Malone’s predecessor, Bishop Edward Kmiec.
“The recommendation we made to Bishop Kmiec was the seminary should be closed and relocated,” Deacon Snyder said.
The possibility of partnering with Canisius College also was explored, but Deacon Snyder said they only made preliminary discussions with Canisius before it “was rejected out of hand” by Bishop Kmiec. “It was rejected by the very priests who were involved in the day-to-day operations of the seminary,” Deacon Snyder said, such as Father Gatto.
Deacon Snyder said that, in hindsight, it became clear that relocating and restructuring the priestly formation program from rural East Aurora “was obviously creating a problem for activities they were surreptitiously conducting at the seminary that are now being reported.”
Deacon Snyder said his main concern about the seminary was it had none of the supervision and oversight he would expect from another institution of higher learning with a residential program.
“At a college, you’d have proctors, an ombudsman, campus security,” he said. “You’d have infrastructure for the health, well-being and welfare of the students for everything from a medical emergency to something much more substantive.”
“Because it was such a closed environment, there was no way for the seminarians to get around the priests abusing them other than leaving the seminary,” he said.
“The few good men that got through: God bless them. The men we lost because of that environment is a tragedy; those who were abused that are now coming forward, that is also a tragedy,” he said. “The whole thing is a tragedy.”
John Hurley, president of Canisius College and of the Movement to Restore Trust, a group of local Catholics that was formed in 2018, told the Register in August that the group thought that the seminary should have a “third party, independent of the seminary and its staff, that would be available to seminarians if they have any concerns about sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior.”
“That reflects a general concern about the diocese’s handling of the sex-abuse scandal,” he said, adding there was a proposal to set up an ethics complaint line “answered and monitored by a third party.”
Hurley told the Register that the Movement to Restore Trust was planning to work with the bishop of Buffalo to reform the diocese. However, following publication of Bishop Malone’s recordings by local news media, the group said in a Sept. 5 statement that further progress under Bishop Malone was “not possible” and called for his resignation.
Others disagree that the problems related to the allegations of sexual misconduct that have surfaced are representative of the overall situation at the seminary.
Father Walter Szczesny, a former Christ the King student and formator as well as former vocation director for the Diocese of Buffalo, told the Register that the seminary’s current rural setting is helpful for study and contemplation, with opportunities for hiking trails and cross-country skiing.
“There’s never a perfect seminary, but my experience was extremely positive,” Father Szczesny told the Register.
Father Szczesny said he was part of the formation team from 1999 to 2006 and vocations director from 2006 to 2015. He said that, during his time, he was not aware of any issues involving sexual harassment or abuse of power for sex by seminarians or staff.
“Luckily, in my time there, that never reared its ugly head,” he said. “I never saw that at all.”
Father Szczesny said that while not impossible, it was very difficult for a person unfit for ordination to get through the seminary’s vetting process, particularly in light of “very strict” psychological testing instituted after the national clergy sex-abuse scandal erupted in 2002.
“I also know, as having been part of the formation team there, that the discussions and the voting on candidates — it is difficult for someone to slip through there that isn’t qualified,” he said.
Discussing the current situation, Father Bob Gebhard, Christ the King’s director of seminarian formation, told the Register the seminary “continues to concern itself with building awareness of and preventing sexual harassment, as well as building a sensitive, safe environment.”
“Those preparing for ordination and seminary faculty and staff are trained and encouraged to come forward in the event that they have a concern relating to their safety and well-being,” he said. “A thorough and formal policy and procedure is in place.”
Since local media highlighted the recent sexual-misconduct allegations involving the seminary, Christ the King has appointed a new rector-president, Vincentian Father Kevin Creagh.
“The new rector-president and formation team are fully attentive to the need for ongoing oversight and review of all facets of seminary life, including the seminary’s commitment to form future priests for healthy and holy chaste celibacy,” Bishop Malone told the Register in a Sept. 27 emailed response to questions. “We do not see signs of any ‘homosexual subculture’ at Christ the King.” The bishop also asserted that “[c]areful vetting of all faculty and formators is in place.”
In his comments to the Register, Bishop Malone said he had confidence in the seminary’s program and new leadership.
“Bishops continue to send candidates to us because they are confident in the formation we offer,” he said, adding those bishops “often visit” the campus during the year and “stay in close dialogue” with their seminarians.
“I do not agree that there are at this time valid reasons for ‘serious unresolved questions’ involving CKS,” Bishop Malone said.
He explained that all seminarians are trained annually regarding sexual harassment and the seminary’s safeguards for reporting sexual harassment, “including how to make a report and to whom to make a complaint.”
“People trained to receive a complaint include their diocesan director of vocations, diocesan director of seminarians, and Title IX officers at the seminary,” he said. “Seminarians are also made aware of and given the contact information to make a report directly to state officials or to the diocesan director of human resources should they desire.”
Speaking with the Register via email on Sept. 26, Father Creagh declined to answer if he was carrying out an investigation into Father Gatto, or whether other formators had engaged in sexual behavior with seminarians.
“I cannot speak specifically to the past,” Father Creagh said. “But I think it is important to note that there have been no substantiated child abuse cases filed against the Diocese of Buffalo for anyone ordained to the priesthood after 1988.”
Father Creagh discounted the idea of a culture of power games and blackmail at the seminary, either among seminarians or staff.
He said: “I have no reason to believe that the alleged behavior is occurring, and if it were, it would not be ignored or tolerated.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.