Buffalo’s Troubled Christ the King Seminary

Part 1: Recent allegations of sexual misconduct at Christ the King Seminary are a central component of the problems that have triggered the recent apostolic visitation of the Diocese of Buffalo.

(photo: Peter Jesserer Smith/National Catholic Register)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The scandalous allegations that have engulfed the Diocese of Buffalo — and especially its center for forming priests, Christ the King Seminary — is sufficiently grave that it triggered a Vatican decision in September to authorize an apostolic visitation of the Diocese of Buffalo.

Now, as Catholics in Buffalo and elsewhere in the U.S. await the findings of that visitation, the Register is publishing an in-depth report on the allegations of a long-standing culture of sexual misconduct at Christ the King, dating back more than 20 years and apparently still present today.

The highest-profile recent scandals involving the seminary include allegations of adult sexual abuse made in September 2018 against Father Joseph Gatto, its then-rector and a longtime member of its formation team, who was chosen by Bishop Richard Malone in 2013 to lead the seminary. Following those allegations, Father Gatto stepped down as rector.

The seminary came under greater scrutiny in April 2019, after a Christ the King employee leaked a report indicating a handful of Buffalo priests, including a Christ the King spiritual director, had invited seminarians to a pizza party and allegedly engaged them there in pornographic, misogynistic and humiliating conversations.

While the seminary acted swiftly to address that situation, seminarians allege they were subjected afterward to retaliation by deacons, priests and employees in the Diocese of Buffalo for reporting the abusive conduct.

And in August, two Buffalo seminarians resigned, demanding the Vatican conduct an apostolic visitation to address Bishop Malone’s governance of the diocese and the role of Christ the King Seminary in producing priests whose actions have embroiled the diocese in child sex-abuse lawsuits and allegations of sexual misconduct against adults.

In September, publication by local media of secret recordings (now obtained by the Register) of Bishop Malone and other senior diocesan officials again highlighted the situation at the seminary — disclosing that the bishop had known months earlier that a diocesan priest, Father Jeffrey Nowak, was accused of preying on one of the seminarians who had resigned and that Father Nowak was one of three former Christ the King seminarians described by one of Bishop Malone’s aides as seemingly part of a “homosexual triumvirate … cat-fighting against other people.”

These recent disclosures regarding the seminary formed part of the wave of allegations that induced Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, to task Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, to probe deeper into the problems that have unfolded under Bishop Malone’s watch.

In an Oct. 31 statement, the Diocese of Brooklyn announced that Bishop DiMarzio has completed his investigation and will now compile a report and submit it to the Vatican. But on Nov. 13, The Associated Press reported that Bishop DiMarzio himself now faces an allegation of sexual abuse dating back to the 1970s, when he was a parish priest in New Jersey.


Allegations Against Father Nowak

The scandal entwining both Christ the King Seminary and the Diocese of Buffalo came to a head when the two seminarians ‑— Stephen Parisi, the dean of his class of seminarians, and Matthew Bojanowski, the academic chair of Christ the King’s Executive Counsel — both resigned in August.  

Bojanowski publicly accused Bishop Malone of failing to take disciplinary action against Father Nowak. He alleged the priest, who was his confessor, violated the seal of the confessional, had him make invalid confessions via phone and FaceTime (which Bojanowski feared were recorded for blackmail), and acted to his detriment by blackmail and slandering his reputation when Bojanowski rejected any inappropriate relationship.

“After rejecting Father Nowak’s advances and harassment, I had to endure many months of revenge and retaliation by Father Nowak, and to other members of clergy, including slander and emotional abuse,” Bojanowski said at the news conference announcing his resignation.

Bojanowski revealed that he had complained about Father Nowak’s harassment, complete with supporting documentation, since November 2018, including a follow-up letter sent in January 2019.

Subsequently, the diocese announced that the bishop’s priest-secretary, Father Ryszard Biernat, agreed to take a leave of absence. Father Biernat then went public as a whistleblower over Bishop Malone’s handling of the allegations against Father Nowak.

Secret audio recordings taken by Father Biernat in March indicated that Bishop Malone knew, months before taking disciplinary action in August, that Father Nowak had allegedly stolen a letter in 2016 from Bojanowski’s Boston apartment and digitally photographed it as part of his alleged sexual harassment and blackmail of Bojanowski. The letter, written to Bojanowski by Father Biernat, a recent immigrant from Poland, has been interpreted either as a love letter or a letter of intimate friendship.

Neither Father Biernat nor Bojanowski have confirmed the authenticity of the stolen letter, which was leaked to media outlets following Bojanowski’s decision to resign from seminary in August. Both have maintained they have a chaste friendship in line with the Church’s teachings.

Following the recordings, the Erie County district attorney is now investigating the matter, and the diocese has pledged publicly its cooperation.


The Malone Recordings

The recordings showed that, in March, Bishop Malone, Father Biernat, vicar general Father Peter Karalus, and vicar for priests Father James Croglio were discussing the “frightening” allegations against Father Nowak, which they treated as credible. They also discussed the active role allegedly played in the matter by two other priests who came through Christ the King Seminary along with Father Nowak and with whom Father Nowak allegedly shared the stolen letter.

“The simple version here is we’ve got victims and we have a perpetrator, and the perpetrator is Jeff Nowak, and he’s done things that are clearly wrong, and I think he’s a sick puppy,” Bishop Malone said in one recording.

In the March recordings, Father Croglio and others agreed that Father Nowak had “no sense of morality” about his actions. Father Karalus said Father Nowak’s messages to Bojanowski, calling him “clerical eye-candy” and the kind of person he would like to date, as well as attempting to “mark” him with Father Nowak’s ordination chrism, made him want to vomit.

They also discussed their concerns that Father Nowak posed a potential danger to parishioners. And, noting that Father Nowak was himself a recent graduate of Christ the King who was ordained in 2012, the group expressed astonishment that he made it to ordination after leaving the seminary twice and refusing parish assignments he did not want. Bishop Malone added that if he were the seminary rector, a seminarian who refused an assignment would have been kicked out.   

In the recordings, Father Croglio commented that he believed “the conservatives” in the Church “want to blame everything” on homosexuals.

“I think they are the perfect target of everything that has happened,” he said, adding they were saying some “very sad things” about homosexual priests in the Church. But Father Croglio qualified his statement, saying the trio of Father Nowak and the two priests with whom he allegedly shared the letter written by Father Biernat appeared to be acting like an emotionally immature “homosexual triumvirate” who were spreading rumors about not only Father Biernat, but trying to take down other priests in the diocese, as well.

Father Biernat noted that he believed there was a larger group beyond that trio. Father Croglio immediately added that “they’re not gonna go down quietly, and Jeff isn’t either.”

“They’ll do anything,” he said, adding that if they have issues with “anybody else, they will take anybody down.”

Father Biernat, whose time at Christ the King overlapped with Father Nowak’s and the other two priests, told the Register those three future priests formed a trio of gossipmongers on the prowl for personal leverage over others.

“When they were in seminary, they would gang up on people and get people out,” Father Biernat said, alleging the trio would follow people in their cars, report their comings and goings, and listen to people’s conversations in the doorway.

In the March recordings, Father Croglio speculated that Father Nowak, who by that time claimed the photograph of the 2016 letter had been deleted, would “make up a letter” if pressed about his own apparent pattern of sexually driven misconduct and “pin Ryszard’s name to it.” The diocesan officials also discussed the challenges of trying to prove the occurrence of the most serious alleged canonical crime, of Father Nowak’s breaching the confessional seal.

Bishop Malone demurred to take direct action other than trying to outline how he would try to get Father Nowak to check into psychological counseling. At one point, he said would take action, but “not what they expect.”

An Aug. 2 recording disclosed that Bishop Malone had discovered that Father Nowak had lied about destroying the letter. And the bishop expressed concern about what Father Nowak would do if Father Biernat refused to “stay away from the Jeff thing with the media.”

“Jeff’s out to get us all,” he said.

Father Nowak was placed on administrative leave on Aug. 28, after local media had reported about the situation.


Pornographic Pizza Party

Along with the allegations against Father Novak, the seminary’s problems were further aggravated by an April 11 pizza party for priests and seminarians at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Hamburg and a subsequent leak of the complaint by a seminary employee to the media about what transpired at the event.

During the party, seminarians alleged seminary spiritual director Father Art Mattulke, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul, his parochial vicar, Father Patrick O’Keefe, and Father Robert Orlowski, pastor of Our Mother of Good Counsel Church in Blasdell, engaged in graphically sexual and pornographic and blasphemous conversations, as well as other  discussions disparaging the elderly, the overweight, the seminarians, and their home communities.

According to the complaint, the priests talked about how specific active and past priests in the diocese, including some of those serving at the seminary, were active homosexuals. Father Mattulke allegedly subjected a transitional deacon to a graphic story of allegedly hearing the deacon’s parents having sex on retreat and told seminarians about a parishioner sharing homemade pornography with him.

Father Orlowski allegedly used extreme misogynistic vulgarities about women in front of the seminarians, employing the obscene language while on the phone with an alleged female dentist-friend, asking if she wanted to have sex with the seminarians present since they had not taken “vows.” He later used them again in boasting about putting a woman (formerly on Christ the King’s formation team) “in her place” in a dispute about parish bulletins.

The Register attempted to reach these priests for comment about the allegations, but did not receive a response.

Seminarians complained afterward, leading to the three Hamburg priests receiving temporary suspensions. In the aftermath, however, Bojanowski and Parisi told the Register that the seminarian complainants faced disparagement and repercussions. They said that another seminarian who expressed concerns about the pizza party became quiet after learning the deacon who was looking for “the narc” on the pizza party had blackmail on him.


Vocations Director’s Concerns

The seminarians’ concerns were referenced in an April 28 letter by Buffalo’s vocations director, Father Andrew Lauricella, to Bishop Malone, which was obtained by the Register.

“Almost unanimously, the seminarians express feelings of hurt and distrust towards members of the formation team,” and “morale has reached a low point” for formators and seminarians, he said.

Father Lauricella noted that on several occasions “offensiveness and insensitivity have reached an unacceptable level” and that some members of the formation team had difficulty “assuming a frame of professional character that is suitable for mentorship.” He added he received complaints about an “imbalance of treatment of the four pillars of formation” (the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions of formation), with too much emphasis on academics and “very little done” in terms of human formation.

The vocation director stated that while the seminary and diocese took swift action regarding the pizza party, since then “the seminarians have experienced undue criticism and derogatory remarks from priests and other parish ministers.”

One seminarian’s summer parish assignment was canceled by a priest who told Father Lauricella, “With everything going on, I don’t want to be on guard with my every word in my own rectory.”

“A fear of retaliation or other consequences has made some [seminarians] hesitant to report abuse that they witness,” Father Lauricella said. “Some seminarians have advised others to beware of the risks and dangers associated with reporting abuse.”

And, he warned, the “emotional weight of the hostile environment at Christ the King Seminary, coupled with the criticism and distrust that they are experiencing from priests and other ministers resulting from the Sts. Peter and Paul incident, will result in an increased sense of fear and/or despair, which can be detrimental to the physical, emotional and spiritual health of our seminarians.”

Father Biernat told the Register that a high-level meeting in the diocese took place where apologizing to the seminarians for their experience at the pizza party was ruled out, on the basis that “we [clergy] don’t apologize to seminarians.”


Vulnerable Seminarians

Parisi, who withdrew from the seminary on Aug. 15 in an open letter to Bishop Malone that cited the diocese’s and seminary’s “alarming and problematic governance,” told the Register that he believes the seminary’s current problems are deeply related to its past.

And, he said, the seminary conditions make seminarians very vulnerable to the abuse of power. Seminarians, he said, are told, “You can be dismissed at any time for any reason and no reason.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.