Catholic Journalist: Buffalo Sex-Abuse Scandal Is ‘Perfect Storm of Horrible Things’
Charlie Specht, a Catholic award-winning journalist, discusses with the Register the findings of his reporting about the wave of scandalous allegations now enveloping the Diocese of Buffalo.
BUFFALO, N.Y. — More than a year ago, practicing Catholic and award-winning investigative reporter Charlie Specht broke a scandalous cover-up of clerical sexual misconduct in the Diocese of Buffalo under Bishop Richard Malone, with the help of Siobhan O’Connor, the bishop’s then-secretary. Since then, the diocese has been deluged with criminal and civil investigations amid a steady drumbeat of new allegations of scandal.
Currently, nearly three months have passed since Pope Francis put Vos Estis Lux Mundi, his global norms on investigating allegations of sexual abuse and episcopal cover-up, into effect.
In this Aug. 22 interview with the Register, Specht details the nature of the known and alleged abuse and cover-ups in play that suggest the Diocese of Buffalo could be ground zero for demonstrating how serious or effective Vos Estis Lux Mundi will be and discusses how faithful local Catholics are responding to these traumatic disclosures.
Charlie, for more than a year you’ve been covering quite a few scandals within the Diocese of Buffalo. Can you tell people what is going on?
It’s really been kind of a perfect storm of horrible things that have happened here in the Diocese of Buffalo. You have decades of sexual abuse that were concealed here by the diocese. You can make the argument that they did a better job of concealing the abuse here than any other place in America.
After The Boston Globe revelations in 2002, there were scandals all over the country and all over the world. But here there was almost no peep of anything. We were able to uncover essentially an ongoing cover-up and an ongoing scandal involving multiple bishops here. Two of them are still sitting in the bishop’s chair that returned priests to active ministry after multiple allegations that [these priests] had inappropriate contact with children or multiple allegations that [these priests] had inappropriate sexual contact with adults. In some cases, seminarians reported that they were being sexually harassed by priests. Pretty much any type of sex-abuse-related scandal you can think of that’s happened around the country, it’s happened in the last 18 months here in Buffalo.
When did this start?
It started with a whimper almost. There was no giant exposé of anything that anyone did. Where it started was with one victim, one regular guy from South Buffalo, deciding that he was going to have a press conference outside the Diocese of Buffalo. His name is Michael Whalen. He’s a blue-collar guy that had a press conference and didn’t really know how many people were going to show up. And he said, “Look, I was abused by this priest, Father Norbert Orsolits, in the 1980s, and I’m not afraid of it anymore. I’m not ashamed of it. And I’m here to speak my truth.” That really set off an inferno of allegations.
In addition, the priest, who admitted that he had abused [Whalen], said he abused dozens of children over the years. He never went to jail for it, and the diocese never said a word about it. People were just shocked. And they thought, “Oh, my Lord, how can this be? How could this happen without us knowing about it?” So I think a lot of people started looking toward the diocese to say, “Hey, what else are you hiding from us?” And the layers started to peel off from there.
We had been working, just like every other news organization in town, tracking misstatements from previous bishops and trying to show the historical pattern of abuse. We had done that for a few months. But Bishop Malone was always able to say, “Look, this is a thing of the past.” And we had no reason not to believe him. However, we did make contact with an employee in the diocese in a very high position, who turned out to be his secretary, who said, “The bishop is not being truthful here. And he is still concealing things from the public.” Once we were able to get to know her, and develop her as a source, she provided hundreds of pages of really damning evidence.
There were two priests in particular who were sort of what you would call serial offenders: We’re talking five [or] six allegations here with one of the priests, and the other one, there were two or three allegations that we knew about. And Bishop Malone was either returning them to ministry or just letting them stay in ministry. We were able to — in the bishop’s own handwriting — show that he was making these reckless decisions (as people characterized them), and doing it all while saying [publicly] that he’s doing things totally different than in the past.
And this source, as it turned out, was also a devout Catholic: Siobhan O’Connor. How have Catholics responded to your coverage? Have you experienced a lot of opposition or support?
I suspected when we first started doing these stories that we were going to get tremendous pushback and opposition from the Catholic community because I grew up Catholic and I know how, with the Church, Catholics can kind of close ranks when they’re being attacked. I didn’t feel that we were attacking the Catholic Church, but I knew that people would look at it that way.
So I expected there to be a ton of negative feedback. But I got to be honest: I would say we got an overwhelming response, probably 95% positive, from people. Most of the people that took the time to write [me] were Catholics, which surprised me, because I was expecting the opposite. They were saying: This is ridiculous; keep going; we thought we handled this problem 15 years ago; our bishops told us this wasn’t a problem in Buffalo. They were sick of being lied to. I was even more surprised to hear some of those Catholics encouraging other people to go to the FBI and attorney general and to say: Maybe we need law enforcement to clean up our own Church. It was stunning that they would be feeling that desperate about the state of affairs in the Church.
The Vatican has issued under Pope Francis new norms and new laws that are supposed to bring bishops to justice. What kind of alleged offenses are we talking about with some of these past bishops, and especially with Bishop Malone? What are the major issues that you found under his leadership?
There have been more than 20 allegations that Bishop Malone has mishandled different situations. Most of those situations involve priests who were accused of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct. Some of those situations involve children. Some of those situations involve adults. Bishop Malone has really pointed to this sort of bureaucratic system that the diocese has in place to adjudicate, so to speak, these allegations. Basically, he’s saying, “Look, we appoint our own investigators. I appoint a review board made of people in the community to look through this. They signed off on this whole process; everything went through them.” But I think people in the diocese, Catholics, are looking at this and saying, “You can have all the policies you want; you can have all the rules you want. But if the end result is it’s not really doing justice, then what’s the point?”
Tell me about what you’ve been able to uncover that’s happening at Buffalo’s Christ the King Seminary. Can you explain what’s going on there and how it relates to Bishop Malone?
From the 1990s, [priests will] tell you that there was sort of an open sexual culture in the seminary, where they were not allowed to have sex with women, but they were essentially doing sexual things with each other, doing sexual things with professors, and there was all sorts of what people have called debauchery and whatnot going on. We thought, until a few months ago, that must be a thing of the past. Then, all of a sudden, we started getting word from current seminarians. We got reports of behavior that almost seemed like hazing in a way, but in a very sexual nature. There was apparently a party that was held on Holy Thursday by three priests. They invited all the seminarians, and there was a lot of alcohol that went around. And then some of the most disgusting things were brought up: talking about parishioners’ sex lives, talking about different sexual things that had gone on at the seminary, encouraging seminarians to break their vow of celibacy — there were all sorts of allegations going on.
Once we started to dig into that, we were able to find that some of these younger seminarians were telling us there is this really sick, perverted culture among some of the old guard. There are good guys going into the seminary and for the right reasons, but would come up against loggerheads here with this old guard. And they were saying that that’s part of the root cause of some of the issues here. If you have seminarians who are being sexually active or sexually developed in unusual ways, it’s really no surprise to anyone that they would later then go act out in the parishes. So that scandal continues. We had two seminarians, just like last week, quit. So there are people now calling on the Buffalo Diocese seminary to be totally shut down. It’s a place in turmoil, and it’s really a place that’s crying out for some sort of leadership.
One of the scandals at the seminary involves an allegation of a priest violating the seal of the confessional with a seminarian — an offense that would involve automatic excommunication. Can you explain what was happening there?
So that allegation involves the seminarian who most recently resigned — Matthew Bojanowski — and a current Diocese of Buffalo priest, Father Jeffrey Nowak. While Bojanowski was thinking about joining the priesthood, thinking about becoming a seminarian, he would go to confession with this Father Nowak. They had developed a friendship, and this Father Nowak was encouraging him to consider the priesthood. Bojanowski essentially is saying that something was disclosed in the confessional, which caused Father Nowak to act upon that and then sexually pursue him.
I think that the allegation is that that wasn’t taken seriously by the bishop. And it wasn’t properly investigated. That same seminarian, along with other seminarians who spoke out against the pornographic pizza party, was then retaliated against and essentially interrogated by people at the seminary for “how dare these seminarians speak out” sort of thing. So that’s the allegation going on, going around now.
And then Bojanowski’s mother did an interview with us and essentially said that Father Nowak has told her that he keeps notes about people, and knows all of their sins, and kind of alluding to the fact that, that maybe there’s something going on with the confessional. So that was Bojanowski’s mother making those claims. So that, obviously, is a very sacred thing in the Catholic Church. If you can’t keep the secrecy of the confessional, then I don’t think you’ll have many people going to the confessional.
[Reporter’s note: Bishop Malone finally placed Father Nowak on administrative leave Aug. 28, the day of a lay-organized protest outside the seminary, more than three months after the diocese announced it had received sexual-misconduct allegations about the priest].
What has been happening legally with the Diocese of Buffalo since you’ve been breaking this news?
The Diocese of Buffalo is really in all sorts of legal trouble, but the hammers really haven’t dropped here yet. The diocese is, according to our sources, under investigation by the Buffalo Field Office of the FBI. We’ve been told that the U.S. attorney’s office here is trying to put together some sort of RICO case — a criminal RICO case — trying to prove the diocese has been engaged in essentially criminal behavior as a racketeering enterprise.
We’re not sure exactly how that case would be made, but we know that they have been looking at the diocesan compensation program, what they call the Independent Reconciliation Compensation Program, the IRCP, which is what the New York dioceses call their settlement programs. The Diocese of Buffalo’s program was, according to the survivors and according to Siobhan, so woefully inadequate. There was only one part-time employee assigned to answer the phones, and that employee wasn’t even answering the phones; she had to call in remotely to a voicemail. After the first week or so, she was 90 voicemails behind. Survivors were telling us stories of waiting for a call back. In some cases, they started showing up to the diocese to tell their story. Siobhan O’Connor talks about interviewing one of them in a storage closet because they hadn’t set aside a space where victims might be able to come in and tell their story. So I’m not privy to all their information, but that tells me that they may be looking to make a case that the entire program was itself fraudulent, that it wasn’t really intended to help victims — it was intended more to stave off some lawsuits and be a good public-relations strategy.
In addition to the FBI investigation, the New York state attorney general’s office also has its own investigation into the Buffalo Diocese. In addition to that, you also have all of the legal trouble with the Child Victims Act. There were, I think, upward of 120-130 lawsuits filed in the opening days of the Child Victims Act; more than 90% of those were against the Diocese of Buffalo. New York doesn’t allow plaintiffs to testify and demand a figure for what they want in an original lawsuit, but you have to imagine that figure would probably exceed everything that’s in the bank account in the diocese.
It’s pretty bleak, in a lot of ways, for Catholics in western New York right now. And it’s really painful. I’m Catholic, and I can’t tell you the hurt that it’s caused so many people that sit next to me in the pews every week that just feel almost totally demoralized.
Back in 2002, one of the tropes about sex-abuse survivors and the media was they were acting in bad faith and were just attacking the Church. One of the incredible things about Buffalo is that stereotype is turned up on its head: We have survivors who are still practicing Catholics, whistleblowers who are devout Catholics, and then reporters such as yourself, who is also a practicing Catholic. What has the impact been on you personally as a Catholic?
I never really thought of it like that, but, yes, it’s totally true about the victims, the whistleblower and the reporter. I mean, we all are Catholic, and I never thought of it like that. But it’s true. It’s really been a struggle, because I think people, I think Catholics, myself included, can get our heads around the whole idea that there are always going to be sexual predators in our Church and other churches and other organizations. I think what we can’t tolerate is being lied to, or being told half the truth, or being told to “pay your money, we’ll take care of it, and everything will be fine.” I think that Catholics really feel like you can’t put the cat back in the bag here. Things have fundamentally changed, or they need to fundamentally change.
Last question, but feel free to give your own final thought or comment: Where do you see this going? Where does this need to go?
I think that we’re going to see some sort of action from law enforcement over the next six months to a year. You’re going to see a whole new process of accountability starting here. It started with the Child Victims Act. The first lawsuits were filed last week. And what you’re going to have is Bishop Malone being called into a courtroom under oath to give depositions. You’re going to have survivors speaking publicly on the witness stand for the first time. Potentially, you could have priests being taken out of churches in handcuffs if the feds are able to build that kind of a case. So I think there’s going to be a lot more pain in this story, to be honest. But I think that, ultimately, looking years down the road, I think that people are going to have a better sense of what really happened, and I think people are ultimately going to feel that their Church is a better Church because you don’t have the wolves among the sheep anymore.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.