Erie Diocese Dropped From Suit Charging Bishop Trautman with Abuse Cover-Up in NY

The Erie diocese had asked to be removed from the suit, saying that the claims against Bishop Trautman concern only his time in Buffalo.

Bishop Donald W. Trautman.
Bishop Donald W. Trautman. (photo: Diocese of Erie.)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Diocese of Erie has been dropped as a defendant in a lawsuit against Bishop Donald Trautman and the Diocese of Buffalo which claims they covered up a priest’s sex abuse of a 10-year-old boy in the mid-1980s.

The suit, filed in January, concerns actions that Bishop Trautman allegedly took while serving in the curia of the Buffalo diocese. After his time in Buffalo, Bishop Trautman was Bishop of Erie.

The Erie diocese had asked to be removed from the suit, saying that the claims against Bishop Trautman concern only his time in Buffalo.

“The Erie Diocese has absolutely no relationship whatsoever to this case,” it said in a dismissal request filed May 18.

According to the Erie Times-News, the plaintiff agreed May 29 to discontinue the claim against the Erie diocese, though the plaintiff will not be paying the diocese’s legal fees, as it had requested.

Bishop Trautman, 84, is the Bishop Emeritus of Erie. He served in various roles in the Buffalo diocese under Bishop Edward Head, including chancellor and vicar general. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the diocese in 1985. He was Bishop of Erie from 1990 to 2012. He has denied accusations he has ever covered up abuse.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit was born in 1974. The lawsuit said the plaintiff was abused multiple times by Fr. Gerard Smyczynski, a priest of the Buffalo diocese, for about a year, starting when he was a ten-year-old student and altar boy. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff met the priest at Infant of Prague Catholic Church and school in Cheektowaga, New York.

The lawsuit alleges that Trautman knew of the priest’s abuse and failed to investigate and report it. It alleges that he and the diocese “participated in covering up such heinous acts by moving errant priests and clergy members from assignment to assignment, thereby putting children in harm’s way.”

Fr. Smyczynski lost his faculties in 1985. His name is on the Buffalo diocese’s list of credibly accused clergy. The priest died in 1999.

The lawsuit further accuses Bishop Trautman of expediting an annulment for a member of the plaintiff’s family “with the hope of ensuring their silence about the abuses perpetrated by Fr. Smyczynski and covering up those abuses.”

One of the plaintiff’s lawyers said Bishop Trautman made a “paltry” settlement with the plaintiff that “amounts to hush money.” The sum was four figures and allegedly an inducement not to share their story. He alleged that this allowed the priest to abuse at least one other child.

He accused Bishop Trautman of hastening the annulment of the plaintiff’s parents.

The lawsuit’s original claims about the Erie diocese did not include improper handling of abuse. Rather, it claimed that the diocese was implicated in the alleged cover-up because Bishop Trautman was its bishop and he “perpetrated” a policy to cover up abuse.

It had charged that Bishop Trautman “took his playbook of covering up clergy abuse from Buffalo, New York, to Erie, Pennsylvania… where he continued to carry out the aforesaid cover up for decades.”

The lawsuit takes advantage of the Child Victims Act, which created a new legal window for sex abuse victims to sue regardless of statutes of limitations.

Bishop Trautman in March filed a request to have the suit dismissed, and is challenging the Child Victims Act.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Shapiro criticized Trautman at an August 2018 press conference releasing his grand jury report on clergy sex abuse. He alleged that the bishop failed aggressively to pursue an abuser. He has charged that the Erie diocese under Bishop Trautman curbed its investigation of sex abuse claims to wait out the statute of limitations.

Bishop Trautman in his responses to the attorney general said the claims were “baseless.” He said he did not condone or enable such abuse during his tenure leading the Diocese of Erie, and he stressed his support for abuse victims and said the report does not fully or accurately assess his record. He cited a Pennsylvania Supreme Court finding that the grand jury process suffers “limitations upon its truth-finding capabilities” and lacked “basic fairness.”

Shapiro’s report, released in August 2018, claimed to have identified more than 1,000 victims of 301 credibly accused priests in Pennsylvania. It presented a devastating portrait of alleged efforts by Church authorities to ignore, obscure, or cover up allegations—either to protect accused priests or to spare the Church scandal.

Bishop Trautman had caused controversy by criticizing the report.
“We should not be so naive as to accept every government
report every attorney general report as being totally accurate or honest and I wouldn’t cite the Philadelphia Inquirer or Boston Globe as sources of confident information,” he said at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general assembly in fall 2018.

Bishop Persico, his successor in Erie, has been publicly supportive of abuse victims. He said BishopTrautman spoke as a retired bishop, adding, “he doesn’t represent the diocese so what he’s doing is giving his opinion.”

The attorney general report has come under criticism from longtime Catholic commentator Peter Steinfels. In a lengthy essay published in January 2019 by the magazine Commonweal, Steinfels argued that many of the report’s charges are “grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust.” He said the report deserved more thorough scrutiny and said its “sensational charges” have been too easily accepted.