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Buffalo Diocese creates compensation program for sexual abuse victims

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Days after a local Catholic priest admitted to the Buffalo News he had sexual encounters with dozens of teenage boys, the Diocese of Buffalo has announced a compensation program for victims of sexual abuse.

Bishop Richard Malone announced of a voluntary Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program. It is for those who have made claims they were sexually abused as a child by a priest in the Diocese of Buffalo.

During a Thursday afternoon news conference in the downtown Buffalo headquarters of the diocese, Bishop Malone said neither victims nor the Church will be able to move forward until "the pain of the past is properly addressed." 

"I want to say this to you who are victims. We are so very, very sorry for the pain of the abuse that has happened to you," Malone said. "We're sorry, I'm sorry and we want to do everything we can going forward, reaching out to you who have come to us in the past. This is the purpose of this program."  

The Diocese said those who have previously made claims will be contacted and invited to patriciate in the program offering monetary settlements. Attorney Terrence Connors, representing the Diocese, stated that letters were mailed out Thursday to claimants already in diocesan files.

"Those individuals who have appeared and been interviewed, who filed documentation with us, who have been heard by our very active and very competent diocesan review board... some of those claims go back to 1950 and even earlier, some of them," Connors said. "It's a long span of time but we'll take a look at them all and give them due consideration."

The program will be administered by former New York State Supreme Court Justice Jerome Gorski and former New York State Supreme Court Justice and former Surrogate Judge Barbara Howe.  They will review each claim brought before them and determine the level of compensation for individual claimants. Connors said the Diocese will be forbidden from modifying or rejecting any decisions by the administrators.

"They will determine what's appropriate," Connors said. "They will look at the background information provided by the claimants. They will look at any corroborating or supporting documentation that's provided. And, they will ask us for our input but that's all we'll have is our input. We'll submit whatever information they have, what records we've accumulated over the years, and they will make the decision."

Claimants would then have up to 60 days decide whether to accept or reject the settlement. Connors noted that while the investigation will be private, claimants will not be held to any confidentiality agreements. They will be allowed to publicly discuss their case and their settlement. 

The program will be funded by insurance, investment fund reserves and, if necessary, the sale of properties. Bishop Malone noted that money collected from a recent Diocesan fundraiser, a capital campaign known as Upon This Rock, will not be used to fund the IRCP. Money from donations to Catholic Charities will also be off-limits to the program.

Steven Timmel, the Chief Financial Officer for the Diocese, stated during the news conference that in the past 20 years the Diocese has paid an estimated $1.2 million in settlements.

Connors estimates at least 100 people may be eligible for compensation.

"It's impossible to say exactly how many but in 2005, we said publicly there were 93 claims against 53 clerics," he said. "Obviously, since 2005 the claims have gone up but they've gone up on a rather small scale."

Bishop Malone noted that since 2003, the Diocese has conducted mandatory training and background checks for clergy, church employees and anyone who will interact with young people in church or parochial school functions. The Diocese of Buffalo's training system is known as "Protecting God's Children" and is operated through a program known as VIRTUS

The announcement of this program comes in the same week that a local man came forward and identified a retired priest within the Diocese as one who sexually abused him at the age of 14. On Tuesday, 52-year old Michael Whalen stood across from the Catholic Center accusing Father Norbert Orsolits of sexually abusing him as a teenager during a ski outing at the priest’s cottage in Springville in 1979 or 1980.

Credit WBFO file photo/Michael Mroziak
52-year old Michael Whalen stood across from the Catholic Center on Tuesday, accusing Father Norbert Orsolits of sexually abusing him as a teenager. Orsolits later confessed in a Buffalo News article to abusing dozens of teen boys.

Orsolits later confessed to the Buffalo News he had abused "probably dozens" of teenage boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He told the newspaper he did not recall an encounter with Whalen but did admit to having sexual conduct with others. He was removed from ministry in 2003. 

Whalen's advocate, Robert Hoatson of Road to Recovery, identified a second priest as an alleged sexual abuse, Father Robert Conlin. 

The Diocese released the following statement in response to Tuesday's gathering outside their headquarters: "Since 1990, the Diocese of Buffalo has had policies to address sexual abuse.  Every complaint that we receive is addressed pursuant to a protocol that is designed both to protect children and to respond to victims.  We will have more to say about these important issues later this week.  We will not comment on these particular complaints except to note that Fr. Norbert Orsolits was removed from ministry in 2003 and that Fr. Robert Conlin died in 1997."

Officials say the compensation program had been in development for months and that the timing of their announcement, two days after Whalen's public appearance and Father Orsolits' reported confession, was coincidence. 

The Diocese has typically not publicly identified priests who stand accused of sexual abuse but Bishop Malone stated that policy is under review.

"That's a situation I have inherited," he said. "Right now we are involved in a new consideration of that whole situation. 

"First of all, victims find themselves liberated and empowered to come forth, if they've not yet come forth, if they see in print the name of their abuser. We know that. Also, in the case of a priest who is off the job, you could make the argument that it's good for people in the neighborhood to know that that person could be a risk."

The bishop declared, "we want victims to come forward."

Listen to the Diocese of Buffalo news conference in its entirety.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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