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.
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