Erie district attorney investigating seminarian's sexual harassment claims

St Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo Credit  Can Pac Swire via Flickr CC BY NC 20 St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo. | Can Pac Swire via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The district attorney in Erie County has begun a criminal investigation into claims of sexual harassment raised by a former seminarian against a local priest.

Former seminarian Matthew Bojanowski says he was sexually harassed by Fr. Jeffrey Nowak of Our Lady of Help Christians Church in Cheektowaga, New York.

Nowak was placed on administrative leave in August, after Bojanowski held a press conference on the allegations. Bojanowski said Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone knew about the accusations for months, but had not acted.

Malone told Spectrum News Buffalo that he will "absolutely" cooperate with the investigation.

On Tuesday, the bishop announced new policies in the diocese for processing complaints of sexual misconduct by clergy and staff against adults, as well a new code of conduct for clergy.

In a video unveiling the new policies, Malone acknowledged that the abuse scandal has shaken the trust of many people in his archdiocese, as well as their confidence in him as a leader.

"As your bishop, I am committed to doing everything in my power to redeem your hope, your confidence, with not just words but with concrete, measurable actions," he said.

While the diocese already had protocols in place for allegations of abuse against minors, there was a gap in its policies regarding sexual misconduct against an adult, which is treated differently in civil law, he said. The new policies aim to close that gap.

"With these new adult protocols, we have defined clear policies and consequences that will be applied consistently and with the utmost concern for alleged victims," he said.

Under the new policies, the diocese will hire a Director of Professional Responsibility. All complaints of sexual misconduct will be directed to this individual, who will investigate allegations within 72 hours of receiving them, aided by diocesan attorneys and the auxiliary bishop of vicar general.

If the initial investigation determines that the allegation is "neither manifestly false nor frivolous," a further investigation will be conducted, and the accused individual will be placed on leave. An independent review board will consider the findings of the inquiry and make recommendations to the bishop about any violation that may have occurred and the fitness of the accused individual to remain in ministry.

Among the code of conduct requirements, clergy members are to maintain clear and appropriate physical boundaries, avoid spiritual direction sessions in private living quarters, and avoid being alone with children.

"Those in ministry must be above any reproach. They must demonstrate unassailable moral and professional conduct. They must reflect the person of Christ in all that they do, say, and in how they conduct the affairs of the Church each day," Malone said.

The new policies come as the Diocese of Buffalo continues to be embroiled in controversy over sexual abuse allegations, including claims that Malone failed to act on accusations that had been brought to his attention.

At least two whistleblowers with high-level access in the diocese - Malone's former executive assistant and former priest secretary - have gone public with accusations that Malone mishandled several cases of sexual abuse by priests in the diocese, some of which involved minors.

One such case involves a priest accused of sending inappropriate Facebook messages to a minor. Malone reinstated the priest, Father Art Smith, to ministry in 2012 and allowed him not only to work at a diocesan Catholic youth conference, but also to minister at a nursing home, where reports of inappropriate conduct with adults later surfaced.

Smith is currently listed on the diocesan page for clergy with substantiated claims of sexual abuse of a minor. He denies the allegations.

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In Sept. 2019, local news station WKBW released recordings of private conversations between Bishop Malone and Fr. Ryszard Biernat, Malone's former priest secretary, which appear to show that Malone believed sexual harassment accusations made against a diocesan priest months before the diocese removed the priest from ministry.

Biernat recorded the conversations as the bishop discussed how to deal with accusations against Fr. Nowak by then-seminarian Bojanowski, who in a January letter to Malone accused Nowak of grooming him, sexually harassing him, and violating the Seal of the Confessional.

In an Aug. 2 conversation, Malone can reportedly be heard saying, "We are in a true crisis situation. True crisis. And everyone in the office is convinced this could be the end for me as bishop."

In another, earlier conversation from March, Bishop Malone seems to acknowledge the legitimacy of Bojanowski's accusation against Nowak months before the diocese removed Nowak from active ministry.

WKBW published a report about allegations against Nowak in May. Nowak was not removed from ministry until Aug. 7.

The diocese has responded to various allegations of mishandling abuse cases by Malone, stating in August that "Bishop Malone has never allowed any priest with a credible allegation of abusing a minor to remain in ministry."

A poll commissioned earlier this month by The Buffalo News found that 86% of current or lapsed Catholics believe Malone should resign. The bishop insists that he will not step down.

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