Buffalo diocese cuts off 'all financial support' for accused priests

shutterstock 1485335360 St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo. | Shutterstock

During its bankruptcy process, the Diocese of Buffalo has announced it will end financial support and health benefits for priests facing substantiated allegations of sexual abuse. 

"Following discussions and subsequent agreement with the Creditors Committee, which has been appointed as part of the Diocese of Buffalo's Chapter 11 process, the Diocese will cease all financial support and health benefits for priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse," the diocese told CNA April 29. 

The decision is scheduled to take effect May 1. It is expected to impact 23 priests who have been receiving "sustenance payments" totalling $600,000 annually, according to Buffalo News. 

Eligible priests will continue receiving pension payments from a priest pension program, which, according to a 2017 statement from the diocese, is managed by a board of trustees and not directly overseen by the diocese. 

"None of the 23 individuals affected currently has faculties to function as a priest within the Diocese. The nature and details of the allegations that resulted in their faculties being suspended relate, in most cases, to allegations raised many years ago," Greg Tucker, a diocesan spokesman, told CNA.

"The Diocese is directing these individuals to information and available resources elsewhere for their health insurance and other sustenance needs going forward," Tucker added.

Canon law requires that dioceses provide for the "decent support" of all incardinated clerics, with bishops required to offer at least the provision for basic sustenance, even to clerics not in ministry. 

In the wake of the sexual abuse scandals in the United States, several priests either accused or found to have committed sexual abuse of minors have appealed to the Vatican regarding their right to basic sustenance, including access to health care, and that right has been upheld by Vatican officials.

The priests who will lose support from the diocese remain clerics, incardinated in the Buffalo diocese. 

"None have been laicized," Tucker told CNA. "These are priests whose faculties have been suspended based on substantiated claims of abuse."

While the priests in question have been accused of sexual misconduct, the diocese did not specify how many have been found guilty, or even how many have been given formal trials in either canon or civil law.

"The allegations pertain to many years ago - decades in fact, and precede the formation of the Independent Review Board. That said, whatever investigative process in place at the time determined that the allegations were 'substantiated' either because they admitted the offense or there was a criminal investigation, or allegations were corroborated based on multiple allegations - and those priests were then relieved of their priestly faculties," Tucker said.

"In later cases (2002 and after), there was an independent investigation and an Independent Review Board recommendation. In some cases, the diocese initiated a canonical process and in other cases it did not," Tucker added.

The decision was communicated in an April 23 letter to the 23 priests from Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, temporary administrator of the diocese, and in a conference call. 

Scharfenberger told the priests that while sustenance payments and health care coverage will cease, the changes will not affect existing pension payments.

Some priests, however, are concerned those payments will not be enough, and it is not clear whether all those affected by the change qualify for a pension.

Michael Taheri, a lawyer for one affected priest, told Buffalo News that the diocese's behavior is "unconscionable." 

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"As a Catholic, I'm ashamed," Taheri said. 

His client, Fr. Samuel Venne, was removed from ministry in 2018 after an allegation of sexual abuse dating back decades. Venne told Buffalo News he was a cancer survivor with no other income beyond $500 per month from Social Security. 

"How am I going to pay for my medicines? Where am I going to live?" Venne asked Scharfenberger.

The priest also said that he has consistently maintained his innocence, and passed a polygraph test as part of the diocese's investigation into the allegation against him.

The announcement by Buffalo comes as the diocese has had to make staffing cuts and filed for bankruptcy in recent months.

In February, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 reorganization after being named in hundreds of new sexual abuse lawsuits filed in New York state courts. Another RICO lawsuit was filed in August alleging a "pattern of racketeering activity" by the diocese.

The state's Child Victims Act had set up a one-year lookback window for such lawsuits, as many cases of child sex abuse have long-expired statutes of limitations.

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Earlier in the month, the diocese closed its Christ the King seminary which had been running a $500,000 average annual deficit for a decade.

On March 19, the diocese said it would be accelerating cuts to staffing for its Catholic Center, eliminating 21 positions and moving three more from full-time to part-time.

As other Catholic dioceses and parishes applied for, and received, emergency loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, the dioceses of Buffalo and Rochester filed a lawsuit against the Small Business Administration saying they were wrongfully excluded from the program because of their bankruptcy debtor status.

Scharfenberger, who is Bishop of Albany, was appointed temporary apostolic administrator of the diocese in December. The last bishop of the diocese, Bishop Richard Malone, resigned after a Vatican-ordered apostolic visitation, or investigation, of the diocese under his leadership. 

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