Monsignor Robert J. Cunningham
Served from 1974-2004
Ask lawyers who really pulled the strings in the Diocese of Buffalo during the era of Bishop Henry J. Mansell, and one name comes to their lips immediately: Monsignor Robert J. Cunningham.
“Msgr. Cunningham was, in our opinion, one of the most knowledgeable people about clerical sexual abuse in the Diocese of Buffalo,” said J. Michael Reck, a Minnesota attorney who has begun taking cases from victims who say they were abused by priests in the Diocese of Buffalo.
After leaving Buffalo, Cunningham went on to become the Bishop of Ogdensburg and is now the Bishop of Syracuse. He was known as an influential cleric and was liked by many in Buffalo. Before leaving, Cunningham was pastor of St. Louis Church across from diocesan headquarters.
But from 1974 until his departure in 2004, Cunningham held high-ranking posts in the Buffalo Diocese, including Vicar General, Assistant Chancellor and Chancellor. Starting in 1986, he held two of those posts at the same time, which is considered rare.
“That’s almost 30 years spent here in the diocese,” said Stacey Benson of the Anderson & Associates law firm. “To have somebody with that intimate knowledge of what happened inside the diocese with these abuse cases, he’s the one.”
Multiple victims who have researched their cases point the finger at Cunningham as one of the key players who shuffled around abusive priests. In the wake of the 2002 clerical abuse scandal that exploded in Boston and spread worldwide, Cunningham was quick to assure Western New York Catholics that they had nothing to worry about in their diocese.
"To our knowledge, there are no pedophile priests working in the Buffalo Diocese," he told The Buffalo News in 2002.
To say those comments have not aged well is an understatement, since the abuse scandal that has come to light in Buffalo since late February has implicated 65 priests who have been accused of sexual misconduct, the majority of cases with minors.
In 2003, The News identified two priests -- Robert Wood and Thomas McCarthy -- who were removed for abuse.
But recent reporting and internal church records obtained by 7 Eyewitness News suggest as many as 10 more priests who were at some point accused of abuse were either left in parishes, hidden in unknown locations or in the most egregious cases, quietly forced to retire.
- Fathers Norbert Orsolits, Donald Becker and Martin Pavlock -- all who are now on the diocese's official abuse list -- all "retired" in 2003, two of them of the same date of Sept. 1, 2003. The diocese at the time announced Becker's retirement as a "medical leave," but Bishop Richard Malone has since told 7 Eyewitness News that Becker was really removed for suspected abuse.
- Diocesan directories also show that three other priests -- Fathers Mark Friel, Brian Hatrick and Richard Keppeler -- who are now on the list of accused, were still working in parishes as of 2003.
- Three more accused abusers on the diocese list -- Fathers Loville Martlock, Douglas Faraci and Thomas Gresock -- had no parish assignment and were classified under "c/o 795 Main St," which is the address of diocesan headquarters. A source said that is a common classification used by the diocese for hiding troubled priests.
In 2004, Cunningham, who through a Diocese of Syracuse spokeswoman declined to comment for this story, was considered a leading candidate to succeed Mansell as Bishop of Buffalo (although it is uncommon for priests to become bishop of their own dioceses.) If Cunningham had been chosen, it’s unlikely any names of accused priests would have been released (as Bishop Richard Malone, under intense pressure, did in March).
“I believe that there is no need to reveal the names of people who 20 or 30 or 40 years ago or who may be dead now, may have had an accusation against them,” Cunningham said in a 2004 news conference as he was leaving Buffalo to become the bishop of Ogdensburg.
He has continued that stance in Syracuse, where he has refused to name names even as other bishops across New York have in recent years released lists of credibly accused priests.
In Syracuse, he has caused controversy by testifying in a 2011 deposition that child abuse victims could be to blame for their own abuse. He later clarified those comments and said victims are “never to blame.”
None of those comments surprised Reck, the attorney who has been outspoken about Cunningham’s role in Buffalo.
“He had the knowledge, he had the ability and candidly, the diocese failed miserably,” Reck said. “And they're suffering the crisis of it today.”