A longtime priest in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo was forced out of service and put on “medical leave” in 2002 after allegations of child sexual abuse came to light, the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team has learned.
Until now, the Rev. Donald W. Becker has never been named publicly as an alleged child sex abuser even though victims have come forward with stories of abuse and the reverend has long had a poor reputation among some diocesan priests.
The timing of Becker’s forced retirement -- he was given a “medical leave of absence” soon after the Catholic sex abuse scandal first broke in Boston in 2002 -- looks especially suspect in hindsight, clerical sexual abuse experts said.
Since he was ordained in 1967, Becker has served at multiple parishes -- mostly in the Southtowns and in rural areas -- including St. Bonaventure in West Seneca, Nativity in Orchard Park, SS. Peter & Paul in Hamburg, St. Agatha’s in South Buffalo and St. Mary’s in Batavia.
One man claims to have been sexually abused by Becker at St. Bonaventure’s parish (he served there from 1971-1974) and two have spoken about sexual abuse at SS. Peter & Paul (1975-1979).
7 Eyewitness News is not naming the victims of the abuse, who do not wish to come forward publicly because of the trauma of the abuse. In addition to these men, a second independent source who spent years working within the diocese has verified that Becker was among multiple priests who were removed for suspected sexual abuse. The source identified Becker as “one of the earliest abusers” in the diocese.
Reached by phone from his home in Florida and asked whether the allegations were true, Becker said, “No, it isn’t.”
Asked why so many people had come forward with allegations against him, Becker said, “I don’t know,” before declining to comment further.
Becker said he was removed from ministry because he developed Parkinson’s disease, even though Bishop Richard J. Malone -- when pressed about the issue by an Eyewitness News reporter on Friday -- acknowledged that he was removed because of abuse allegations.
After spending at least 10 years at St. Mary’s of Batavia, Becker was replaced after he went on a “medical leave of absence,” Bishop Henry Mansell announced in July 2002. The clerical sexual abuse scandal at that time was gaining steam and turning into a worldwide phenomenon after The Boston Globe revealed decades of sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups in the Boston archdiocese that January.
Advocates say the timing of the move -- six months after the scandal broke -- looks suspect.
“The Diocese was practicing spin control,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who was featured in the movie “Spotlight” and who represents one of Becker’s alleged victims. "It was trying to appear to be doing the right thing, when the Diocese was in fact doing too little, too late.”
Becker was never taken off medical leave and after 2002 was listed in diocesan records under a P.O. Box in Java Center, where he is reported to have owned a cabin. He is listed as having officially retired in 2011 and in retirement, has lived in Orchard Park and in Florida.
Michael Reck, a Minnesota attorney who represents victims of sexual abuse -- some in Buffalo -- told 7 Eyewitness News earlier this week that the fact the diocese has never released the names of suspected pedophile priests like Becker puts public safety at risk.
“I can tell you from a public safety perspective, not disclosing that you have adult priests who hurt children is a public safety nightmare,” Reck said. “We now know that the recidivism rate of many of these offenders is very, very high, and when they were moved onto unsuspecting parishes and unsuspecting communities, they often offended again.”
Becker’s notoriety among those in the diocese did not stop the official diocesan newspaper from listing Becker in a 2015 article about priests who serve as chaplains in the military. Becker served in the Army.
In a brief interview Friday before he gave the blessing at the annual St. Patrick’s Day luncheon in South Buffalo, Malone said, “Well, of course this all predates my arrival in the diocese. I don’t know all those details.”
Malone confirmed that Becker was removed for sexual abuse allegations after American bishops met in Dallas in 2002 to discuss the clerical sexual abuse scandal breaking in Boston and spreading across the world.
Malone has been the Bishop of Buffalo for five years. Asked why he has not taken steps to reveal the identities of suspected pedophile priests like Becker, he said, “There are many reasons for that. That’s the policy I inherited. We’ve been studying that very, very carefully and you can expect some news on that next week.”
Malone has been under intense pressure to reveal more information about clerical sex abuse in the Buffalo diocese after a former altar boy last month came out publicly to accuse former priest Norbert Orsolits of sexual abuse in the 1980s.
Orsolits admitted to The Buffalo News that he molested “dozens” of children in his time as a priest, raising questions about whether previous bishops have been forthright about the scope of sexual abuse in the diocese.
The diocese has previously said at least 53 clerics have been credibly accused of abuse, but have not revealed much information about the accused priests, where the abuse is alleged to have occurred and how the diocese responded.
Watch 7 Eyewitness News at 6 p.m. for more on this story. If you have any tips about sexual abuse, contact investigative reporter Charlie Specht at (716) 840-7870 or Charlie.Specht@wkbw.com.