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Buffalo Diocese has new bishop, but controversial attorneys, aides remain

Connors, LiPuma criticized in AG report
Posted at 11:59 AM, Dec 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-05 09:15:04-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Terrence M. Connors has had so much influence at the Diocese of Buffalo chancery for the past 25 years that some employees privately called him “Bishop Terry.”

But the smooth-talking criminal defense attorney was the subject of criticism in a blistering report by State Attorney General Letitia James that accused the diocese of a “systemic” cover-up of sex abuse allegations. Diocese lawyers were cited 46 times in the highly critical lawsuit filed by New York's top prosecutor.

And Connors isn’t the only adviser of disgraced Bishop Richard J. Malone who has managed -- despite Malone’s resignation a year ago today -- to retain his influence inside the Catholic Center as newly appointed Bishop Michael Fisher takes the helm.

Terry Connors

In sworn testimony in the AG report, former Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz stated that the diocese’s “longtime, defense counsel conducted the internal investigations into allegations of sexual abuse from about 2011 to 2019,” and other records show Connors’ firm was involved in sex abuse allegations dating back decades.

The AG report stated that Connors’ firm -- which often relies on Connors and attorneys Lawlor Quinlan and Randy White to handle church business -- “lacked the independence” required by the Essential Norms of the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Young People “because of their established role, advising and defending the [diocese] on its handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in various respects.”

Those aspects, the report stated, included:

  • “representing the [diocese] in its defense to sexual abuse allegations for over two decades, including at least two joint-defense arrangements with attorneys representing priests accused of sexually abusing minors;
  • assisting with public announcements regarding priests alleged to have sexually abused minors;
  • acting as a diocesan spokesperson during press conferences regarding the sexual abuse of minors;
  • assisting in drafting disclosures, which publicly identified priests as having sexually abused minors;
  • and communicating with families of deceased priests, who were publicly identified by the [diocese] as having sexually abused minors.”

Connors’ law firm also has historically run the meetings and gathered materials for the Diocesan Review Board, which was criticized in the AG’s report. The diocese, the report stated, not only failed to investigate sexual abuse allegations but “repeatedly failed to incorporate or reasonably document DRB assessments into its review of alleged clergy sex abuse.”

Connors responded in an email, “We simply disagree with the Attorney General’s interpretation of Church Law and definition of ‘independence’ and expect these differences will be aired in the pending litigation.”

Msgr. David LiPuma

The I-Team asked Bishop Fisher whether he would retain advisers such as Connors and Msgr. David LiPuma, a former assistant to three bishops who is a leader of the diocese’s “Road to Renewal” initiative and who was also cited in the AG report.

SPECHT:
“A lot of Catholics have talked about the idea of a fresh start or cleaning house somehow in the diocese. There are two people who are mentioned in the attorney general report repeatedly. One of them is Msgr. David LiPuma, who is chairman of the Road to Renewal [initiative], and the other is diocesan attorney Terry Connors. Are you taking the position that you would like to start sort of a clean break with the people who were mentioned in that attorney general report as being part of the concealment here and the violation[s] of the Charter [for the Protection of Young People], or are you going to rely on all the same people who advised your predecessors and sort of got the diocese into this mess?”

FISHER:
“I do need to... meet people. I need to understand what their gifts and their skills are, as well as the issues behind certainly the report. Again, one of the gifts I hope I bring here is...what I’ve always also felt is a part of being a pastor is recognizing the gifts of other people and putting their gifts to work for the good of the church. I still need to get to know all of the employees at the Catholic Center. Again, our priests. So I have much work ahead of me before I could even really comment [on] who wouldn’t or would be in a particular position.”

LiPuma was secretary and vice chancellor to Malone and, for longer periods, former Bishop Henry Mansell and former Bishop Edward Kmiec, who according to the report both failed to protect children by concealing abusive priests (and in Kmiec’s case, recommending they work with children).

LiPuma was cited eight times in the AG’s report and is a controversial figure among Catholics who say he participated in the massive cover-up of sexual abuse while he was working behind the scenes at the chancery. His emails were among those cited in the case of Fr. Art Smith, a priest with multiple misconduct allegations whom Bishop Malone allowed to minister despite inappropriate contact with a Catholic school boy.

During Malone’s tenure and that of his successor, interim Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, there was speculation among chancery observers that both bishops might seek to appoint LiPuma as auxiliary bishop to replace Edward Grosz, who resigned in disgrace earlier this year. But LiPuma’s ambitions may now be permanently stalled following his appearance in the AG report.

LiPuma responded to the allegations in the AG report by saying that he would get back to the I-Team, but three days later he had not responded to the request.

Sr. Regina Murphy

Two others who have historically sought or had influence at the chancery are Fr. Joe Gatto, who was restored to ministry by Malone last year despite multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with Catholic men who sought his counseling, and Sister Regina Murphy, the diocesan chancellor who oversees the archives.

Murphy, who in the past has been involved in controversial decisions to close Catholic schools, also appeared in Part 3 of a 7 Eyewitness News investigation that included documents where Murphy discussed the possible shredding of documents with Malone.

Memos between Murphy and Malone indicated that she created a database in 2017 while reorganizing priest files in locations at diocesan headquarters that were nicknamed the “Well” and the “Secret Archives.”

The memos stated that civil authorities should be granted full access to the files “only when a court order or subpoena has been properly served.”

“Due to the volume of some of the documentation related to court cases, there are materials temporarily stored in ‘the well’ pertaining to seven priests,” Murphy wrote to Malone in a memo dated May 3, 2017. “We are awaiting our lawyers’ confirmation that these materials can be shredded.”

When these documents were reported in 2018, Murphy did not respond to a request for comment so that she could clarify their meaning or context.

Sources said Murphy and Quinlan, the attorney, were the primary creators of a list of abusive priests that shielded more priests from public view than it disclosed. The controversial abuse list -- and the concealing of more than 60 priests from the original list -- resulted in national publicity and criticism for Bishop Malone.

Murphy also helped Malone carry out the sanctions imposed on Malone's last day as bishop against Fr. Ryszard Biernat, a popular priest who exposed an ongoing cover-up of sexual harassment allegations during Malone's tenure and who himself was a victim of sexual assault by a diocesan priest.

Biernat's removal from ministry for blowing the whistle on Malone was seen by many Catholics as vindictive and petty. Scharfenberger was criticized for not reversing the penalties on Biernat and some Catholics see the restoration of Biernat's priestly faculties as an "easy win" for Fisher to start building back trust from the faithful.