BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The Diocese of Buffalo has offered the largest-known settlement yet to a victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of a diocesan priest.
The diocese has offered $650,000 to an alleged victim of Fr. Michael Freeman, attorney Steve Boyd confirmed Tuesday. The settlement amount was first reported by The Buffalo News.
In another development, a state judge has tossed from court a lawsuit that would have held the diocese liable for creating a "public nuisance" when it returned an accused but exonerated priest to ministry earlier this year.
Freeman, who was a priest in Buffalo and in Pennsylvania and who died in 2010, allegedly pointed a gun at a boy in the 1980s at St. Mary's parish in Lancaster when he was molesting the boy, The News reported.
Boyd said the abuse occurred after diocesan leaders were made aware of other abuse complaints and failed to remove him from ministry. While the settlement amount may seem large to some, Boyd it is nowhere near what a jury would award his client in a courtroom if the Child Victims Act was already law.
"In that case, it's missing a zero," Boyd said. "We think a fair-minded jury would award not only significant damages for the horrific crimes that Father Freeman committed against this boy, who is now a man, but we believe we would be successful in asking for punitive damages because the diocese knew what Fr. Freeman was and they hid him and they did not remove him from ministry when they had the opportunity to do so and when they had written notice of his prior abuse of other boys."
Meanwhile, State Supreme Court Justice Mark P. Grisanti dismissed the lawsuit filed by alleged sexual abuse victim Matthew Golden, a former altar boy of Fr. Dennis Riter who said the priest molested him in the 1990s at a church in South Buffalo. The diocese suspended Riter in March but reinstated him months later when it said the allegations "could not be substantiated."
Golden's lawyers filed suit in August, arguing that the diocese created a "public nuisance" by returning Riter to ministry even though diocesan officials had not heard the testimony of another alleged victim.
"The diocese argument focused on their belief that the public does not have a right to know this information," said J. Michael Reck, an attorney for Golden. "We are disappointed with the ruling."
Terrence M. Connors, attorney for the diocese, said, “Justice Grisanti carefully reviewed the legal briefs submitted by the parties, listened to lengthy oral argument and, consistent with precedent, determined that the claim of public nuisance against the diocese was not a legally valid theory so he dismissed the lawsuit seeking monetary and punitive damages.”
An attorney for Fr. Riter did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Riter previously denied the allegations.