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Former Erie Bishop Trautman implicated in Buffalo Diocese abuse cover-up

Survivor of Rev. Freeman speaks out
Posted: 5:38 PM, Jun 18, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-19 16:11:59-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Rev. Michael Freeman left Buffalo to serve in the Erie, Pa., diocese in 1982 under Bishop Donald W. Trautman. That sentence was based on the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, which appears to include two errors about Freeman's assignments (his last two parishes were in New York, not Pennsylvania). The Erie Diocese clarified that Trautman did not become Erie bishop until 1990, and Freeman's faculties were revoked in 1989, even though the grand jury report states that Freeman "had some contact with the diocese of Erie" and "may have sexually abused children" in Lancaster and Bradford counties. Bradford County is within the Erie Diocese, though Freeman never officially became a diocesan priest there.

A group of nationally-known attorneys took aim Tuesday at the Diocese of Buffalo with new allegations that implicate a high-ranking churchman who left Buffalo decades ago to become a bishop.

James Bottlinger, 50, held a news conference in downtown Buffalo to reveal his identity as the man who was allegedly abused by the Rev. Michael R. Freeman -- and who turned down a $650,000 settlement offer from the diocese earlier this year.

“As I talked with my family about this, we decided that it was the right thing to do, to protect future victims and more or less to make the Catholic Church be more transparent,” Bottlinger said. “The church purposely covered this up.”

The Buffalo News reported last year that Freeman held a gun to the boy’s head in the 1980s while the alleged abuse was taking place.

But new details about the diocese’s response came to light Tuesday when Bottlinger revealed that he once encountered former Buffalo Auxiliary Bishop Donald W. Trautman in Freeman’s bedroom when the boy was apparently drunk after a church social function. (Bottlinger, who said he was 14 or 15 at the time the abuse started, said he was not being abused at that very moment, but during that general time period).

Additionally, Bottlinger’s attorneys said they now know of three other men, including attorney Paul Barr , who have come forward to say Freeman abused them. Two of the men have told lawyers they reported the abuse to Trautman before the diocese sent Freeman in the mid-1980s to St. Mary of the Assumption in Lancaster, where Freeman is alleged to have abused Bottlinger.

“He knew Father Mike was a pedophile,” Bottlinger said of Trautman. “Seeing him in his room didn’t phase him one bit.”

“It is the very type of thing that makes Trautman and the top officials so complicit,” said attorney Jeffrey Anderson, one of the nation’s most well-known clergy sex abuse lawyers who came to Buffalo on Tuesday.

Attorney Steve Boyd -- who is teaming up with Anderson to handle cases against the diocese -- said he was shocked when Bottlinger first told him he once met Trautman in “Father Mike’s bedroom.”

“Any other compassionate human being would have at least called the police and said, ‘Here’s something you ought to look into.’ But that’s not in their DNA. Cover-up is their DNA,” Boyd said. “Here’s this chancellor of the Diocese of Buffalo [who] sees this and doesn’t think anything of it, after he’s already heard minimally of three other complaints about this priest. [He] does nothing.”

Trautman, who went on to become the bishop of Erie, Pa., and currently serves as bishop emeritus, could not be reached for comment. A telephone number he left for the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team months ago now appears to be disconnected, and a spokeswoman for the Erie Diocese said even the current bishop was unable to reach him. She said she did not have another number for Trautman and would pass the message along to him if he called the chancery.

Freeman, who died in 2010, was implicated in the Pennsylvania grand jury report last year. The report stated, “The grand jury found no documentation...That the dioceses of Buffalo or Erie ever notified law enforcement officials, despite the fact that Freeman admitted to sexually violating children in at least five of his six ministry assignments.”

The grand jury report stated that Freeman was removed from ministry in 1989, although the church kept supporting him financially.

“Trautman protected Freeman,” Boyd said. “There’s no way around it. He had a chance to protect kids, and he protected the predator. And he made that choice over and over again.”

A spokeswoman for Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone said in a statement that “all allegations against Fr. Freeman cover time periods that were decades before Bishop Malone came to Buffalo.”

What Spangler did not say was that last month, Bishop Malone celebrated Mass with Trautman and two other bishops accused of covering up abuse. The mass was planned for the 50th anniversary of the diocese’s priest class of 1969.

One by one, the bishops processed in to Our Lady of Victory Basilica.

Bishop Malone took the honored position on the altar.

Trautman stood at his right side.