BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) - Fr. Gerald P. Sheehan, a deceased priest who served throughout Western New York over a career that spanned 40 years, has been accused of sexually abusing a young girl.
The allegation was recently reported to the diocese by a woman who said she was between 7 and 14 years old and a member of Nativity of Our Lord Church in Orchard Park when she suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the priest in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sheehan died in 2006.
“This has affected everything in my life,” the woman told 7 Eyewitness News in a phone interview. “It’s really hard to understand why I wasn’t protected and why he was allowed to function.”
7 Eyewitness News has learned the name of the alleged victim but does not identify sex crime victims without their permission. The woman, who is now in her forties, asked that her last name be withheld because she has not informed all members of her family about the abuse.
She said Sheehan abused her an estimated 200 times at her home, at the church rectory and at various cottages. The priest abused her for the first time while she made the sacrament of First Reconciliation, she said.
Sheehan served at St. Brendan in Almond (1965), St. Martin of Tours in South Buffalo (1966-73) and Prince of Peace in Niagara Falls (1974-75) before he was listed as “On leave” with a South Buffalo address in 1976.
From 1977-82, he was then assigned to Nativity, where the abuse of the girl is alleged to have occurred, before he was transferred to St. John Bosco in Sheridan, a rural town in Chautauqua County, where he remained until his death in 2006.
Historically in the U.S. Catholic Church, “on leave” or “absent on leave” has sometimes been used as a code word for priests who abused children or had other issues and then were sent to church-run “treatment centers” before being assigned to other churches. In the Diocese of Buffalo, some abusive priests were assigned to outlying areas in the Southern Tier after they were accused of abuse in parishes closer to Buffalo.
The priest became a trusted friend of her family, which even traveled to Chautauqua County to visit the priest after he was reassigned. The woman’s father died when she was young and her mother had health problems, she said.
“He completely took advantage of all that,” she said. “He really got his way into my family’s life.”
The woman said her brother reported the abuse to the diocese in 1994, but records show Sheehan continued to function as a priest in Chautauqua County for another 12 years.
Diocesan spokesman George Richert declined to explain why this was the case, writing in an email, “we do not comment publicly on the specifics of a complaint of abuse.” He did not elaborate.
The woman said the priest appeared to have “a love affair with a little girl,” she said, adding that Sheehan would often buy her gifts and tell her that he wanted to marry her.
“Obviously, something was mentally wrong,” she said. “These people should not be around children.”
She reported the abuse again to the diocese in March and with her lawyer, is pursuing a claim through the diocese’s settlement program. She said it has pained her that despite the recent abuse scandal in the diocese, Sheehan has never been added to any list of accused priests -- until now.
She said, “The validation of someone hearing my voice...it’s going to help me and I hope it will help others.”