BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Two weeks before the Diocese of Buffalo declared bankruptcy, a state judge ruled that the diocese must turn over the “secret files” of two of its most “notorious” pedophile priests.
But most Catholics -- and by extension, dozens of the priests’ alleged victims -- are still barred from seeing the files because of conditions the judge placed on their disclosure.
State Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Chimes ruled Feb. 13 that after months of fighting their release, lawyers for the diocese must disclose the personnel files of Fr. Norbert F. Orsolits and Fr. William F.J. White.
Chimes’ order means the diocese was forced to provide the files to attorney J. Michael Hayes, who is suing the diocese on behalf of two men who say they were abused by the priests.
“We got the documents, somewhat significantly redacted,” Hayes said Wednesday. “[But] there was an awful lot of stuff there and an awful lot of pages.”
Hayes declined to comment further, adding that he was prohibited from providing any information about the files’ contents because of the judge’s order.
“I believe this is a small victory for all survivors,” said Dennis Archilla, who filed the lawsuit against White. “Not just in my case but all of the cases brought forward, because the judge’s ruling says to the diocese that it was not OK to put children at risk to protect their public perception.”
Hayes, when he first attempted to get the files disclosed as part of his lawsuit last year, said the priests were among the diocese’s most “notorious” and that their files could be a potential “smoking gun” in the Child Victims Act cases of children like Archilla, who said he was molested by White in 1987.
“I personally do not know the contents of this ‘file’ as of yet, but the fact that it is 700 pages tells me that the diocese was well aware of White,” Archilla said. “If there is information in there about abuse prior to 1987 then he should never have been allowed to be around children in the capacity that he was.”
Read the text of the order from Justice Deborah Chimes: https://t.co/5WYYDHeGaG— Charlie Specht (@Charlie_Reports) March 11, 2020
Diocesan attorneys have fought their disclosure since last year but have said their arguments centered on process, not on the victims’ rights to the files. Hayes, meanwhile, countered that church lawyers were delaying until the diocese declared bankruptcy and the state court cases were frozen.
In December, Hayes put diocesan whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor under oath to prove that the files were organized and readily accessible. In an affidavit, she stated that the files could be “retrieved in essentially 60 seconds or less.”
Reached Wednesday, O’Connor applauded disclosure of the files but said Chimes should amend her ruling so that more abuse survivors, Catholics and others in the community can learn how the diocese handled these cases.
“These predators were shielded by the Diocese, which not only allowed them to continue abusing, but prevented them from being criminally prosecuted, which would have led to jail time and entry into the sex offender registry,” O’Connor said. “Our community -- Catholic and non-Catholic alike -- deserves to know what the Diocese knew and when, and what they did or did not do about it.”
In court papers, diocesan lawyers said the file of White, who was removed from ministry in the 1990s following multiple child sexual abuse complaints, consisted of 784 pages. The size of Orsolits’ file is unclear, but in 2018 he told The Buffalo News that he had molested “probably dozens” of boys. He was removed from ministry in 2003 but is still paid by the diocese.
More than a dozen men accuse the two priests of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred decades ago, but aside from Hayes’ two clients, no others will have access to the files because Chimes ordered that Hayes “shall not distribute or disclose the ‘consolidated personnel file’ or its contents to anyone pending further Order by this Court.”
Many sexual abuse survivors have said their primary goal in filing lawsuits against the diocese was to find out what the diocese knew about the priests, when it knew they were alleged abusers and why it allowed them to stay in ministry.
But with the diocese declaring bankruptcy on Feb. 28, hundreds of court cases have been frozen while they are shifted to bankruptcy court, and the “secret files” of other priests -- there are nearly 200 clergy accused of sexual misconduct -- will not necessarily be disclosed through the bankruptcy process.
“The public should be able to see their files,” O'Connor said. “I sincerely hope that Judge Chimes will see fit to order that these files can be made public.
Update: Buffalo Diocese spokesman Greg Tucker released the following statement: “Counsel for the Diocese of Buffalo has already provided the personnel files to plaintiff’s counsel as requested in the two cases in question. Pursuant to the order, plaintiff’s counsel is prohibited from disclosing the file or its contents to anyone, absent a further order by the court." Click here to read the full statement.