It would be a stunning sight: investigators with guns and badges descending on the Catholic Center on Main Street in downtown Buffalo.
But Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. said Tuesday it’s not so much a matter of if, but when, a criminal investigation of the Diocese of Buffalo is opened.
“I anticipate there is going to be some form of investigation in the future with the [state] attorney general’s office,” Flynn said. “How it looks and exactly logistically how we’re gonna do it is still on the table right now.”
Flynn said the attorney general has reached out to district attorneys in all 62 New York counties about starting a joint investigation of sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church, similar to the recent grand jury probe in Pennsylvania.
Sunday, Bishop Richard J. Malone said the church in Buffalo has nothing to hide.
“I also pledge that our diocese will cooperate with any investigation initiated by the New York State Attorney General or District Attorney,” Malone said in a news conference in which he addressed calls for him to resign in the wake of a two-part 7 Eyewitness News investigation.
But according to internal church e-mails obtained by 7 Eyewitness News, behind the scenes the bishop was worried about such a probe.
After reporter Jay Tokasz of The Buffalo News on July 1 wrote an article about the idea of a statewide investigation, Bishop Malone wrote to his advisers in an email, “Let’s pray what we’re honestly doing now will forestall this ever happening.”
He added, “Scary, though.”
Diocesan attorney Terrence M. Connors wrote back to assure the bishop, “We should be safe from prosecution but some agencies have the power to issue reports even though no charges are ever brought.”
Connors’ law firm created a memo outlining examples of grand jury investigations regarding the Catholic Church in other cities and states.
“We need to be careful with every email and piece of correspondence,” Connors wrote, adding he planned to reach out to “Bishops Trautman, Cunningham and Kmiec. It is just a matter of being prepared.”
In a written statement in response to this story, Connors said, “These are standard instructions to all clients in advance of a potential investigation.”
Any investigation would likely involve not just priests, but bishops -- and how the higher-ups have handled the issue of sexual abuse. Authorities say the church hierarchy would not be immune to prosecution if it can be proven that they covered up sexual abuse.
“There are a number of potential crimes that you could investigate against an administrator, whether it’s the bishop or auxiliary bishop or someone in charge,” said Flynn, the district attorney.
One possibility is hindering prosecution, he said.
“So if an administrator knew about a priest engaging in some type of sexual crime, and they moved that priest or hid that in some way, there potentially would be a hindering prosecution charge,” he said.
Another potential charge for church leaders could be child endangerment , the DA said.
“If an administrator knew about an individual who was involved in some type of sexual misconduct against a child, and then put that priest into another setting that included the supervision and contact with children, then you could perhaps have endangered the welfare of a child,” he said.
Through his spokespeople, Bishop Malone did not respond to a request for comment for this story.