The allegations against Father Dennis Riter were striking in detail.
Three victims came forward to 7 Eyewitness News two months ago to describe sexual abuse - and a possible diocesan cover-up -- that led the diocese to suspend Riter from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Dunkirk.
“Me touching him, him touching me, and in some cases I didn’t have any clothes on,” Matt Golden said, describing alleged abuse when he was a young boy at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Buffalo.
A second victim said of his alleged abuse at Queen of All Saints in Lackawanna, “When he took me in his office and shut the door, he pulled his pants down and made me perform oral sex till he was done.”
But now Bishop Malone has exonerated Father Riter, returning the priest to ministry after Scott Riordan, an investigator hired by the church, said the allegations “have not been substantiated.” Diocesan lawyer Lawlor Quinlan of Connors LLP refused to release the report spelling out the details of the investigation and justifying the decision.
“He was devastated by the allegation and by the outcome of the investigation, he feels vindicated,” said Rodney Personius, who is representing Riter.
The Dunkirk priest maintains his innocence, his lawyer said.
“He certainly has been adamant from the beginning that it wasn’t him,” he said. “He’s very, very excited that he’ll be back in the church.”
At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Dunkirk, some couldn’t wait for Riter to get back to the parish.
“I heard the news today that he’s coming back. Oh my God…[I’m] so happy,” said Daisy Torres, a parishioner.
Added parishioner Maria Kuschel, “The bishop did a good job with him and…you know, Bishop Malone was very patient with him.”
But others are criticizing the move.
Michael Reck, an attorney for Golden, one of the alleged victims, called the decision “startling” and “dangerous,” saying in a written statement that Bishop Malone “has chosen to support a priest accused of abusing multiple children.”
Golden, in text messages to 7 Eyewitness News, said, “I won’t be able to sleep tonight knowing he’s back in ministry...People wonder why victims don’t wanna come forward.”
Callie Banko is one Catholic who is having trouble keeping all of the controversy straight.
“I think it’s absolutely disgusting,” Banko said. “As a mother, it makes my blood boil. As a Catholic, I’m upset about it. They need to start taking this much more seriously.”
Tuesday, she learned the diocese would pull all of its funding for six high schools, leaving her alma mater Niagara Catholic to close its doors.
Wednesday, the diocese said three of its priests were guilty of abuse; four others would be newly investigated; and Riter would be returned to his church.
But as his diocese weathers yet another crisis, Bishop Malone has left town.
When the diocese announced yesterday that yet another group of priests would be suspended, Malone had already left for a two-week vacation to Cape Cod.
“I understand the bishop is probably under tremendous stress, yet this was brought on by the church, and the victims were under more stress for the years their lives were destroyed,” Banko said.
Banko says she understands the bishop could use a break and that to him, it may seem like the perfect time to get away.
“But your job isn’t done here, and there’s a mess, and you need to clean it up, and you’re the guy to do it,” she said. “And if you’re not the guy to do it, then you need to leave.”