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Specht: In time of church crisis, St. Bonaventure president was force for good

At 'pivotal moment,' DePerro called for change
Posted at 2:07 PM, Mar 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-01 14:26:19-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — It was late on April 12, 2019, with deadline approaching, and exasperation was setting in.

The previous day, we published a story revealing that Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone had concealed the names of 25 priests who were accused of sexual abuse.

Now, under pressure from the diocese and in the midst of negotiations with the bishop, Canisius College president John Hurley was calling me to retract his quotes from the article that were critical of Malone.

“God!” I said out loud after hanging up the phone. “Are there no honest people left in this town?”

Enter Dennis DePerro.

Just as Canisius’ president was backing down and calling our story a “distraction” from the work of his reform group, the president of St. Bonaventure University was stepping up -- in a big way.

"We are not healing," DePerro told me in a hastily arranged phone interview. “We are not restoring trust. And we are not moving forward in a way that’s positive for our church."

Then the president of Western New York’s leading Catholic university called for the Catholic Bishop of Buffalo to resign.

"No organization in today’s world -- including the Catholic Church -- is exempt from accountability," DePerro said. "I believe that a good leader would recognize that moment and step down."

DePerro spoke eloquently and thoughtfully for thousands of Catholics who had grown tired of it all -- of the sad spectacle of an out-of-touch leader selfishly clinging to power, and of the corporate board types who enabled the bishop and supported him blindly.

My phone immediately started buzzing with messages from regular Catholics and also survivors of abuse who were thrilled that, as they put it, “someone finally spoke the truth.”

That was Dennis. Taking on a situation others saw as challenging and finding a way forward. And doing it in a way that made others want to join him in the cause.

Two years earlier, he was installed as St. Bonaventure’s president at a time when colleges across the country were seeing steep enrollment declines. There was talk among some faculty and alumni that -- recent NCAA basketball success notwithstanding -- perhaps the school’s greatest days were in the past.

DePerro walked in like a force of nature and started turning it all around. Over the next four years, St. Bonaventure would welcome its three largest incoming freshman classes in a decade at a time when its rivals were deciding which buildings to sell off next.

But St. Bonaventure’s tight-knit, passionate alumni base has never been about its size, but rather its spirit.

And that was Dennis, too.

Whether holding court in the Hickey Dining Hall with teenagers or at an alumni event with parents, Dennis’ enthusiasm, his intellect and his genuine decency left us feeling like our beloved institution was in really good -- and really large and caring -- hands.

Somehow, this South Buffalo native and Canisius College grad had become the ultimate “Bonaventure guy.” And boy were we proud and grateful to have him. His death leaves an unmistakable void -- a loss, especially for his family, that must seem incalculable.

Who could have imagined -- as he stood on the stage for his inaugural address less than four years ago, steps away from Bishop Malone -- that DePerro would be called upon for leadership during a major crisis in Western New York’s Catholic Church?

“I think it's a pivotal moment for the church of Buffalo right now,” DePerro said that April.

But that’s the test of true leadership. Making the decision, in difficult times, that puts the good of the community above all else. Speaking out against evil and ego. Standing up for good and inspiring others to do the same.

Dennis DePerro aced that test -- and our whole community is better for it.

May the soul of this wonderful man rest in peace.

Chief Investigative Reporter Charlie Specht is a 2010 graduate of St. Bonaventure University.