BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — It was 1951 when Dale Knickerbocker’s mother finally took him to Father Baker’s.
Father Nelson H. Baker had been dead for years and the campaign to make him a saint hadn’t yet begun. But the orphanage Baker made famous in Lackawanna would be Knickerbocker’s new home.
He arrived on July 10, 1951 -- his eighth birthday.
“In fact I’ve never had a birthday since then,” said Knickerbocker, 75, who lives in a modest home in Depew.
His eyes welled up with tears and his voice strained as he struggled to explain.
“Remembering what you go through...you know?” he said. “On your birthday...No, I haven’t had a birthday in all these years. It’s traumatic, you know?”
Knickerbocker’s parents had just divorced when his mother left him in the care of Fr. Joseph McPherson, who ran the orphanage.
“She said, ‘This is Father McPherson. Do what he says,’” he said. “My mother went one way and we went the other way.”
The priest told the timid young boy to undress, he said.
“After he took my clothes, he had this like, dishpan, porcelain, with an ocean sponge in it,” Knickerbocker said. “He tells me, I gotta wash you, this is Holy Water.”
Tears rolled down the boy’s cheeks as the priest washed him all over his body and fondled him, he said.
“Then he puts me on a cot and covers me up,” he said. “And when I woke up again, he’s in the cot with me. And that was the start of it.”
McPherson was Father Baker’s successor
Msgr. Joseph M. McPherson was no ordinary priest.
Books about Father Baker and Our Lady of Victory Basilica say as a young priest, McPherson visited the ailing legend at his death bed and served as a pallbearer for his funeral, which drew thousands who came to pay their respects to the region’s Apostle of Charity.
As heir apparent, McPherson took over as superintendent of the Our Lady of Victory institutions in 1949, running the operations for the next 30 years. McPherson retired in 1979, died in 1983 but did not aggressively push for Baker to become a saint, the books stated.
“Monsignor McPherson was very, very well-known in the diocese during his tenure,” said Marc Pasquale, who served as operations director at Baker Victory Services in the 1990s and 2000s. “That’s why he was promoted to the position of vice president of the Homes of Charity. So he was pretty much the be-all when it came to the Homes of Charity.”
“His boss would be the bishop of Buffalo,” Pasquale added.
During a recent meeting organized by 7 Eyewitness News, Knickerbocker met Pasquale and told his story of abuse. Pasquale, a former parish administrator in South Buffalo, said it resembled his firsthand experience decades later at Baker Victory, where he said abuse was often concealed for fear of damaging the reputation of the charitable institutions built by Father Baker.
“With places like Baker Victory Services, they had become aware decades and decades ago of situations that were occurring,” Pasquale said of diocesan leaders.
“But instead of dealing with those situations, it was always like putting more energy into rearranging the chairs on the sinking ship than it was to actually devoting time to correcting the problem,” Pasquale said.
Through a spokeswoman, Bishop Richard J. Malone declined to comment for this story.
Knickerbocker said he was also singled out by McPherson at “the farm,” which was a property on Martin Road in Lackawanna -- in the shadows of the basilica -- that was developed into cottages under McPherson’s tenure and bears his name to this day.
Knickerbocker said after his abuse began, he was approached by older boys who cautioned him about McPherson and referred to him as “Father Fearsome.” He suspects they, too, might have survived similar abuse.
Records obtained by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team show at least one other victim has come forward to report “abuse at orphanage” and “by house father at Baker Hall,” which sits next to the basilica.
At least three other priests who are on the diocese’s official abuse list -- Fr. Art Smith, Fr. Thomas McCarthy and Fr. Joseph Friel -- were at one point stationed at either Our Lady of Victory Basilica or the institutions.
It is unclear whether abuse occurred during their time there as the diocese has refused to release details about the allegations against most of its accused priests. But a local attorney confirmed to 7 Eyewitness News that a man had made allegations against Friel from his time at the basilica.
The abuse has taken an obvious toll on Knickerbocker’s life. He is quick with a joke and has a wide smile, but ask him about the decades since his abuse and he breaks down in tears. His marriage failed in part because his wife could not get pregnant, he said, and he was afraid of adopting a child.
“For the rest of your life, you worry about, ‘Am I gonna turn into that?’” he said. “To this day, you know? It’s hard just getting...close to anybody, because you’ve got that in the back of your mind.”
'They keep denying it'
For Knickerbocker, the only thing worse than the abuse is the way the leaders of the Diocese of Buffalo have handled his claim.
He’s one of dozens of victims the diocese has shut out of its compensation program because of deadlines and technicalities, according to internal documents obtained by 7 Eyewitness News.
“It’s still carrying an elephant on me all these years,” he said, “and the biggest thing that gets me...they keep denying it and denying it and denying it.”
Knickerbocker first tried reporting the abuse in 1993, he said, but a letter from officials shows they could find no record that he was even an orphan at the infant home.
Then, in 2013, Our Lady of Victory officials suddenly found his records, which were typewritten by staff members at the orphanage and signed by his mother.
7-10-51: “Mr. McPherson approved case for acceptance on private basis.”
7-16-51: “[Dale’s brother] placed at camp, Dale on farm. Both boys seemed happy to go.”
7-20-51: “At farm: Dale seems a little lonesome, but coming along satisfactorily.”
This year -- after Bishop Richard J. Malone announced the diocese’s compensation program and said he wanted victims to come forward -- Knickerbocker called the diocese and spoke with Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz.
“And he was so rude to me it was unbelievable,” Knickerbocker said.
Internal diocese records obtained by 7 Eyewitness News confirm that Knickerbocker reported the abuse to Grosz.
“He goes, ‘You’re just doing this, aren’t ya, to get back?’” Knickerbocker said of Grosz. “I go, ‘No, I’m not.’ I said, ‘You people have been doing this for all this time and I wasn’t strong enough.’”
After he rebuffed an offer to accept counseling from Catholic Charities, Knickerbocker said Grosz yelled at him.
“You’re just doing this (because) everybody else did it, you know as far as suing?’” Knickerbocker recalled Grosz saying. “And that’s not the truth. The truth is I lived it.”
Through a spokeswoman, Grosz declined to be interviewed for this story.
Diocese lawyers deny claim
In December -- five months after he again reported the abuse -- Knickerbocker received a letter of denial from Randall D. White, an attorney for the law firm of Terrence M. Connors. For the last few decades, Connors -- a high-profile criminal defense attorney -- has represented the Diocese of Buffalo.
Even though Knickerbocker has the paperwork from years earlier, White said he had not reported the claim prior to March 1 of last year -- the same time the settlement program was announced -- “and is therefore ineligible.”
White then gave a second reason for denial: “The Program also required that claims be submitted to the Administrators [former judges Jerome Gorski and Barbara Howe] post-marked no later than June 1, 2018. This claim does not meet that requirement and is therefore also ineligible for that reason.”
Knickerbocker insists he reported the abuse both times he called Our Lady of Victory in 1993 and 2013. He said he was also in contact with Jackie Joy, the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator, in May.
“The phone was backed up and they said, we can’t get to you until Tuesday,” he said.
An envelope sent from Catholic Charities on May 8 confirms Knickerbocker’s account, though he acknowledges he may not have returned the application by June 1.
“As a matter of fairness,” White wrote, “the diocese must contest the eligibility of this claim.”
Knickerbocker said the process is anything but fair, and he has his theory about why the church has fought him so hard when he has tried to report his abuse.
“I would think that they want to contain this as much as possible because of the reputation of Father Baker’s and the basilica in Lackawanna,” he said. “That’s a symbol of their good deeds, but there’s bad deeds there, too.”
7 Eyewitness News gave both Connors and White an opportunity to be interviewed for this story, but they did not directly respond to that request.
None of it -- the denials, the legal tactics and the way the bishops are reported to have handled Knickerbocker’s situation -- surprised Pasquale.
“It’s slipshod and it just comes across like we’re trying to cover for ourselves and make ourselves look good,” Pasquale said. “And the more that the bishop has done that, he’s dug a deeper hole for him each and every time that he’s tried that, because it gives the sense to people that he’s not honest.”