BUFFALO, N.Y. — The last six months have been perhaps the most turbulent in the 171-year history of the Diocese of Buffalo.
After years of suffering and silence, victims have come forward with horrific accounts of sexual abuse or misconduct at the hands of 82 priests and nuns, and WKBW has exposed a pattern of how the Catholic Church in Buffalo treated allegations of sexual abuse.
Bishop Richard J. Malone has described the problem as one he inherited, stressing that there’s nothing being hidden in Buffalo anymore.
But a WKBW investigation based on hundreds of internal church documents shows that in the case of one accused priest, Bishop Malone, between 2012 and this year:
- Returned the priest to ministry after a previous bishop removed him
- Ignored three new allegations against the priest
- Misled others about the priest’s history and repeatedly put him around young people despite clear warnings from parents and school officials
The case of Father Art Smith
In 2011, Father Art Smith caused a controversy at St. Mary of the Lake school in Hamburg when he sent a Facebook message using the words "love you" to an eighth-grade boy.
The boy’s mother, along with St. Mary’s principal Kristine Hider, took their concerns to the diocese, according to internal diocesan records obtained by 7 Eyewitness News. In one memo, written by the former Catholic schools superintendent, a parent tells school officials that students at St. Mary of the Lake called Smith “The Creeper." Other documents show school officials said the priest showed signs of “grooming” and “stalking” the young boy.
Hider, the principal, wanted Smith gone from the school and met with Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz. She wrote that Grosz got up from his seat and said of Father Smith, “I thought he was better.”
Edward U. Kmiec, who was Bishop of Buffalo at the time, suspended Smith from the parish, and documents show officials told parishioners that Smith was taking a “medical leave.”
But documents show the principal reported to the diocese that Father Smith refused to stay away from the school, showing up outside a classroom in April 2012. The principal fired off a letter to the diocese saying, “This man is a predator and a groomer of young children. Something needs to be done…As school principal, I feel the students in grade 8 have been injured and troubled by the actions of this man more than originally thought.”
Hider declined to be interviewed for this story.
But if Smith’s career looked to be in jeopardy then, it would soon get a resurrection – with the arrival of a new bishop in Buffalo in 2012.
Malone returns priest to ministry
Pope Benedict XVI appointed Richard Joseph Malone as the 14th bishop of Buffalo in May 2012.
Almost immediately, Father Smith began making inroads with new bishop, writing him a letter from a church-run “treatment center” for priests in Philadelphia, where the Buffalo diocese sent him for “rehabilitation” after the incident with the eighth-grade boy in Hamburg.
“I would like to attend your installation as my new bishop,” Smith wrote, requesting a meeting with Malone to talk about “the progress I have made and the skills I am learning.”
Later, in a diocesan communication that was drafted for parishioners and obtained by the I-Team, Smith described the Facebook contact with the student as “inappropriate” but said he “honestly believed (it) to be innocent and friendly.”
In a November 2012 email, diocesan attorney Terry Connors wrote that, “Fr. Art is minimizing the Facebook incident.”
In November 2012, Bishop Malone returned Smith to ministry in what he would describe as a “lower profile position” as chaplain of the Brothers of Mercy nursing home in Clarence.
“Thank you kindly for ‘redeeming’ me and giving some life back to me,” Smith wrote to Bishop Malone the next month.
Despite working at the nursing home, in 2013, Smith heard confessions at the diocese’s Catholic youth conference at the Adam’s Mark Hotel, attended by hundreds of teenagers.
The move left Hider, the principal at St. Mary’s, incredulous.
In two letters to Bishop Malone, she wrote, “If a teacher would have been grooming children and had inappropriate relations with a minor, they would have been fired and lost their license to teach…Yet a priest that has a history of inappropriate contact with the youth was among the youth ministering the sacrament of Reconciliation.”
Malone wrote back to her to say that Smith’s behavior wasn’t technically in violation of the Charter for the Protection of Young People, a 2002 document adopted by American bishops in response to the sexual abuse crisis. He does not specify why he does not consider it a violation of that charter.
But if Bishop Malone thought that Father Smith could do no harm at a nursing home for the elderly, he would be proven wrong.
‘Second chance’ leads to more allegations
In October 2013, the regional superior of the Brothers of Mercy religious order wrote to Bishop Malone to report that Smith had touched two young men at the nursing home inappropriately.
One man, age 19, worked in the dietary department and reported “inappropriate remarks and touching.”
The other, a 25-year-old who was training to be a priest, reported “inappropriate” touching after daily Mass.
“We were willing to take a chance with Father Art,” Br. Jude Holzfoerster, the regional director of the Brothers of Mercy wrote to Bishop Malone. But due to “his inappropriate conduct with employees…we must terminate Fr. Smith’s work on our campus.”
The bishop pushed Smith to go back to the treatment center in Philadelphia, but internal emails show he initially refused.
“Just get rid of me,” Smith wrote to the bishop in a letter obtained by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team. “Destroy me. I will not subject myself to that torture again.”
Privately, the bishop wrote to his advisers, “This response shows the depth and gravity of Art’s issues… If we cannot convince Art to go to St. John Vianney (treatment center), he will be placed on the list of unassignable priests.”
Meanwhile, Smith in August 2014 wrote a letter to Pope Francis, where he claimed to serve as a priest for 42 years “without incident.”
“My canon lawyer says that there is absolutely no foundation for the way the Church has treated me,” he wrote to the Holy Father.
Later, in an email to one of Malone’s aides, Smith mentioned he retained both civil and canon lawyers and wrote, “They know I was done a severe injustice.”
Back in Buffalo, meanwhile, documents show Bishop Malone asked Smith to honor their “gentleman’s agreement” that he not wear clerical garb, offer sacraments or say Mass publicly.
When the sexual abuse crisis exploded in Buffalo earlier this year, Bishop Malone said the protocol on accused priests was clear.
“Sometimes in the past, and we know this is a mistake now, the verdict would be they could return to ministry,” Malone told 7 Eyewitness News in March, explaining why he feels his way handling of abuse claims is different from that of past bishops. “And we would never do that now.”
But in May 2015, despite documented allegations of Smith’s behavior, documents show Malone did just that, writing to the embattled priest to discuss the possibility of “beginning to reintegrate your priestly ministry in the Diocese of Buffalo.”
Despite Smith’s history, Malone that month granted Smith permission to administer the Eucharist and to hear confessions. In another letter, he offered him “my gratitude for your service to our diocese as you assist various priests in local parishes.”
Father Art Smith responded to a request for comment: "Those who know me well, especially my family and friends know, and I know that I have never abused another person in my life, sexually, psychologically, or in any other way. This is the absolute truth, so help me God."
Bishop: Priest can work ‘with minor children’
Meanwhile, Smith’s letter to Rome had worked its way through the Vatican, which wanted an explanation from Bishop Malone.
In a 2015 letter to the Vatican’s investigative agency, Bishop Malone was on the defensive, saying he had good reason to withhold Smith from ministry because of Smith’s “grooming” of the young boy. To make his point, he wrote that Smith checked himself out of the treatment center “after only a day.”
“Under my watch as diocesan Bishop…” Malone wrote to the Vatican, “…contrary to what Father Smith stated in his letter, he once again faced boundary issues.”
Malone mentioned the eighth-grader from Hamburg and the two young men Smith allegedly touched at Brothers of Mercy. Then the bishop revealed two more encounters by Smith that were also never made public:
- A 2004 incident at a city parish where Malone wrote that Father Art “seemed to groom” a seminarian “to get his affection.” The bishop wrote, “One night the seminarian recounted an incident where Father Art came to his room, came into his bed and began to touch his genitalia.”
- A 2013 incident at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital in which a 30-year-old male patient reported that Smith was “caressing his forearm.”
Then, after telling the Vatican why Father Smith appeared to be so dangerous, Malone inexplicably ended the letter by writing, “On the basis of his cooperation in regard to regular counseling, I have granted Father Smith faculties to function as a priest in the Diocese of Buffalo.”
Despite what he told the Vatican about Smith’s long history, just two months earlier Malone wrote Smith a glowing letter of recommendation to the Apostleship of the Sea cruise service, which provides priests for Catholics who go on cruises.
Bishop Malone made no mention of Smith’s history in writing:
“He is a person of good moral character and reputation,” Bishop Malone wrote in an October 5, 2015, letter endorsing Smith to serve as a chaplain aboard a cruise. "I know nothing which would in any way limit or disqualify him from this ministry. I am unaware of anything in his background which would render him unsuitable to work with minor children.”
The next year, on Dec. 15, 2016, Malone wrote the same letter, again clearing Smith to work "with minor children."
Diocese put priest near day care, Boys & Girls Club
In 2017, after five years of tumult that included four new allegations of sexual misconduct, Bishop Malone finally granted Father Smith his wish of returning to a parish.
Diocesan directories show the bishop assigned Smith as a priest "in residence" to Blessed Mother Teresa Church in Depew. Smith lives in the rectory to this day, even after the diocese suspended him last month when it received yet another allegation of sexual misconduct against a minor – an allegation the diocese calls “substantiated.”
We've learned officials on a cruise ship removed Smith from the ship this summer when officials there read news stories about Smith’s recent suspension.
But back home in the Diocese of Buffalo, Smith’s bedroom in the rectory is located next door to the former St. James Elementary School, which now houses young children who attend preschool. It’s directly across the street from the Depew-Lancaster Boys & Girls Club.
Response from Buffalo Diocese
In response to this story, a spokesman for the diocese released the following statement:
“In the case of Father Art Smith, previous issues involving boundaries with minors were carefully and properly addressed. He was eventually given limited faculties at a senior living facility but no parish assignment. It wasn’t until March of this year that an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor was presented and immediately investigated. The claim was never ignored. Father Smith has been on administrative leave since April. At the recommendation of the Diocesan Review Board, Bishop Malone decided to forward Fr. Smith’s case to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican."
The diocesan statement makes no mention of the two sexual misconduct allegations made against Smith at Brothers of Mercy. It also claims that the first allegation against a minor was made this March, making no reference to the 2012 incident at St. Mary of the Lake in Hamburg. It also makes no reference to the allegations made against the priest in 2004, when he allegedly assaulted a seminarian, or in 2013, when the patient at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital alleged misconduct.
The diocesan statement claims Fr. Smith received "no parish assignment," but its own records include a letter from Smith in August 2016, when he lists his new address as Blessed Mother Teresa Parish, 496 Terrace Blvd., Depew. In addition, Father Smith is listed in the 2017 and 2018 Diocese of Buffalo Directories as a priest "in residence" at Blessed Mother Teresa Parish. When 7 Eyewitness News went to the parish after Smith's April suspension, the priest had a mailbox with his name on it in the rectory. Since then, parish officials at the church have helped Fr. Smith send faxes to 7 Eyewitness News from the parish. As of Tuesday, his name remained on the parish voicemail directory.
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. spoke with 7 Eyewitness News as we prepared to publish this story. The district attorney said he plans to investigate any potential crimes described above and decide whether they fall within the statute of limitations. In that case, he could prosecute the priests or diocesan leaders for their actions, he said.
View more documents from this story below
OTHER RELATED DOCUMENTS
- Bishop Malone asks Fr. Smith to "honor the gentleman's agreement" they previously spoke about
- Of assigning him to Brothers of Mercy nursing home despite his prior allegation, Fr. Smith writes to Bishop Malone, "Thank you kindly for 'redeeming' me and giving some life back to me."
- "This man is a predator and a groomer of young children," Kristine Hider, principal of St. Mary's of the Lake School, writes to the bishop's secretary after Fr. Smith reportedly shows up at the school on two occasions after his removal. "Something needs to be done."
- Despite three new allegations against him in four years, Smith is reassigned in 2016-17 by Bishop Malone to Blessed Mother Teresa Parish in Depew.
Charlie Specht is the Chief Investigative Reporter for WKBW.
I-Team Photojournalist Jeff Wick contributed to the images and video in this report.
Have a tip for the 7 I-Team? Email them at email@example.com