Bishop returned accused priest to ministry after investigation some called 'a sham'

Bishop Richard Malone says his congregation's darkest days are in the past.

The embattled spiritual leader has faced calls for his resignation over his handling of sexual abuse allegations against clergy members in the Diocese of Buffalo, where a public reckoning that started as a local scandal became a national headline.

A whistleblower, Malone's own former secretary Siobhan O'Connor, leaked internal church documents to Charlie Specht, an investigative reporter for ABC's Buffalo affiliate WKBW, sparking months of stories about whether there had been efforts to conceal the extent of the problem from the public.

Malone admits that he has made some mistakes, but stresses that he "inherited a decades old horrific problem," one that extends far beyond the limits of his city, and is now "trying to be part of moving us beyond it" by, among other things, purging pedophiles from their midst.

The Diocese of Buffalo's list of credibly accused priests has grown from 42 to 132 in a little more than a year, and Malone expects that more names will be added before their work is done.

"This is something that we continue to evaluate over and over again," Malone told ABC News in a wide-ranging interview, his first on national television, airing Thursday on "Nightline." "We're not finished with the list at this point."

But for anyone who doubts his progress, Malone offers a guarantee.

"There's no priest with a substantiated, what you called credible, allegation of abuse of a minor in ministry in this diocese," Malone said. "I can testify to that honestly and 100 percent."

In the case of Fr. Dennis Riter, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in the Buffalo suburb of Dunkirk, however, Malone decided to allow a priest who had faced multiple allegations of sexual abuse of children to return to ministry, where he remains to this day. He did so, he said, after a lawyer hired by the church investigated the matter and submitted a report, a copy of which has been obtained by ABC News, concluding that the allegations against Fr. Riter had "no merit."

But multiple people familiar with that investigation expressed serious concerns with the findings of what they view as a deeply flawed report, raising questions about the process by which the Diocese of Buffalo evaluates allegations against its clergy members.

"The report is slanted, and it's twisted," said prominent sexual abuse attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who now represents nearly 40 clients in Buffalo, including one of Fr. Riter's three accusers.

Fr. Riter, who has denied all the allegations, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but his attorney Rodney Personius issued a statement to ABC News defending Fr. Riter, citing the findings of the report.

"These are not new matters. They were fully investigated by the Diocesan Review Board almost 18 months ago, and found to be wholly lacking in merit," Personius said. "As you may know, the Board does not take these allegations lightly. Exoneration by the Board is a very meaningful finding. An objective evaluation of the allegations demonstrates they are lacking in substance. ... This is all old news; dredging up these long discounted allegations on this late date serves only to once more unfairly harm Father Riter's fine reputation as a faithful servant of God."

Scott Riordan, the local defense attorney who conducted the investigation, one of several he has performed at the church's behest, defended his work and dismissed questions about his independence.

"I do the job the best that I can," Riordan said. "I would have reported it if I could have substantiated [the allegations]."

But for Matthew Golden, who says his experiences with Fr. Riter still haunt him more than two decades later, that report allowed his alleged abuser to escape consequences.

"It was a sham of an investigation from day one," Golden said. "It's baffling to me that he [Fr. Riter] still has a job in the diocese."

Matthew Golden was an an altar boy at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Buffalo's First Ward with dreams of one day becoming a priest himself when he first met Fr. Dennis Riter. He recalls Fr. Riter being "very loving towards children" but now feels it was "all a grooming process," one that he still remembers in painstaking detail.

It started, he said, with Fr. Riter asking him to stay late after Mass to count the collection. Fr. Riter would invite him into the rectory, he said, and sit beside him as he watched television and played video games. That's when, Golden said, Fr. Riter molested him.

"He would always turn the heat up on higher, and then say, 'Hey, would you wanna get more comfortable?,' you know, 'Take your shirt off,'" Golden said. "Before I knew it, I don't have any clothes on, and he doesn't have any clothes on. ... We touched other, both of us. You know, I would touch his genitalia. He would touch mine."

It happened, he said, "well over 20 times" over the course of about three years when he was between 10 and 13 years old "before I finally said, 'I'm not doing this anymore.'"

Golden says he wasn't Fr. Riter's only victim. Around the same time, Golden said, he saw Fr. Riter do similar things to Nick Caetano, his close friend and fellow altar boy.

But Golden was so ashamed, he said, that he never told anyone about the abuse until many years later, in 2007, when he confided in his aunt Diane Lavallo Spoth, who says she scribbled notes on a legal pad after her nephew made a tearful admission about his and Nick's experiences with Fr. Riter.

"He was actually shaking," she wrote in her notes. "But he's scared + imbarrassed [sic] + assamed [sic] all at the same time. Fr. Dennis = child molester. Destroyer of my nephew!"

In March of 2018, with the subject of clergy abuse dominating headlines around the world and in Buffalo, Golden sent an email to Jacqueline Joy, the victim assistance coordinator for the Diocese of Buffalo, reporting sexual abuse by Fr. Riter that included "touching of our private sections [and] sometimes oral sex."

The oral sex claim was an exaggeration, he later told ABC News, born of good intentions. He thought the church would have dismissed his story, he said, if he only mentioned touching, and he feared that, with Fr. Riter still in ministry, there could be more victims.

"Recently upon watching the news I wanted to do research to see if this monster was still actively doing ministry," Golden wrote of Fr. Riter. "I found out that he is, and how horrible if this is still going on today? He needs help, and my only hope is that he has not hurt anyone else."

Just a few weeks later, after engaging in a dialogue with the victim assistance coordinator, he voluntarily revised his earlier statement, maintaining that he and Fr. Riter "touched each other without clothes on" and that he also witnessed Fr. Riter's abuse of his friend Nick.

It wasn't long before the Diocese of Buffalo received another report alleging that Fr. Riter had sexually abused another child in 1992 at his previous posting. On May 30, Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney portrayed by actor Stanley Tucci in the Oscar-winning film "Spotlight," submitted a claim to the diocese on behalf of an anonymous alleged victim of Fr. Riter, which included a letter from a seminarian who claimed to have witnessed the aftermath of that abuse.

"This involves Rev. Dennis Riter whom I witnessed to be in a morally and legally questionable situation with young male child named [REDACTED]," reads the letter addressed to Bishop Malone's predecessors dated May 9, 1992. "Your investigation and preventive measure action shall be swift in order to mitigate any possibility of other children to be victimized in the future as those situations are never one time events."

In March of 2018, the same day Specht published his first story about Golden's allegations, Bishop Malone placed Fr. Riter on administrative leave and appointed Scott Riordan, a local defense attorney hired by the church, to investigate the allegations against Fr. Riter.

Riordan, as the report notes, is the onetime Assistant Chief of the Sexual Assault Bureau in the Erie County District Attorney's Office, where he "prosecuted hundreds of sexual abuse allegations made by children and adults." The report neglects to mention, however, that more recently, Riordan has described himself as a sex crime defense attorney, representing those facing charges related to a variety of sexual offenses, including rape, sexual abuse and child pornography.

"As former prosecutors [sic], Mr. Riordan is both well versed in criminal defense for sex crimes and has successfully provided hundreds of clients with the representation they need during all phases of criminal court proceedings," Riordan's website reads. "Mr. Riordan aggressively defends people charged with a variety of crimes."

According to a copy of Riordan's confidential "Report of Investigation," Riordan immediately seized on Golden's retracted oral sex claim, deciding that "there is simply no reasonable explanation as to how he could allege that there was oral sexual contact in his initial email, only to tell me that it was only touching."

He highlighted multiple other discrepancies in Golden's account, saying his descriptions of the extent, timing and details of the alleged abuse had shifted between Golden's initial email and his subsequent revision, between Golden's initial email and his in-person interview, and between Golden's initial email and his aunt's notes.

He also took exception with Golden's demeanor during their interview and suggested that Golden's lack of emotion belied something more nefarious.

"Throughout the interview, Mr. Golden was calm, made eye contact, and never once became emotional," Riordan wrote. "This is in stark contrast to the way he allegedly behaved when he disclosed the abuse to his aunt."

Riordan probed Golden's claim that he witnessed Fr. Riter's abuse of his friend, Nick Caetano, who has since died. Sharon Caetano, Nick's mother, told Riordan that not only had her son told her he was abused by Fr. Riter but that she had reported it to a relative who worked for the Diocese of Buffalo.

Sharon told the same story to ABC News. But Riordan reported that the relative denied ever receiving such an allegation, and as a result, Riordan appears to have given no weight to the claim.

Riordan's posture toward Fr. Riter, meanwhile, was different, almost deferential.

Fr. Riter denied Golden's allegations during his interview. When Riordan suggested Fr. Riter submit to a polygraph, Fr. Riter disclosed that he had already taken one - and failed. Riordan noted that while the failure itself raises "mild concern," Fr. Riter was "forthcoming about it" and "willing to take another one."

Ultimately, for Riordan, it appears to have been Fr. Riter's demeanor that was most indicative of his innocence.

"Father Riter's demeanor during my interview seemed sincere," Riordan wrote, "and his answers to my questions were consistent with that of someone who has been wrongfully accused."

Riordan does not appear to have asked Fr. Riter about the alleged incident described in the letter from the seminarian, and in the report, he raises "serious questions as to [the letter's] authenticity."

On June 26, 2018, Riordan submitted a report to Lawlor Quinlan of Connors LLP, the law firm that provides "special representation" to the Diocese of Buffalo, concluding that Golden lacked "any evidence whatsoever to support [his] allegations" and the letter from the seminarian "appears to be completely fabricated."

On June 27, the Independent Diocesan Review Board, which "advises Bishop Richard J. Malone in his assessment of allegations of child or vulnerable adult sexual abuse," met to receive and consider Riordan's report.

On June 28, Bishop Malone announced that the allegations against Fr. Riter "have not been substantiated."

That weekend, three months after the Golden's initial complaint, Riter returned to the pulpit.

"I am so very, very happy to be with you today," Riter said during the Saturday evening Mass in Dunkirk on July 1, according to the Buffalo News. "I certainly felt your prayers and your support over the past three months."

Riordan had reached out to Garabedian, the report notes, writing him a letter that went unanswered. So when Riordan submitted his report, he had not yet interviewed Fr. Riter's third accuser or the witness who authored the letter.

When he finally completed those interviews, several weeks later, Riordan said he updated his report, noting that he found "inconsistencies" in their statements, too.

Garabedian told ABC News that his client, who has asked to remain anonymous, was sexually abused by Fr. Riter as a young boy in the rectory of Queen of All Saints Church in Lackawanna, where Fr. Riter was assigned prior to his ministry at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

A seminarian named Wieslaw Walawender, a Polish immigrant who had been assigned to study under Fr. Riter at the time, told ABC News that he witnessed that boy emerge from a room in the rectory -- where he had been alone with Fr. Riter - covered in "mature male body fluid."

Walawender confirmed that he wrote that letter, a copy of which has been obtained by ABC News, in 1992, describing the scene as he witnessed it, and says he hand delivered it to the chancery in Buffalo. He received no response, he said, but he believes that he was retaliated against as a result, shuffled from assignment to assignment until he was ultimately expelled from the seminary without ever being ordained.

Fr. Riter's attorney Rod Personius dismissed the allegations in the letter as pure fantasy.

"The language of the letter you reference, reminiscent of a fictionalized Translyvanian tale, belies any suggestion that it is based upon a credible reporting of an actual incident," Personius said in a statement. "Indeed, fact checking has failed to bear out any of its incredulous allegations."

Both Garabedian's client and Walawender stand by its assertions, however, and Garabedian remains baffled that Riordan submitted his report before interviewing his client.

"If you were going to investigate a claim of sexual abuse," Garabedian said, "wouldn't you want to speak to the victim?"

According to Sunny Hostin, a senior legal correspondent and analyst for ABC News and former federal prosecutor who specialized in child sex crimes, Riordan's conduct and conclusions appear, in her opinion, to be nothing short of irresponsible.

"It is clear to me," Hostin said, "that either the person that wrote the report did not have sufficient experience in investigating child sex crimes or did not come to this conclusion in an unbiased way."

After reading Riordan's report, Hostin raised questions about both his independence, given that he was paid by the diocese, and his expertise, given his treatment of Golden. He handled Golden's allegations "very flippantly," she said, despite the fact that a prosecutor with experience in child sex crimes should know that some "inconsistencies" are common.

And while the exaggerated oral sex claim in Golden's initial email would certainly make it more difficult to prosecute Fr. Riter, Hostin notes, the standard in this type of investigation is much different, especially when there are multiple allegations.

"If you have two victims that case gets a little warmer," Hostin said. "if you have three you now have a choir. It's much, much easier to prove and it's something that, I think, as an investigator, you don't discount."

In an interview with ABC News, Riordan defended his work, insisting that he's "just trying to find the truth to the best of my ability," which can be difficult, he said, because the events in question often happened many years ago.

Riter's was the first case he investigated for the Diocese of Buffalo, Riordan said, but he has since conducted more than a dozen. In the majority of those cases, he said, he found the allegations credible, though he did not provide a case-by-case breakdown of his conclusions to ABC News.

"Is it possible that these things happened and nothing could be substantiated? It's possible," Riordan said. "But I was reporting the facts, and the things that I couldn't substantiate, as I learned them."

Bishop Malone says he did not make the decision to return Fr. Riter to ministry lightly, nor did he make it alone. It was "the determination of a careful investigation that was a long, thorough one," Malone said, that the claims against Fr. Riter were "not validated."

He feels comfortable, he said, with his decision, but whether the parents of children attending St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Dunkirk, where Fr. Riter recently administered First Communion, feel the same, he is less certain.

"I don't know," Malone said. "I'm comfortable because I know a thorough investigation was done by a competent professional."

Malone says that he has "tried hard to be a good shepherd" throughout his career, he said, so he remains somewhat surprised that he finds himself on the defensive. The president of Saint Bonaventure University, one of Western New York's largest Catholic institutions, recently joined other prominent local voices in calling for Malone's resignation.

But Bishop Malone says he has no plans to resign, even as the FBI is currently investigating his diocese. Siobhan O'Connor says FBI agents questioned her about what she saw while she was working for Malone, while Matthew Golden says agents questioned him about his experiences with Riter.

And with New York's passage of the Child Victims Act, which opens a one-year window outside the statute of limitations for new civil litigation from alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse starting on Aug. 14, the Diocese of Buffalo could face a flood of new lawsuits.

Golden told ABC News that he plans to file one of them.

"I was definitely assaulted, and I definitely was molested by Fr. Riter," Golden said. "100 percent."

This report was featured in the Friday, July 26, 2019, episode of ABC News' daily news podcast, "Start Here."

ABC News' Halley Freger, Jinsol Jung and Dylan Goetz contributed to this report.
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