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Rev. Biernat: Bishop Grosz used blackmail to silence my report of sex abuse

Buffalo News - 9/8/2019

Sep. 8--Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz allegedly threatened to halt the Rev. Ryszard S. Biernat's ordination as a priest and have him deported to Poland after Biernat complained in 2004 to Buffalo Diocese administrators that he was sexually assaulted by a priest.

"He said, 'Ryszard, if you don't stop talking about this, you will not be ordained. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?' " recalled Biernat.

Biernat said Grosz's treatment of his complaint was "10 times worse" than the actual abuse he alleges the Rev. Arthur J. Smith inflicted on him inside the rectory of St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

"If you turn for help to the bishop of the diocese, they're going to blame you and they're going to say it was your fault," said Biernat.

Diocese spokeswoman Kathy Spangler did not respond to a request for comment about Biernat's statements on Grosz.

Biernat, 38, first publicly revealed at the end of a Mass in St. John the Baptist Church in the Town of Tonawanda nearly a year ago that he was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, but he declined at the time to discuss with The Buffalo News any specifics of the alleged abuse or how it was handled by the diocese.

Biernat, who spent six years as priest secretary for Bishop Richard J. Malone, said this week that Malone and other diocese leaders discouraged him from speaking freely about his abuse in the midst of a maelstrom of controversy over how church officials had covered up complaints of sexual misconduct involving clergy over the years.

But Biernat said becoming an American citizen in July removed a fear of being deported that he said was instilled in him in interactions with Grosz 15 years ago. Biernat also secretly recorded audio of Malone and other diocese officials to protect himself if they tried to attack his character.

"I feel so liberated. Now I can speak. It felt for years and years I could not say the truth about my story and other stories," he said in a 90-minute interview with The News. "I feel a great sense of peace."

Biernat's audio recordings centered around Malone's handling of the Rev. Jeffrey Nowak's alleged sexual harassment of a seminarian, Matthew Bojanowski, as well as a love letter that Biernat had sent in 2016 to Bojanowski.

Biernat declined to comment on the language of the letter, which suggests a romantic relationship might have existed between the two.

Biernat's attorney Barry N. Covert said Nowak stole the letter from Bojanowski's apartment and used it for "retaliatory, blackmail-style purposes" when the diocese began investigating Bojanowski's sexual harassment claims.

"So we are opposed to talking about the details set forth in the letter," said Covert.

The audio recordings revealed Malone's deep concern over the prospect of a "love triangle" story getting out, saying that the bishop knew one of his closest advisers was in a gay relationship and did nothing about it.

"If they can prove that there's an inappropriate sexual relationship -- which you deny -- between you and Matthew and I've known about that, and you stay as my secretary, I'm all done," Malone said in the recording. "It could be the end."

Catholic priests vow to be celibate, and the church considers any sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman to be sinful.

In the recording, Biernat assured the bishop that there was "nothing inappropriate" in his relationship with Bojanowski and that his professions of love for Bojanowski in the letter were an expression of a loving friendship between the two men. He also reveals to the bishop in the audio that he owns a home with Bojanowski. Biernat in The News interview described his relationship with Bojanowski as "a good, holy friendship."

He said he began recording audio of the bishop and other diocese leaders when it became clear that Malone was dragging his feet on handling the allegations against Nowak. Those accusations surfaced in January, when Bojanowski, who at the time was a student at Christ the King Seminary, wrote a detailed letter to the diocese.

Biernat said Malone did not want to deal with the allegations.

"No response, no confirmation, not even an acknowledgement that (he) received the letter," said Biernat. "From the day he got the letter, he was very secretive about it. He did nothing. I said, 'We need to do something about this.' "

"There was silence," he added, "and that is so difficult when you come forward with a story."

Malone determined in March that Nowak "wanted to have an affectionate and even intimate relationship" with Bojanowski and "has serious, serious issues" that needed to be addressed with an off-site behavioral assessment, according to a recording of the bishop's meeting with Biernat and other advisers.

"And then they're saying these things, like he's dangerous, but they keep sending him to the parish," Biernat said.

Nowak wasn't informed of the allegations against him until May, said Biernat. And it wasn't until Aug. 28 that Nowak was placed on administrative leave, after Malone said the priest had refused to go for the assessment.

Biernat saw parallels to his own situation 15 years ago, when he was a vulnerable seminarian struggling to get help from the diocese after coming forward about Smith.

"What I realized is they are still using the same playbook. Seminarians have no rights. They can be silenced easily, and if you voice dissatisfaction you could be dismissed from the seminary for any reason whatsoever. You are at the pleasure of the bishop in the seminary," he said.

Biernat, a native of Poland, was a student at SS. Cyril & Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich., at the time of the alleged abuse in 2003.

He spent summer 2003 at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in South Buffalo doing practical priest training with Smith as a mentor.

He returned during Christmas break that December at Smith's invitation.

"He took me under his wing. He was like a father to me," Biernat said of Smith.

But looking back, Biernat said he now believes Smith was grooming him for sex.

Biernat alleges that Smith climbed into his bed naked one night and sexually assaulted him. Biernat said he froze and pretended he was still sleeping, until Smith left. The next morning, Smith got on his knees and tried to apologize, said Biernat, who returned to Orchard Lake after the incident.

Smith denied any sexual abuse of Biernat.

Smith said he had been drinking with Biernat and briefly laid down next to him in Biernat's bed. But Smith said he said he was wearing night clothes and never touched Biernat sexually. Smith said he stayed with Biernat only a few moments before going to his own bed and falling asleep.

"What has been said about me is absolutely not true," said Smith. "I would never have done that, nor have I ever done it to anyone."

Biernat said he didn't plan on reporting the incident to anyone and just wanted to get away from Smith. But Smith began calling him as many as 15 times a day, and then calling his friends, Biernat said.

Biernat said his complaint was handed off by diocese administrators several times before he finally met with Grosz, who was serving as the diocese's top administrator at the time because the diocese was awaiting the appointment of a new ordinary bishop.

"He calls me in. I thought a Polish bishop, he would be on my side, look after a Polish guy," said Biernat. "I was so hopeful going to that meeting, and it was so devastating."

Biernat said Grosz blamed him for what happened.

"He said, 'Ryszard, did you lock the door?' I said, 'I didn't.' He says to me, 'Well, it's your fault. You didn't lock the door.' "

Biernat said he immediately turned for help to the seminary rector at the time, the Rev. Richard Siepka.

"I said the meeting went terrible. So, Father Siepka says, 'Let me see what I can do,' " said Biernat. "A few minutes after I told Father Siepka, Bishop Grosz calls me back to remind me, 'Ryszard, if you don't stop talking about this, you will not become a priest.' "

Implicit in the threat, said Biernat, was that he would have to return to Poland, because his visa was good only if he were studying to be a priest or doing priestly ministry in the United States.

The abuse and the diocese's response sent him into a depression, said Biernat, adding that he took memory suppressants to block out the images at night so he could sleep.

He said he wishes he knew in 2004 that he should have contacted law enforcement.

"I did not know laws here," he said. "I wish I knew it was a crime. I could have called police and let the whole world know he's a dangerous man."

Jennifer L. Kane of Cuba, Allegany County, said Biernat first told her in 2006 about the alleged abuse and Grosz's handling of it and was appalled.

"If you have an auxiliary bishop who threatened a seminarian, I think people need to know that," said Kane. "They inflicted further abuse on this young man, which was unconscionable and could have delayed his vocation needlessly."

Kane sent a letter to members of the Bishop's Council of Laity in January stating that Grosz and others who were involved in a coverup of Smith's alleged abuse of Biernat needed to be held accountable for their actions.

Smith wasn't taken out of ministry until 2012, when Bishop Edward U. Kmiec removed him as pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Church in Hamburg over an allegation that he was a grooming a teenager. Malone allowed Smith back into limited ministry in 2015, despite complaints of inappropriate behavior with adult men at a Clarence nursing home. The bishop then removed Smith from any ministry in 2018.

Biernat said the diocese continues to cover for Smith. His account of Smith's alleged attack on him was never forwarded to the diocese's lawyers and isn't included in Smith's personnel file, said Biernat, who had been assigned to help organize those files.

That assignment was another indignity for Biernat, who was forced to relive his own alleged abuse by reading the files of known perpetrators and victims, he said.

Biernat recalled an instance in which he and Grosz were reviewing the file of the Rev. Donald Becker, who had multiple complaints of child sex abuse against him. Grosz began joking around, saying that the priest's nickname was "Pecker Becker," recalled Biernat.

"We are reading tragedy stories, people being raped and abused, and you're making a joke?" said Biernat.

The incident, he said, encapsulated Grosz's insensitivity towards victims whose lives had been ruined.

"After that, I would not do more reviews with him, because it felt so wrong."


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