NEW YORK (ChurchMilitant.com) - A New York state lawsuit filed on Tuesday claims retired Erie Bp. Donald W. Trautman covered up abuse that occurred in the diocese of Buffalo in the mid-1980s. On Thursday, the suit was amended to include the diocese of Erie because Trautman continued to cover up the abuse that occurred in New York after he was promoted to bishop there.
According to the lawsuit, "Trautman took his playbook of covering up clergy abuse from Buffalo, New York to Erie, Pennsylvania ... where he continued to carry out the aforesaid cover-up for decades."
Church Militant asked Paul K. Barr, attorney for the plaintiff, if there was potential for criminal federal charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), since the cover-up involved dioceses in two states. Barr said he wouldn't rule out the possibility but he considered it to be a stretch.
In his comments to Church Militant, the Niagara Falls-based attorney wanted to focus on Trautman's active involvement in covering up a priest's abuse of a minor. Barr's client was a 10-year-old student and altar boy at Infant of Prague Catholic Church in Cheektowaga, New York when, he alleges, Rev. Gerard A. Smyczynski abused him. At the time, Trautman was auxiliary bishop for the diocese of Buffalo.
Barr said Trautman was "well aware" of the abuse and went so far as to "hasten the annulment of the child's parents' marriage with the hope of earning the family's silence about Fr. Smyczynski's abuses."
Trautman's theological training under German Jesuit Karl Rahner at the University of Innsbrook is noteworthy. As a young man, Trautman served as a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council. He was auxiliary bishop for the diocese of Buffalo for five years and was then elevated to bishop for the diocese of Erie, where he served for more than two decades and where he currently lives. Trautman was actively involved in a network of progressive liturgists "organized to oppose rollbacks in liturgical reform."
In his remarks at the presentation of the state's grand jury report on clergy sex abuse, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro singled out one instance of Bp. Trautman's cover-up to illustrate how he handled the cases: "Trautman and the diocese of Erie intentionally waited out the statute of limitation and curbed their own investigations to avoid finding additional victims."
Dan Bauer, another clergy sex abuse survivor from the diocese of Buffalo, went to Trautman with his accusation against Fr. Lawrence Connors. Bauer told Church Militant Trautman recorded the 90-minute conversation in which he consistently called Bauer by the wrong first name. Since the abuse occurred when Bauer was a young adult, there were no legal protections for him.
Barr has publicly acknowledged that he too is a victim of clergy abuse. Father Michael Freeman abused Barr in Niagara Falls in 1980. Barr reported the abuse to diocesan authorities in 1985, but no action was taken; according to Barr, Freeman "went on to abuse other boys in horrendous ways."
In 2018, one of Freeman's sex abuse victims accused him of pointing a gun at his head. Barr revealed to Church Militant his personal stake in the case: Bishop Trautman had been his abuser's spiritual director.
Church Militant asked Barr if he found it emotionally disruptive to be involved in clergy sex abuse cases.
"I find the work very emotionally affirming, gratifying," he replied. "I feel an emotional connection with every client I meet. But I wrestle with, 'This is my church which comforts the dying and feeds the poor.'"
Barr worries that Catholic officials use those acts of mercy to excuse their cover-up. "What affects my faith is the cover-up. It undermines all the other good work," he said.