In 2002 as the scope of the scandal of sexually abusive priests was sweeping across America, only one Niagara County clergyman stood accused.
But revelations from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, more than 15 years later, show that Father Richard Judd was not alone in preying on youth in the region.
At least seven priests, who served in parishes in Niagara County and elsewhere in Western New York, have now been publicly identified as having had “credible allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors” made against them.
In parishes stretching from Niagara Falls to Lewiston to Lockport and as far as the Southern Tier, the priests practiced their ministry from 1962 to as late as 2004. And the faithful were never made aware of the claims against them.
Paul Barr and his family were among those innocents.
Barr, now 53, regularly attended mass with his grandmother at the Sacred Heart parish in Niagara Falls. He made his confirmation in 1980. His pastor was Father Michael R. Freeman.
Prior to arriving at the Falls parish, Freeman had made stops at St. Margaret’s, St. Lawrence parishes and Bishop Turner High School in Buffalo. When he left Sacred Heart he was sent to St. Mary of the assumption parish in Lancaster.
Freeman approached Barr, shortly after his confirmation, with a proposition.
“He said, ‘Hey, you know, all you guys made your confirmation and we really don’t have a program for kids after confirmation’,” Barr recalled. “He said, ‘I’d like to start something for you guys.’ “
Then, in an approach that experts have said priests accused of abuse used over and over, Freeman began to compliment Barr, telling him he was a “leader” and “athletic.” The compliments had the desired effect.
“He made me fell really good,” Barr said.
One night, in June 1980, Freeman invited Barr to come over to the church rectory. When Barr arrived, Freeman gave the underage teen a beer.
“And I’m like, that’s pretty cool, I’m drinking beer with Father Freeman. This is awesome. Wait until I tell my buds,” Barr said.
Then Freeman moved the conversation to the topic of athletics and mentioned that he was a chaplain at the Air Reserve Base in the Falls, Barr recalls. As the conversation moved to things like weight-lifting and other athletic activities, Freeman told Barr he had a concern.
“He said, ‘There’s a condition you’ve got to be worried about that athletes, big guys, can get (and) I’m a little worried for you because a lot of athletes get this condition,’ “ Barr said. “He goes, ‘Yeah and it can make you sterile.’”
Barr volunteered that he’d ask his mother to make a doctor’s appointment for him. Freeman had another idea.
The priest told him that airmen at the air base were sometimes embarrassed to have nurses check them for the malady, so he had been trained to look for it. Freeman approached Barr, pushed him back on a couch and undid the teenager’s pants.
As Barr protested, he said Freeman began to fondle his genitals.
“I jumped up. I’m scared and I’m crying,” he said. “I go to open the door and it was locked, with a key, from the inside.”
Barr said Freeman, tried to get him to calm down and then unlocked the rectory door and let him leave. Barr went home and told his mother what had happened.
His mother blamed him for the incident.
“She got upset with me,” Barr said. “She asked me why I was so naive and told me not to tell anybody.”
Not long after the incident, Freeman — who died in 2010 — was on his way to the parish in Lancaster. His replacement was Father Bernard M. Mach.
And soon enough, Mach would himself at the center of a child sex abuse scandal.
TO REACH OUT
If you know of instances of clergy sexual abuse or have been a victim of sexual abuse by a member of the clergy, you can contact Gazette reporters Rick Pfeiffer and Philip Gambini at 282-2311 ext. 2251.