Diocese of Syracuse

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The Diocese of Syracuse was established in 1886 and the present geographical territory covers the central and southern part of New York including the counties of Broome, Chenango, Cortland, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga and Oswego.

The current bishop is Most Reverend Robert Cunningham, who was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Buffalo in 1969 before becoming the bishop of Ogdensburg in 2004.  He has been the bishop of Syracuse since 2009.  Cunningham turns 75 in June 2019 so he will send his letter of resignation to the Pope at that time.

In a 2011 deposition concerning a priest sex abuse case in Syracuse, Cunningham stated that the boy who was abused was culpable for the behavior.  “The boy is culpable,” Cunningham said Oct. 14, 2011, according to a transcript of the deposition.

Later in the deposition, Cunningham backed off the statement somewhat, saying he’d have to know the child’s role.

“Well, I mean, without knowing the circumstances completely, did the boy encourage, go along with (it) in any way?” Cunningham said.

The lawyer asked Cunningham if he could imagine any circumstance in which a 14- or 15-year-old boy could be held responsible in the eyes of the church when a priest asks him to engage in sex.

“I would not – obviously, what the priest did was wrong,” Cunningham said. “You’re asking me if the young man had any culpability, and I can’t judge that.”

Most Rev. Robert J. Cunningham celebrating mass at the Alibrandi Catholic Center, Newman center for Syracuse University.
Most Reverend Robert J Cunningham on October 25, 2009

Bishop Cunningham has made controversial decisions concerning sexually abusive priests in other dioceses as well.  He allowed Rev. Brian M. Hatrick, a Buffalo priest, to remain in parishes for decades after a teenage boy complained Hatrick sexually abused him in the early 1980s. 

In December 2018, the Diocese of Syracuse released a list of 57 priests who’ve been accused of sexually abusing a child.  However, as of September 2018, a compensation program offered by the diocese had determined there were 85 victims. 

However, after the release of the 57 priest names, Diocese of Syracuse has acknowledged its list of 57 priests accused of child sex abuse could be incomplete.  The list excludes names of priests who were reported to the diocese years or even decades ago.

In 2016, the Diocese was criticized for allowing priests who’d been accused of sexually abusing children to live at a retirement home for priests unsupervised.  The Tommy Coyne Residence for Priests has since closed.  The Diocese stated that it was closed for financial reasons but the Diocese was under increasing pressure concerning the presence of the abusive priests. 

The Diocese of Syracuse has already settled approximately 77 claims of sexual abuse for an undisclosed amount.  The recently signed Child Victims Act which takes effect in August 2019 will likely bring more lawsuits against the Diocese of Syracuse.

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Coat of Arms of Robert Joseph Cunningham

Bishop James Moynihan, Cunningham’s immediate predecessor in Syracuse, has allowed three priests to have a role in ministry despite past sex-abuse accusations and, in two cases, financial settlements. After arriving in the mid-1990s, Bishop Moynihan let a retired monsignor, the Rev. Charles Sewall, teach part-time at a Catholic school – although the diocese had settled in 1988 a complaint that he abused a boy while serving as a school principal decades earlier. After the out-of-court settlement, Monsignor Sewall underwent treatment but remained a pastor and an administrator until he retired, then continued to teach some. When the case resurfaced this year, Monsignor Sewall admitted to the molestation. The victim, Lincoln Franchell, who is now an adult, has said he is among the three men who recently filed a lawsuit against Monsignor Sewall. The diocese is also named as a defendant. The men allege that the abuse happened on school grounds in the 1970s and 1980s and that Monsignor Sewall offered them money in exchange for silence. Although dioceses across the country have drafted new guidelines to tell authorities about allegations, Bishop Moynihan updated the policy didn’t require such notification.

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Map of the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse in New York

The Diocese of Syracuse, like other dioceses in New York, has a sordid history of child abuse and a negligent manner in which it has dealt with offending priests.  Transferring priests, maintaining silence over allegations, not notifying law enforcement- these are the modus operandi of the Diocese of Syracuse and the Catholic Church in the Empire State.