Abuse victim said Catholic Diocese and officials knew about pastors bad behavior and allowed it to continued.
The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo already had received three complaints about Rev. Michael Freeman’s alleged sexual abuse of boys when he took a position as associate pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Lancaster in 1984. Yet, he was still able to serve in the clergy and his bad behavior only continued. At that time, Freeman began molesting James Bottlinger who was a teenaged altar boy who spent a lot of his time in the rectory of the church.
“There is truth that needs to be told and facts that need to be revealed,” said Jeff Anderson, one of Bottlinger’s attorneys. “[Bottlinger] found his voice and chose to take powerful action.”
The assault is certainly difficult for Bottlinger to forget, as is how the Diocese turned a blind eye. He said he remembers a specific instance in which Monsignor Donald W. Trautman, the once-second-highest ranking administrator in the Buffalo Diocese, visited the rectory.
“Trautman walked in, said hello, had a few laughs with Freeman and then left without saying a word about a teenage boy being inside the priest’s private quarters,” he recalled. Bottlinger, now 50, said he has “no doubt Trautman knew Freeman was an abuser,” and yet “seeing me there in his room didn’t faze him one bit…He left. I stayed at the rectory. It didn’t bother him at all.”
Bottlinger said Freeman also “preyed upon the fact that he was a dedicated Catholic whose parents were divorced…He was a father figure when my father wasn’t around.”
Yet, he admits, the pastor would be kind at times. He was a member of the clergy, after all. “People want to assume these pedophiles are monsters. But they’re people, too. There’s multiple sides to everyone. He could be very caring,” Bottlinger said.
Freeman regularly took Bottlinger on his boat and out to restaurants, and he was also a chaplain with the Airborne Rangers and various police agencies. Bottlinger said, “He knew all the police. He knew all the restaurant owners. He was kind of a celebrity.”
But he was also a highly manipulative predator who continually took advantage of the boys. He frequently offered Bottlinger alcohol and then would take him to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The abuse survivor recalled that sometimes after the abuse, Freeman would “put on his priestly stole and take out a black case filled with special oil that he used to absolve [Bottlinger] of his sins.”
“I think it was more his own guilt,” said Bottlinger. “I was absolved so many times. That was the compassionate and almost priestly part of him.”
He also remembers that on more than one occasion, after he began to date girls, the priest showed up at his home and waited for him in his bedroom with fuming jealousy. He also physically assaulted Bottlinger in front of family members and other witnesses.
The Buffalo Diocese “knew in 1981 that Freeman had a history of abuse,” according to a Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August 2018. The report also indicated Freeman admitted to engaging in sexual misconduct with minors, yet, “The Grand Jury found no documentation in Freeman’s file that indicated that the Dioceses of Buffalo or Erie ever notified law enforcement officials, despite the fact that Freeman admitted to sexually violating children in at least five of his six ministry assignments.”
“What bothers me the most is they knew,” said Bottlinger. It wasn’t a secret within the clergy even before he showed up on the scene. “The church purposely covered this up. There were victims before me.”
In December 2018, the Catholic Diocese offered Bottlinger $650,000, which marked the largest settlement award in $17.5 million program compensating childhood victims of clergy sex abuse. Freeman died in 2010 at age 63.