When Father Joseph Gatto last month was added to the list of more than 100 priests in Buffalo who stand accused of sexual misconduct, many Catholics were stunned.
Gatto won praise and popularity as a dynamic priest with stirring homilies, and some thought he would someday wear a bishop’s hat. Gatto was promoted by Bishop Richard J. Malone, who named him the president and rector of Christ the King Seminary.
But others were aware of what they saw as Gatto’s darker side.
“We don’t want to think that the person that we’re vulnerable to or the person that we’re confiding in, the person that we trust with our family, is actually a predator,” said Marty Lougen, whose brush with Gatto nearly two decades ago resulted in Gatto’s recent suspension.
Lougen, 45, recently filed a complaint with the Diocese of Buffalo describing how he went to the priest for counseling after suffering bouts of anxiety. Lougen returned to Amherst after years spent commercial fishing in Alaska, and the anxiety was getting to him.In May 2000, Gatto would take walks with the young man on the streets around St. Rose of Lima Church in North Buffalo, but he found it odd when Fr. Gatto invited him to a house in Springville that he owned with Msgr. Paul J.E. Burkard, another diocesan priest.
“He said it would just be me and him,” Lougen said. “It was just odd.”
Lougen said no but Gatto later suggested they go see a movie.
In the theater, “He leaned over and in a very provocative way, grabbed my knee and at that point I was just totally turned off,” Lougen said. “It’s not something I was looking for.”
After the rejection, when Lougen tried to cut off communication, Gatto called his work phone and spoke with his secretary, he said.
“It was almost like you broke up with a girlfriend,” Lougen said.
The former secretary, through text messages with 7 Eyewitness News, corroborated Lougen’s account and said Gatto called Lougen more than average clients would normally call.
Gatto is on administrative leave as the diocese investigates Lougen’s complaint. This week, the diocese in a statement said Gatto “vehemently denies” allegations of “unwanted sexual advances.”
Gatto did not return multiple messages seeking comment for this story but last month told 7 Eyewitness News he was taking a “medical leave” that had nothing to do with abuse allegations.
Last month, he told The Buffalo News, “I have never broken my vows as a celibate priest, ever.”
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