A little boy from East Aurora was able to smile in the face of brain surgery when the Rev. Joseph F. Moreno Jr. brought him the signed hockey jersey of his favorite player, inspiring more than 2,000 people to send him get-well cards.
A Buffalo police officer involved in a line-of-duty shooting went to see the priest, who counseled him that maybe the officer was meant to be there on the night of the fatal shooting, that maybe some kind of higher power “just tapped you on the shoulder.”
Those two families – along with hundreds of others – now are left wondering why a man who helped so many people didn’t reach out for help himself, before he took his own life Saturday.
People always say they’re shocked and saddened by such a sudden death, especially of a popular, street-smart minister such as Father Joe. But this time, it was pure shock for the people who knew him the best.
“Every time I saw him, he was ebullient and upbeat,” attorney Thomas H. Burton, who referred many trauma-shaken police officers to Moreno, said Monday.
Yet the man who helped people through their heartaches succumbed to his own demons, whatever they were. Police said Monday that Moreno died of a single apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Moreno was considered an unorthodox priest, but diocesan officials suggested Monday that there was no allegation of impropriety against him. Although he was being reassigned from St. Lawrence Catholic Church, he was talking with diocesan officials last week about a hospital ministry.
“If somebody’s in trouble, accused of something improper, they typically don’t get another assignment; they get put on leave,” one diocesan official explained. “Father Joe was being considered for another assignment. There’s nothing improper I’m aware of.”
Three and half years ago, Moreno became a fixture in the lives of Deaglan Carney and his family. Deaglan, just 4 at the time, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and needed surgery to remove it. Moreno knew Deaglan’s dad, an Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority police officer, and when he heard about his situation, he immediately began doing everything he could to help the family through the traumatic situation – and cheer the boy up.
“He was always texting us back and forth, constantly wanting to know what he could do to help us out,” Deaglan’s mother, Audra Carney of East Aurora, recounted. “At the hospital, he would come up and pray with us. He would ask if we needed a meal. It was always: What did we need?”
When Moreno learned that Deaglan loved the legendary hockey player Bobby Orr, he arranged to get a signed jersey for the boy. He also inspired 2,300 Western New Yorkers to write get-well cards to Deaglan – which he hand-delivered to the boy in his New York City hospital bed.
She recalled a story that Moreno shared a few months after Deaglan’s surgery. A man who had been inspired by the boy’s story, which appeared in The Buffalo News, was contemplating suicide. His wife showed him the article about Deaglan, and the man changed his mind.
“He said, ‘If God can help that little boy to get well, he can help me to get well,’ ” Moreno told The News.
Saturday night, Audra Carney had the sad task of explaining to Deaglan that Moreno had died.
The Buffalo police officer involved in the fatal shooting in the last few years recalled what a great listener and spiritual guide Moreno had been for him.
“Now I’m thinking, ‘What could I have done to help him?’ ” said the officer, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. “I’ve been thinking about that the last couple days. They’ve been sad days.”
This officer, who says he prays before going onto the streets for each police shift, has one theory why Moreno connected so easily with people in need.
“Sometimes when you look at a priest, you look at him as a higher power, just short of perfection,” he said. “But Father Joe had some shortcomings or imperfections. Because of that, he [came across as] more of a person than a priest. He established a rapport, a connection, with people, and once he did, he never let them down.
“You knew you were talking to a stand-up guy,” the officer added. “He just had a way, I guess, of putting things in perspective.”
Whenever he investigates a suicide, this officer said, family members always want to find some kind of explanation, whether it’s in a note, phone call or some other message. Maybe that knowledge can help the family deal with the tragedy.
That’s also true here, but with a twist.
“His family was a lot bigger than most,” the officer said. “His family was in the thousands, all those people who feel a connection like they were family. They all want to know.”
Burton, the attorney, often represents Buffalo police officers, firefighters and emergency responders who have been involved in traumatic cases. He never hesitated to send those professionals to Moreno.
“I can’t tell you the number of people he helped who faced gut-wrenching circumstances on the job,” Burton said. “I had a number of officers who were good, decent, moral guys who grew up with a strong religious upbringing. You see a public image of a cop trying to be tough as nails and detached. But then you see tears streaming down their face when the office door is closed.”
Those became part of Moreno’s flock, people in need who quickly recognized his sincerity.
“He was no stranger to folks who had to go through these tragedies,” Burton said. “You’d think he would be steeled [to that]. But sometimes with these losses, there simply is no rhyme or reason.”
Diocesan officials said they saw no sign that Moreno might harm himself. Friday, he asked two priests to write letters of recommendation for him for the hospital ministry job. And late last week, he called some pastors to see if they needed someone to cover for them for a specific Mass.
“If you look back at the week, he was planning for his transition,” diocesan spokesman Kevin A. Keenan said.
Cindy Goss, who worked with Moreno for nearly two decades helping law enforcement and other first responders in crisis, said she knows that the priest talked many people out of harming themselves.
“I think there’s a lot of people who owe their life to this man,” she said. “Hundreds and hundreds – it could be thousands.”
Police officers and firefighters across the region knew they could count on Moreno to be there for them at a moment’s notice. Police culture can be “close-knit,” Goss explained.
“There are very few who have been able to penetrate that circle. He just had that gift,” she said. “… It wasn’t something he had to say. It was who he was. They sensed it. They sensed he cared and trusted. They felt that he understood.”
Saturday night, dozens of Moreno’s loved ones gathered outside St. Lawrence Church on East Delavan Avenue, shocked and grief-stricken. Goss recalled how someone said: “Isn’t this when Father Joe usually shows up?”
The death of Moreno cast a pall over Police Headquarters on Monday.
One officer, who asked not to be identified, said that many who had sought his help are feeling lost. They trusted and loved him, whether they were grieving over a loss or battling an addiction.
“If you needed rehab, he would do it on the side and take care of us,” the officer said. “He was always there for every shooting, every officer who died in a car accident or got cancer. He was always there within minutes. Always bringing food to us. If we couldn’t go to Mass on Easter, he would do a quick Mass for us. … He really tried to take care of us.”
A large turnout is expected for Moreno’s services later this week. Calling hours are scheduled for 2 to 9 p.m. Thursday in St. Margaret Catholic Church, 1395 Hertel Ave. A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday in St. Margaret’s.
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