After decades in existence, this Buffalo-area lay group, with its unique access to our bishops, has watched our diocese slide from crisis to catastrophe all the while remaining aloof, unaccountable for their “advice,” and virtually unknown to the laity. Until now.
The man-made catastrophe of the Johnstown flood of 1889 could have been avoided. That was the theme of David McCullough’s first book which chronicled the disaster following the collapse of the South Fork dam producing a flood that all but wiped out the town and 2,209 precious souls downstream. The dam was owned and maintained by the South Fork Fishing Club whose membership was made up of the wealthiest Pittsburgh elites who enjoyed the lake amenities. McCullough’s stinging words in the final chapter summed up his entire book: “…the members of the club and most of Johnstown went along on the assumption that the people who were responsible for their safety were behaving responsibly.” This, he wrote, was a great mistake. Until September 11, 2001, the Johnstown flood was the single greatest disaster in our nation’s history. It could have been avoided had responsible people listened to warnings from the field.
The Diocese of Buffalo is in the midst of the greatest disaster in its history. This I know after spending two years researching the diocese’s history for the Vatican application for minor basilica status for the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels in Olean (a title Pope Francis granted in 2017). The catastrophe that we are presently in is made up of two components: (1) clergy and religious sexually abusing precious souls and (2) diocesan officials handling those criminal acts under the radar– outside of law enforcement or criminal law or justice. Many if not most sexual abuse survivors will tell you that it was the second component of their abuse that caused the most suffering. And it is precisely that second component that absolutely could have been avoided.
Working with no checks and balances in the system of Church governance, our bishops have toyed with “advice” from very few select groups of laypeople. While they have no authority in the governing structure, these clergy-selected Catholics have some influence (or could if they collectively wanted to make a stink). And like the fishing club members who enjoyed the lake, they trusted the fact that their bishops were giving them sound information concerning our safety and concerning the moral, spiritual and financial stability of the diocese. Time and time again, these Catholic laity were told the dam was sound, so to speak. They were told not to worry. In short, these lay groups assumed those who were responsible were behaving responsibly. Meanwhile, we laity downstream assume the laypeople who advise the bishop on our behalf are behaving responsibly too in looking out for our interests. That assumption on our part was a great mistake.
In my first installment of this series examining lay advisory groups in the diocese, we looked at the Diocesan Pastoral Council, a collection of clergy-chosen laypeople (for the most part) who recently offered a vote of confidence in their bishop. In this installment, we examine the Bishop’s Council of the Laity.
They’re among the most magnanimous benefactors to the Diocese of Buffalo, many giving not only of their treasure but their considerable time and talents to help educate children, feed the poor, heal the sick, protect the vulnerable and even look after the needs of clergy and seminarians in our diocese. That they are committed Catholics, no one denies. The very name of the official diocesan lay group they were invited to join, Bishop’s Council of the Laity, suggests an organization operating to advise the bishop. Since almost 600,000 laity are distributed throughout eight counties, the name also suggests representation throughout the diocese. That most certainly is not the case as they (with few exceptions) live around the vicinity of Buffalo, almost entirely in Erie and Niagara Counties.
One would think these particular Catholics would be motivated to keep a keen eye on what’s happening behind the scenes in the diocese for our mutual benefit. Yet, after decades in existence, this Buffalo-area group, with its unique access to our bishops, has watched our diocese slide from crisis to catastrophe all the while remaining aloof, unaccountable for their “advice,” and virtually unknown to the laity, until now.
The legal maxim, qui tacet consentire videtur (“Silence gives consent”) certainly applies in the BCL’s collective, overwhelming silence over the years. Consider this: throughout all the horrific clergy sexual abuse revelations just the past couple of years alone, this distinguished lay group continues to proclaim what can only be interpreted as a deafening consent to outrageous management practices connected to the current crisis designed to protect the institution. And if the bishop waived off egregious decisions like assigning a credibly accused sexual predator to a parish because all the alleged victims were over age 18, then so be it. We are only left to presume that silence is consent from Buffalo-area laity who advise on our behalf.
It wasn’t until last Fall that a few members finally woke to the conclusion that diocesan leadership had been flat-out duping them in relation to the current crisis. A clearly frustrated Carl J. Montante, president and managing director of Uniland Development Co., said last November, “I was a member of the Bishop’s Council of the Laity for more than 25 years, and on that council we were supposed to have learned what was really going on in the diocese, and there was never once a hint of any problem with the Diocese of Buffalo.” This he revealed in a press conference of a newly created independent lay group, Movement to Restore Trust, which some BCL members joined in a leadership capacity last fall to help reform the diocese’s governance structure and restore trust among Catholic laity.
“We were assured that the problem was in other dioceses, that it wasn’t in Buffalo,” said a visibly dismayed Canisius College president, John Hurley, at the first MRT media conference last November. He was a former co-chair of the BCL who headed the newly-formed MRT.
The creation of the MRT along with comments like Montante’s and Hurley’s offered some reasonable hope that at least a few of these prominent laypeople were starting to understand the level of deception diocesan leaders were capable of dishing out to even its best “customers,” so to speak. And if those generous benefactors could be “played” (as an MRT member described in a press conference), who else was the diocese deceiving?
Bolstered with this hope they would draw such logical conclusions, I welcomed a surprise invitation for my husband Steve and I to join the BCL in December, 2018. My first thought upon reading the letter on their official letterhead: “Perhaps they are looking for better advice.” I was wrong about that too, as I later found out.
What exactly is the BCL?
While the diocesan website lists it as an advisory group, a link to information about them has been deactivated. I had hoped to get clarification about their membership, function and purpose. Here’s what I eventually found out:
An Invitation-Only Lay Group
Even after talking to one of the BCL’s lay leaders, I am unable to ascertain exactly how laity get invited, but that it is an invitation-only group, I can attest from multiple sources. Invitations are vetted by clergy in some way. The diocesan employee who signed the invitation letter said he didn’t know what generated it. The invitation letter stated that our pastor offered a “resounding endorsement” of us. Well, long story, but that just didn’t happen. The diocesan employee added that since a few members had quit in the aftermath of revelations in the media that spring through the tragic summer, he said he knew they were looking to fill in the roster a bit. He suggested I call one of the co-chairpeople of the BCL to get more information on the group. That led to an eventual chat with a Buffalo woman who volunteers to lead the group along with her husband. They’ve been BCL members for almost 25 years.
A Fundraising Arm of Diocese
Between this woman and a priest friend of mine who is somewhat versed in the group, I verified that the BCL funds a type of United Way-style charitable arm of the diocese in which members annually throw money in a pool to be distributed for special projects and needs within the diocese. The letter explains the financial expectation for members. Fair enough.
A LOCAL Social Group
These lay Catholics overwhelmingly come from the vicinity of the City of Buffalo (none from Cattaraugus County and one each from Allegany and Chautauqua Counties). They pray and socialize with the bishop five times a year– Mass and dinner or perhaps cocktails at the bishop’s residence, that sort of thing. An annual meeting is thrown in as well.
I asked this leader about the advisory aspect of membership indicated in the letter. I didn’t tell her but, honestly, that’s what I was most interested in because I thought it was time to keep the pressure up on exposing the corrupt corporate culture in the chancery. I explained that with the diocese in such catastrophic straits and fresh off Shiobhan O’Connor’s 60 Minutes interview, surely they discuss the clergy sex abuse crisis.
Her reaction? You would have thought I asked her about comedy scenes in Hamlet. She hesitated and then explained that it’s not really so much about advising, per se, although sure, some people give the bishop their opinions. “But we (indicating the entire group) support our bishop,” she stated rather emphatically, adding that they absolutely despise the media and what they’re doing to the diocese.
I tried to ease into talking about the need for critical inquiry into serious concerns within diocesan culture and leadership that could only come from outside sources–in the field. For example, I knew of a particularly horrific story concerning a seminarian the bishop himself admitted was molested by a diocesan priest in 2004. I went on to describe the resulting coverup that was reported to me by the victim in 2006 along with Bishop Grosz’s alleged threats preventing the seminarian from reporting the assault or even talking about it. It’s a hard story to recount in a quick, friendly conversation, I admit, and I could sense her stiff-arming my words and just wanting to end this call. I get that. So I offered to send her my report. It fizzled into that type of call. Then, after another couple of phone calls, I was able to obtain the entire contact list of the BCL.
Sensing this particular laywoman’s lack of interest, I thought I would just go ahead and mail my report to the entire list, all 162 households*** consisting of more than 300 members.
Below is a link to the membership roster as of January, 2019 along with dates they joined. Keep in mind, most of the organizing committee members of the Movement to Restore Trust are on this list. Carl Montante’s name is not on the list, leading me to think perhaps he was one of the BCL members who had quit by then.
On the member list you will see the diocesan lawyer, Terry Connors and his wife (members since 1995). You will also see a Buffalo television news anchor with experience in investigative reporting. Also noted is a former president of the region’s Serra Club (an international organization that serves to promote and support ordained priests, seminarians, and religious life.) There are judges and lawyers and executives of substantial companies. John Hurley is still listed along with his wife, Maureen, who also serves on the MRT organizing committee.
Siobhan O’Connor took a look at the list I had just emailed to her. “Yeah.” After a brief pause over the phone, she added, “A lot of these people are on the bishop’s personal Christmas card list.” She would know. She sent the cards.
While the diocesan website lists the BCL and a contact phone number among diocesan organizations, nowhere on the website can I locate a member listing. In the list I obtained, most households include husband/wife memberships addressed to fashionable and recognizable neighborhoods — you know the streets and towns around the Buffalo region. I edited all that out. But we should know member names because despite their co-chairwoman’s characterization of the BCL, the diocese states that it is a “consultative group” and our letter of invitation states they “advise the Bishop on an array of matters” serving as “voices and ears of the community” [hence, my letters to the BCL] and enjoying the unique opportunity to interact with the Bishop five times per year to “share with him issues, concerns and priorities of our faith community.” This is an enormous responsibility, if we take this invitation letter seriously. Do the members take it seriously?
The report I mailed to each household was a version of my report to Christ the King Seminary which I mailed to its interim-rector a month earlier. It is a gruesome exposé of the 2004 sexual assault of their seminarian which I wanted to be sure made it into the seminarian’s (now priest’s) file–a concern of mine in the midst of reports of civil authorities requesting case files from the diocese. Because I worked with CKS at the time as a member of the seminarian’s lay formation team at our parish, I believed it was high time that I finally offer to CKS the report which alleged threats against the seminarian prevented me from submitting in 2006.
Without naming the seminarian (although he had weeks earlier publicly disclosed his abuse at the hands of a diocesan priest), I explained that everything was reported to me in 2006 by the victim. I also offered additional details the seminarian never put in his report to the diocese–the atrocious diocesan response in the aftermath that further humiliated and abused him, including alleged threats by Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz along with the pernicious coddling and cover diocesan officials afforded the priest molester. Below is a link to my letter to the BCL containing my report detailing the abuse case we all have now heard from the victim himself, Rev. Ryszard Biernat. Yes, the BCL had this story back in January.
My intent was to use this one egregious case to prick their individual consciences into questioning our leadership and the corrupt corporate culture that had clearly been misleading them with their spin on how abusive priests and their victims were handled. Assuming these laypeople were interested in “healing” in our diocese, I stated in the first paragraph, “I’m sure you agree that we cannot possibly ‘heal’ without truth.” If this story is true (and I knew that it was), then what other horror stories are out there? I knew that Bishop Malone was brushing off the “adult” abuse cases stating that he was really super sorry, but gee whiz, those cases didn’t fall under the 2002 Dallas Charter. Well, now laity could read about one of those vulnerable “adult” sexual assaults he so casually dismissed in a clear attempt to provide cover for his re-instatement of the molesting priest to active ministry (putting laity at risk). STILL to this day, we read BCL members’ embarrassing letters to the Buffalo News* heartlessly brushing off these vulnerable adult molestation cases (as if those souls don’t matter) offering complete exoneration of Bishop Malone (even parroting Malone’s own words of defense).
If this story did not stir their sense of compassion and justice for the victim (a priest in their own diocese), what would? If this story did not call into reasonable question the integrity of the men in diocesan leadership with whom they are apparently so fond, what would? If this is what the diocese can do to seminarians, what are they doing to laity?
Along with the letter, I included a copy of a letter Bishop Malone wrote to the Vatican which attests to the 2004 sexual assault of this seminarian by his abuser, Rev. Art Smith. This document was part of Ms. O’Connor’s document dump with WKBW that August. I remember asking the BCL co-chairwoman if she had read through any of those documents on WKBW’s website (which were posted almost 4 months prior). I got an emphatic, “No.”
What could someone, anyone have done with this information? For starters, how about trying to find the official report Fr. Ryszard sent to the chancery office back when he was a seminarian to verify if it even went through the proper channels? I was certain they would find out it was missing and that this incredible case of abuse was blocked by individuals STILL working in the chancery today (and elsewhere in prominent positions in the diocese), preventing it from going through the proper channels. With a couple questions to the right people, they would find out that innocent laity were, indeed, put in harm’s way as the alleged sexual predator pastor was left in his two parishes for years as if nothing happened. An internet search easily reveals Art Smith’s whereabouts and places of ministry. All it would take, I reasoned, is ONE person on that list of over 300 Catholics to get the investigative ball rolling on our behalf, but more importantly, on behalf of the seminarian who is now a priest in our diocese.
Let’s jump in our timeline to this Fall. When the MRT finally called for Bishop Malone’s immediate resignation in early September, 2019, the diocese sent out a message that the bishop will continue to work with the “established consultative bodies in the diocese such as… the Bishop’s Council for the Laity” to, among other goals, assist survivors and strengthen the trust and faith of the people of the diocese. Here’s the message:
I’m sure these are well-meaning, competent, generous and very nice laypeople in our diocese who happen to have unique access to the bishop that we don’t have.
I’m not asking them to call in a legal team or make legal decisions or waltz into the chancery headquarters demanding to open up files. I’m asking them to set their cocktail glass down and LOOK at this case.
They have a responsibility to we laypeople and to the bishop to advise him appropriately. If his auxiliary bishop is capable of threatening a seminarian, that’s a problem. If the corporate culture is as corrupt as it appears in this one case (let’s start with locating the seminarian’s report), that’s a problem. That a bishop would be comfortable with placing a man he KNOWS to be a sexual predator back into ministry (putting we laity at risk) it is more than a problem. There are human souls downstream.
Anyone to whom I have ever spoken who has read this account simply cannot do so without tearing up or throwing up in disgust. Some people find they cannot sleep at night. Are these laity on the BCL so enamored with the bishop and his cohorts that they cannot critically examine a detailed, credible report generated outside the reach of the diocesan spin machine? It makes you wonder.
I really hoped that someone in that pretty significant group of Catholic humanity would muster up enough heart, enough ingenuity, enough integrity, enough compassion to get others involved in pressuring the right folks (believe me, many of these folks know who to talk to behind the scenes) to start to get questions answered. Perhaps some of that did occur and got stymied. We don’t know. And given their corporate silence, we can only assume consent not only with what went on, but with the integrity of the men leading this diocese.
My letters landed in Buffalo on a weekend (mailed from our Florida winter home). Apparently, one of the recipients immediately gave a copy to Jay Tokaz at the Buffalo News who called me that Sunday evening for a chat. But Mr. Tokaz does not have the ability to tap into informants like influential Buffalo laypeople do with their connections and professional resources (and Fr. Ryszard, a diocesan official right there in their midst, would have been delighted to answer BCL member questions). At the very least, that Buffalo-area lay group could have spoken en masse at one of their gatherings to explore concerns brought up in field reports indicating that the integrity of the dam was compromised.
Days, weeks, months passed. The end result–SILENCE–except in the chancery offices.
Fr. Ryszard explains that at the Catholic Center, senior staff, including Bishop Grosz, discussed an official diocesan response.
Excuse me, members of the BCL. I clearly wrote to YOU, my fellow laypeople. I did not address my letter to the diocese, a corporate entity. I wrote to you fellow Catholic laity in your unique position “advising” the bishop on our behalf.
Nevertheless, the diocese would make the response. And as Fr. Ryszard noted, the “official diocesan response” did not include refuting my narrative. Here is the response: Bishop Malone asked Fr. Ryszard to call me to continue the alleged coverup by telling me “everything is okay… It’s all in the past… It’s just fine. I’m fine.” Those statements should cause us to pause. Let me put it another way. The bishop asked the clergy sexual abuse survivor to lie (abuse of authority of bishop over a priest and a sin) to a concerned member of the laity who is trying her best to advocate for the survivor and get him some justice and end this abominable coverup in which critical players in our CURRENT diocesan leadership are getting off scot free. I’m going to quote Scripture here. Matthew 5:6. Look it up.
Please access the heartbreaking WBEN radio interview containing Fr. Ryszard’s explanation of what transpired in the conversation with the bishop concerning my letter. This portion of the interview is at time mark 5:30 on the timeline. I wish Fr. Ryszard had made a recording of that conversation with The bishop too. By the way, Fr. Ryszard did not follow Bishop Malone’s request to lie to me.
The apparent lack of initiative by these Catholic laity to even casually look into this case is astounding. The intellectual dishonesty of members like that one BCL leader I spoke to who never bothered to review the WKBW documents, breathtaking.
Not long after my letter landed in Buffalo, the interim rector of the seminary finally responded to my original report sent on December 14. It was written on February 2. Once again, I took the time and effort to send a copy of that letter** to all 162 households (a move the rector naturally supported). In his response, he said he made sure the report got into the victim’s file in the chancery (as I requested) and noted, “Your concerns need to be investigated and appropriately addressed.” He added:
After receiving advice of how I should best handle your concern for him, I scheduled a meeting with the Chancellor of the diocese [Sr. Regina Murphy], the person who oversees the files for priests. We met on Monday January 28th. She listened carefully, received the original copy, and said she would see that your letter be added to the priest’s file. Yesterday, February 1st, she sent me an email confirming that the original copy of your letter to me had been added to his file as you requested. From what I understand, the diocese is considering what other actions to take. The diocese would see to any further investigation of that case, while the seminary would see to any future incident under its supervision.
We note the interim-rector did not deny the allegations in my report, took it seriously and offered his opinion that the case should be “investigated.” He acknowledged that the diocese was considering other course of actions. Would anyone among the 300+ laity responsibly follow through without merely accepting official diocesan spin on this case?
At the beginning of this post, I pointed out the grave mistake we laity make in assuming fellow laypeople, who are tasked with advising diocesan leaders, will keep a keen eye on the interests of our diocese (and us). Let me be more blunt: “…quite a few human corpses were part of the tidal wave that surged on down the valley,” McCullough wrote. We are talking about human souls, not cocktail parties with the bishop. We are talking about influential laypeople up in Buffalo taking seriously their role in helping our bishop and our diocese given the disaster in which we find ourselves downstream.
If BCL members do not wish to be held accountable for their advice (or lack thereof) in this official diocesan advisory group, they should insist on a re-branding of their group as an official diocesan Buffalo-area social organization which contributes to a funding arm of the diocese. Until then, we laity rightly hold them accountable for their obvious poor consultation of our bishop and grand public silence in the aftermath of the dam bursting on their watch. (I urge you to please examine on the membership list their individual years of service).
But on a deeper level, I wasn’t writing to just this official group, per se, regardless of whether they officially consult or not. I was writing to fellow Catholics I knew just had to have enough intellectual, spiritual and financial skin in this game of healing and restoring trust in our diocese to wake up to the corporate corruption in the system (to acknowledge clear evidence of cracks in the dam). I assumed that if they could just look at their leaders within the documents and testimony portrayed–their decisions, their words, their signatures, their writings, the heartbreaking story itself, the gross mishandling and mistreatment of this innocent seminarian–SOMETHING might click in their rational/moral conscience. Surely, someone could arrive at this statement:
“If a man can do [name the atrocity] to another human being (regardless of age/gender/race/state in life or whether a document was in place to do what is morally right), he is morally compromised.”
It’s not just a bishop and his job security that concern we laity. It’s the whole stinking system run by morally compromised men that would even produce such atrocities–a system in which these men apparently continue in their deceptive tactics while we are simultaneously asked to trust them. I offered an opportunity for these prestigious lay advisors to look at our leaders more objectively. Because without truth, we cannot possibly heal. Outside their identification in this group, as concerned human beings, perhaps these good fellow Catholic laypeople could be enticed to seek truth.
Their answer: Silence.
In my next installment in this series examining Catholic lay advisory groups associated with the Diocese of Buffalo, we’ll take a look at the Movement to Restore Trust. Comments and corrections are always welcome.
Prayers continue for conversion, truth and love born of Jesus who alone can produce healing and trust. Please continue to say your daily Holy Rosary. Above all, may God’s holy will prevail, for nothing can frustrate His loving plans.
*Kevin Brayer, Jim Grubka, Dr. & Mrs. Bernie Kolber, Jim O’Brien are BCL members who are among those who signed this Letter to the Editor (Buffalo News, 30 Sept. 2019: A9)
** Rev. John Staak’s letter was mailed to me on CKS stationery. I include just the text of the letter in this link for ease of reading.
*** One family has since quit the BCL, and I eliminated their name from this list.
Photos: Box of 162 envelopes filled with my 5-page report and Bishop Malone’s document to the Vatican. I thank my husband, Steve (and his golf buddy that day, Dr. Jerry Cellura) for collating and stuffing envelopes. I took the time to hand-address each envelope because having worked in marketing for more than 30 years, I know it increases the chance of the letter getting opened.
Content Evangelist, Jennifer Kane, is a secular Carmelite (OCDS), wife, mother, grandmother who worked for more than 30 years in marketing/communications holding degrees in Journalism/Communication (BA) and English (MA) from St. Bonaventure University. She authored the Vatican application for minor basilica status in 2016 for The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Olean, New York from which she authored the history book of the basilica, A Place Set Apart. She previously authored the book, A Worthy and Capable Clergyman, the second part of this book in a slightly different format. She is founder and editor of the website, CatholicAPPtitude.org, the world’s #1 English language website cataloging/reviewing Catholic apps for mobile devices.