Our diocese is in the midst of a catastrophe.
And we attend an important gathering of laity only to see people like Shiobhan O’Connor and the president of St. Bonaventure University sitting in the back of the room. That speaks volumes about the MRT.
It’s the eternal problem with trying to capture something on video. Sometimes some of the most important drama is outside the scope of the lens. In yesterday’s case, some things were out of the scope of the obvious for a lot of participants. The video of the “Path Forward” Symposium held by the Movement to Restore Trust (MRT) at Canisius College on December 7 is worth watching, but it doesn’t capture the whole story. Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, Apostolic Administrator, who was a welcome special guest gracing the event, may have missed some of the more poignant messages not so obvious to the newcomer sitting in to listen at his first event in the diocese. Really, we were all listening, eager to hear what some of our diocese’s prominent Buffalo-area laity have come up with to help us see a possible “path forward” out of the current clergy sexual abuse crisis. These particular laypeople running the MRT have been in the arena of advising bishops for decades. The expectations were high. After two hours, it was painfully apparent: We laity need a lot of help.
Not lost on so many of us in attendance was the venue itself, a three-dimensional visual illustration of what we have experienced not only in this diocese but throughout the universal Catholic Church–an exquisite brick and stone Byzantine-style church de-consecrated and re-purposed as a lecture/concert hall. It’s just a visual dichotomy some of us had a hard time getting used to after the initial shock (especially, like the good bishop, if you’ve never been inside before). The visceral response rather kicks your Catholic brain. Covered from view with an acoustic shield and giant projection screen, the mural in the apse depicts the Hand of God radiating gold rays.
Background: MRT formed as reaction to crisis
The MRT is an independent group of Roman Catholic laity in our diocese formed by prominent Buffalo-area Catholics, almost all of whom served our bishops in other appointed lay advisory capacities in the past. John and Maureen Hurley, for example, are two main leaders of the organizing committee who this coming year will have a combined 50-year tenure as selected lay advisors to our bishops since 1995 (at least on the Bishop’s Council for the Laity). The MRT formed in the aftermath of the diocesan clergy sex abuse scandal in 2018. That February, an abuse survivor, Michael Whalen, set up a make-shift media conference outside the diocesan chancery building and named his childhood abuser, a priest living in the region who was never held accountable for his crimes. That opened the floodgates of abuse claims against dozens of priests living and deceased. Local media outlets joined the hunt to find alleged abusers, some still living among us. The list of priests who allegedly abused children grew exponentially as the diocese and media outlets flushed out more names of the credibly accused which were hidden from us and our families.
The MRT’s stated goal is to help restore trust in our diocese, seeking to “give voice to Catholics who share deep concerns about the state of the Diocese.” A catalyst for its formation was that August’s WKBW-TV series of investigative reports filled with leaked diocesan documents and an October CBS 60 Minutes interview of Bishop Richard Malone’s executive assistant who blew the whistle on diocesan corruption in handling abuse cases. In that national telecast, Siobhan O’Connor revealed her identity as the whistleblower. More importantly, armed with secret documents, she, along with Rev. Robert Zilliox, former diocesan Canon lawyer, revealed a systematic coverup the diocese engaged in concerning improper handling of abuse claims, not processing credibly accused priests properly and coldly, inadequately handling survivors.
Two different visions for “path forward”
O’Connor (who attended the MRT Symposium) along with many other Catholic laity throughout the diocese have been consistent in calling for a thorough house cleaning of the chancery as the primary agent of creating a “path forward.” Those Catholics targeted not just its bishop, but all those officials who were complicit in sexual abuse coverups. The MRT’s vision for restoring trust and healing did not include a plan to remove any officials, including the bishop. And so the ideological stage for the rift between the two factions was set. While it took a year for the MRT to come to the conclusion that the Buffalo bishop needed to resign, this official lay group that ostensibly represents laity still resists touching any others who are likely complicit in covering up clergy sex abuse crimes out of the diocesan offices at 795 Main Street. In short, their plan remains to come up with strategies to fix the diocese utilizing the very men who got us into this mess who were groomed in the corrupt system that’s been in place for decades.
Saturday, the literal stage was set with parties from both camps present to hear what the MRT came up with as a “path forward.” We do not know who generously paid for the venue, equipment or hospitality, but the MRT was the host. Without getting into the details of some of the parts of the agenda that can be taken at face value in the video, including the bishop’s edifying words and prayer, we can jump right into the attempt to give Bishop Scharfenberger input for characteristics laity hope to see in the eventual 15th Bishop of Buffalo.
That topic surprised some in attendance –a little like decorating for Christmas before the house is cleaned. Because Scharfenberger will be among those offering input in the official selection process for the new bishop, the effort does have value. The audience’s choices were collected through use of a Word Cloud creation captured on a big screen. This software gives a visual look at the popularity of responses offered from the audience in the Cultural Center’s main hall. We used our personal cell phones to text our top seven choices. While that was an entertaining (and, frankly, cool) experience, we should not let the spectacle detract us from important points you cannot see in the video. Before you draw conclusions from the resulting word clouds created, please consider:
- Input was gathered from an audience that certainly almost entirely resides in Erie County. Yes, those two nice women on an MRT work committee from Jamestown were there along with yours truly and the St. Bonaventure University president (and its past president). But this was a predominantly Buffalo-area audience whose input does not necessarily reflect opinions of laity in the other seven counties of the diocese. If someone among the couple hundred in attendance at 9:00 a.m. had to drive a half hour to get to the downtown venue, it was lauded as a momentous effort among folks chit-chatting around the coffee station before things got started. Offer a city-centered venue and you get a non-inclusive sampling of participants that not only does not represent the sprawling geography of our diocese, but by virtue of distance excludes any meaningful participation by laity generally south of Dunkirk, especially in winter.
- The list of 104 characteristics from which we could choose [pictured] did not offer much in terms of spiritual qualities. For example, when I served on lay formation evaluation teams for seminarians during their pastoral year at our parish, the three essential priestly characteristics we looked for were: love of Jesus, devotion to Mary, man of prayer. None of those were listed. Guess what? They are the very characteristics missing in priests who engage in sexual abuse and other sexual, financial and moral improprieties. “Humble,” and “Holy,” and “Shepherd” and “Servant Leader,” thankfully, made the list, and were popular among choices.
- But you didn’t need to stick with the list of suggested qualities as you could add those or any other off-menu characteristics for the next bishop you wanted. This led to an embarrassing and, frankly, disturbing side-track.
- Monsignor David LiPuma attended the event We were surprised to see his name appear on the word cloud as an off-menu choice. Tacky and inappropriate campaigning for a priest who enjoys a loyal following in certain circles in the Buffalo area. Highly unfair to Catholics in other parts of the diocese who would much rather see other candidates. Worse, clergy sexual abuse survivors were horrified. This stunt elicited subsequent responses from agitated audience members (one from Cuba) who promptly texted to the screen: “nolipuma,” “neverlipuma” and “notlipuma,” based on
Survivors know where they stand on “path forward”
Keep that thought because it brings us to a bright spot in the program, clerical sexual abuse survivor, Michael Whalen, who drew two standing ovations before and after his five-minute reflection. The plain-spoken, candid points carefully thought out by this courageous South Buffalonian always captures our hearts. In addition to his heroic act of forgiveness to his abuser, his talk served an important purpose not lost on some of us in the crowd. Casting glances at Bishop Scharfenberger in front-row attendance, Whalen addressed him directly saying:
“the people who knew about the abuse need to step down or be let go–Auxiliary Bishop Grosz being one of them, Terry Connors [30+yr diocesan attorney] another. Us survivors need…justice. Let go of the bad people in the diocese.”
Elsewhere he used the phrase, “clean house.” Curiously, to this day, the MRT has failed to repudiate named individuals whose hands are dirty in alleged coverups of clergy sexual abuse, especially those who spent years serving several bishops in official Canonical capacities in the chancery. By virtue of the offices they held, they KNEW what was going on and, with the sole exception of the previous vice chancellor/priest-secretary to the bishop, Rev. Ryszard Biernat, they did nothing to stop it, nothing to encourage reporting to civil authorities, nothing to aid victim/survivors, nothing to warn congregations at risk when a known sexual offender was assigned to their parish. Today, they collectively and individually do not even offer the whisper of an apology. One of them, apparently, wants to be the next bishop.
Some clergy sexual abuse survivors say they are wary of hitching on to the MRT’s wagon for this reason– it largely ignores what survivors see as blatantly obvious problematic (read: corrupt) diocesan leaders.* Regrettably, the MRT continues to accept the current active leadership roles of Bishop Grosz, Terry Connors and Msgr. LiPuma (head of Council of Priests, the Joint Implementation Team and, get this, head of the diocesan “Year of Healing” committee). That is the short list. Some survivors express they also want assurance they won’t be used as pawns simply to bolster the MRT’s validity. Others say they are skeptical of a self-appointed organization that doesn’t articulate a specific agenda for the future; survivors who come forward don’t exactly know what they would be endorsing in a rather closed system with no apparent checks and balances–one that has a history of what some of them say they see as protecting/enabling the very clerics who protected/hid their abusers.
Whalen confirmed that one of his intentions at the event was to make sure the bishop heard the message about the need to get rid of named problematic diocesan officials. Truly, without Whalen’s talk, THE vital step to “move forward” (a veritable non-negotiable for survivors), would never have been mentioned at the symposium. This leads us to wonder if instead of the MRT using Whalen, Whalen used the MRT. Nice work, Mike.
Careful presentation on Bankruptcy obscures probable effect on survivors
Next we examine a discussion on Mass Tort Bankruptcy, and while it sounds nap-inducing, to me it actually turned out to be a fascinating primer (in lay terms) on the almost-certain-bankruptcy filing the diocese will have to make. This question/answer segment between Todd Brown, vice dean of UB Law School and John Hurley, president of Canisius College (MRT leader/spokesman), covered a lot of ground, but not enough.
Google “why dioceses file for bankruptcy,” and you’ll see many articles listing a dominant (if not primary) reason that is generally spelled out as follows: It turns victim/survivors into mere potential creditors (along with everyone else the diocese owes) and eliminates jury trials, halting the discovery process, limiting survivors’ access to records that could expose additional wrongdoing by priests or diocesan officials who either engaged in sexual abuse or failed to act against suspected abusers. In short, we may never get the truth about what happened with hundreds of cases in this diocese. You can check the video (starting at time mark 45:12), but I don’t recall hearing any of that articulated at the Symposium in a way that spells out the disaster this could be to our hopes of holding diocesan officials accountable and getting a modicum of justice for survivors. [Access text of questions and answers in the segment of the discussion].
So the treatment of the topic was deceptive in that regard. Coming from a lay organization that is supposed to look after lay interests, it is an outrageous omission. [Do correct me if I’m wrong, folks. But I just didn’t hear this vital reason for the the diocese to opt for mass tort bankruptcy.] Survivors can kiss their day in court goodbye. We didn’t hear that message loud and clear, and for many, that’s more valuable than the cash awards, as a Buffalo News editorial noted. But there’s another benefit to the diocese: Bankruptcy provides a measure of protection for diocesan hierarchy, diocesan officials, diocesan lawyers…Get the picture? That for sure was never spelled out in the tightly-controlled discussion that allowed for one single pre-arranged question from the audience.
Need to responsibly address foundational issues
And that was the problem with this well-intentioned, pretty well-attended event that graciously served a great cup of coffee that I, for one, needed after my 1.5 hour winter drive. Sure, we talked about some stuff we can do in our parishes, but that was not appropriate at this juncture where we desperately need drastic course correction. People are leaving our churches in droves. Coffers are drying up in our parishes. This diocese is in dire straits. No, it’s worse. It is in the midst of a catastrophe. Yes, we trust Jesus that we can emerge from this, and we will! But with all due respect for the enormous efforts in putting this event together, please place all the facts before us. Spell everything out and let us decide for ourselves. Responsibly address the proverbial elephant-in-the-room of complicit clergy still actively involved in diocesan leadership roles within a corrupt corporate culture widely recognized internationally (Google that too). It’s the #1 issue concerning laity, especially survivors (who are not divided on this issue). Address it. We don’t bite.
Certainly it would help to triage these events, keeping the topics focused on tourniquet solutions (more resignations, cleaning up corrupt corporate culture), not band-aid solutions or jumping the timeline in influencing our choice for the next bishop. What system is that bishop going to operate in? That’s where we need to focus.
Lack of diversity in diocesan-appointed lay leadership for decades exposes weakness of current lay representation
But there is something more fundamental that is so desperately needed as we strive to move forward as laity in our Church: diversity of competent lay leadership. We saw that need on display at the Symposium. The leadership core of the MRT which hosted this event is made up of very fine, committed, devout and generous Catholics. We all admire their efficiency, skill sets, intelligence and zeal. They do this from their hearts investing enormous time and passion (and probably money) into helping to save this diocese. What bothers so many of us is the leadership core’s iron-clad grip on their tight circle of friends/family and fellow Bishop’s Council of the Laity associates who all live in the vicinity of Buffalo. If their very makeup is non-inclusive, their origin is more so. Most of these lay Buffalo-area advisers were hand-selected by priests/bishops of the past. Let’s look at a few on the organizing committee of the MRT: Paul Bauer has served for 36 years; Tom Beecher 30 years; Robert Greene 27 years and Carl J. Montante, Sr. more than 25 years. As noted earlier, the Hurleys will each have served a quarter century this year. And that’s just on the BCL. Their selfless service is commendable. But the tenure comes at a price.
During those decades, prominent lay volunteer advisers like those listed above have enjoyed a comfortable, social relationship with our bishops–even receiving personal Christmas cards from Bishop Malone. They are naturally inclined to have a special fondness for our bishops and would certainly want to protect them. There is nothing sinister in that at all. But it makes these laity outrageously inappropriate “advisers” sitting in judgement of a bishop’s views, system of operations and decisions. And so in their advisory capacity in the midst of the Spring 2018 crash, when we needed them to step up their game, none of them had the temerity to prod key players for information?
It is an incredible fact that no one talked with Kim Petrel in diocesan accounting to see why she so abruptly quit in March, 2018 during that critical time period. (I implore you to read her story at that link, Bishop Scharfenberger). Later that Fall, not one lay leader bothered to have frank discussions with Siobhan O’Connor. Not one person reached out to the president of St. Bonaventure University (or anyone south of Dunkirk, for that matter) to engage in serious discussions as they were forming MRT. Heaven forbid any lay leaders would set up informants, actually read the documents O’Connor released and hold meetings to discuss them to challenge the bishop they were supposed to advise, and honestly just do whatever’s humanly possible to find out what the hell has been going on at 795.
Our diocese is in the midst of a catastrophe. And we attend an important gathering of laity only to see people like Shiobhan O’Connor and the president of St. Bonaventure University sitting in the back of the room. That speaks volumes about the MRT.
It is time to be honest with each other in charity, truth and love, my dear fellow laity. The Buffalo-area lay leaders who on their own authority formed this group to ostensibly find a way to heal and restore trust in the diocese are some of the very people who were part of the problem to begin with for years, and they just stubbornly refuse to open their leadership circle for help. It is difficult to write this because they are such fine individuals who try so hard. But the cold reality (something they are incapable of seeing, unfortunately) is they were already involved in key lay advisory positions in which they enjoyed face-to-face interaction with our bishops for decades, and they blew it. No other word for it. Was it their fault or was it a doomed system in which they got caught up that needs a complete overhaul? No-one wants to engage in useless blame, and that’s not the point. They did their best with what they were fed, we’re sure, but we need to FIX THIS system of lay representation (something not on the MRT agenda).
If we are going to talk about accountability, we laity have to have the temerity to cinch our belt and own up to the fact that our city-centered lay leaders who were hand-selected by clergy (we never got a chance to select them to represent us) and approved by our bishops for many, many years obviously failed somewhere. In charity, we need to be honest with each other. Membership in the leadership club up there in Buffalo needs to open and open soon to competent folks in other areas of the diocese and from other points of view not tainted with affection and a sense of protection the lay leaders in Buffalo have nurtured for decades. In short, other competent laity from other parts of the diocese can bring cold, hard objectivity to the table.
No one is alleging these good lay leaders/advisers were complicit in criminal coverup. We’re just saying that in their understandable naïvety, they as a group and as individuals apparently got caught up in the more social aspects that accompany their role and took their eye off the ball. One of the prominent lay leaders actually admitted that they got “played” by the diocese. It was refreshing to read that quote in reports covering MRT’s first media conference. There is no question they got complacent, too trusting of clerics at 795 and woefully lax in their responsibilities. They weren’t the only problem or the major problem that fed this catastrophe. They committed no crime. They obviously just didn’t understand the complexities and serious nature of their responsibilities. I have heard survivors describe MRT leaders with the chilling label: “enablers.”
Many of us see these same lay leaders continuing to this day to fail clergy sexual abuse survivors in so many ways, not the least of which is this stubborn refusal to hold complicit clergy who hid their abusers accountable. Some MRT leaders chuckled along with others in the audience at LiPuma’s name appearing on that giant screen at this symposium as if it was a charming gesture. That name is a horror to survivors. Do they not get that?
It is as if they live in a bubble when it comes to practical realities of what’s going on around them. Here’s another practical reality. This past weekend, I heard that one priest credibly accused of sexual harassment at the seminary was spotted back in a Buffalo parish saying Mass. Is this true? Where are our lay bishop “advisors” in all this? Who is going to investigate on our behalf to find out who authorized this priest to slide back into our churches under the radar (if that’s what happened)? What were the circumstances of the reinstatement? What last-minute pardons or decrees did Bishop Malone Malone sign before the clock struck midnight? Importantly, to whom do we laity go when we have such questions/concerns who will take these matters seriously? This is simple corporate customer service. It can’t be that complicated to offer. Do we now see why Mr. Whalen had to go through the extraordinary measures to set up a makeshift news conference outside the chancery building? There is NO lay entity he can go to with his “concern.”
We desperately need active lay leadership we can trust to help us. Leadership that gets it. Leadership from a broad pool of laity who will hold our diocesan leaders accountable for their decisions. Remember all those words on the screen that we want to see in our next bishop? Guess what? We want to see those traits in our lay leaders too. Painfully, we didn’t sense that at the symposium. Despite its awards and accolades, the MRT, regrettably, is just not a serious entity we laity can turn to in these dire circumstances in our diocese. And it hurts to type that.
Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, pray for us.