Fr. Ryszard Biernat’s spiritual lobotomy ordered by Most Rev. Richard Malone has already commenced, but hey, we have school Christmas pageants to attend and another candle on the Advent wreath to light. This asylum needs an epic overhaul. It starts with utilizing people who have a sense of basic humanity.
Although she won an Oscar for her role in the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Louise Fletcher said she cannot bear to watch the film. “I find it too painful,” the woman who played Nurse Ratched revealed in an interview a few years ago. “It comes with age,” she said. “I can’t watch movies that are inhumane.”
Originally, the role was supposed to be played as overt “evil personified,” director Milos Forman explained. He even had an Anne Bancroft-type actress in mind. But then the genius of Fletcher’s vision of the character hit him. “I slowly started to realize that it would be much more powerful if it’s not this visible evil,” he said. “That she’s only an instrument of evil. She doesn’t know that she’s evil. She, as a matter of fact, believes that she’s helping people.”
We wince. Truthfully, that’s all we laity are doing these days as we hear horror stories of our beautiful young people spiritually lobotomized by not-so-visibly-evil priests and the not-so-visibly evil work of folks in the institution that covered for them. We collectively wince.
This asylum needs an epic overhaul. It starts with utilizing people who have a sense of basic humanity.
Imagine one nurse on the floor–just one–actually turning the tables on Ratched and Doc Spivey and the entire insane asylum and then meeting up with a reporter from WKBW in a downtown parking lot to work on a plot to break open that house of horrors for all the world to see? That’s what Siobhan O’Connor was in the view of a lot of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike all across this nation, because all it took for her to act was a measure of compassion for those suffering in her midst. She was Bishop Richard Malone’s administrative assistant until she blew the whistle.
Same goes for Rev. Ryszard Biernat who might as well have been in the executive board room meeting at the asylum capturing recordings of those conversations. His compassion, born of his own suffering at the hands of a priest, led to his publicly exposing his bishop’s inaction in order to remove a cleric whom chancery officials all agreed was a “bad” and “sick puppy” priest. He served as the bishop’s secretary and Vice Chancellor of the Diocese of Buffalo until he blew the whistle.
I understand Fr. Ryszard’s is one of those stories we might feel uncomfortable revisiting, but let’s do so for the sake of humanity this Advent, shall we?
I keep his detailed testimony, complete with audio and video, front-and-center on LayDOB.com so you can see the pain on his face and hear the trauma in his voice as the events he recounts are still fresh in his body and soul 14 years later.
It is an illustration of a pathetic body politic of inhumanity in action in our diocese. If you aren’t familiar with Fr. Ryszard’s case, let me refresh your memory. As a seminarian in 2004, he reported to the diocese that he was sexually molested by Rev. Art Art Smith at Smith’s parish rectory at St. Thomas Aquinas in South Buffalo in December, 2003. The auxiliary bishop’s chilling response at the time, according to the seminarian? “You should have locked your door.” Now, put yourself in these bullet points below, and let’s see if this is a movie you could stomach watching:
- Chancery officials (led by Bishop Edward Kmiec) did not report Art Smith’s alleged sexual molestation to law enforcement, the Diocesan Review Board or the diocesan attorneys.
- The seminarian said he was not permitted to report the incident (he said he didn’t know it was a crime) to law enforcement or anyone else as he was under threats by Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz of canonical censure (essentially blackballing him from ever being accepted into any seminary in the world) and the resulting automatic deportation to his native Poland with an expulsion from the seminary. “You will never be a priest. Do you understand me?” Grosz barked to the Polish immigrant for whom English was his second language.
- The threats by Grosz, as reported to me by the seminarian in 2006, included the ominous words: “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.” I took that to mean bodily harm for the seminarian if he talked. The seminarian did too. Grosz has denied the threats. He remains in office to this day.
- A Catholic attorney that I arranged to meet with seminarian Ryszard in 2006 said that, unfortunately, without the diocese’s cooperation, this was a case of the popular and charming pastor’s word against the seminarian’s.
- With absolutely no record of this crime in existence, the victim, on his own initiative, typed up his own report of the sexual assault and mailed it by registered/certified mail to officials at 795 Main Street so that something would be on record in the chancery about Smith’s assault on the seminarian. Are we surprised that this report is missing?
- Rev. Richard Siepka, Christ the King Seminary rector at the time, knew of the abuse and never contacted authorities, never counseled his seminarian appropriately or even made sure his student knew it was a crime. He currently serves as Director of Spiritual Formation at the seminary.
- Diocesan officials coldly permitted Smith to remain with full faculties as a working priest without any serious discipline or remedial actions for his body, mind or soul for seven years after the alleged assault.
- Diocesan officials permitted Smith to remain a canonical pastor of two congregations during those seven long years until he was caught allegedly grooming an 8th grader at a Catholic school.
- Diocesan officials never informed the laity of Smith’s alleged dangerous inclination to cross boundaries to satisfy his sexual appetites.
- Diocesan officials never gave adequate treatment or support to their own seminarian who was an innocent victim.
- In one particularly icy move, diocesan officials permitted the Vocations office to bestow upon Smith the honor of “Priest of the Month” AFTER the sexual assault.
- Diocesan officials all the while permitted Smith to celebrate televised Masses, creating a false aura of public trustworthiness for this alleged sexual predator, not to mention inflicting more pain upon the victim (later ordained a priest) who had to witness his sexual molester honored in such a manner by the diocese.
- While Kmiec did finally send Smith away for treatment after the 8th-grader incident report, Smith continued to show up at diocesan youth events prompting the school principal’s angry written communications to diocesan officials, including Msgr. Lipuma, stating among other things: “This man is a predator and a groomer of young children. Something needs to be done.” […] “… the blatant disregard for ‘Protecting God’s Children’ is mind boggling.”
- In 2012 Bishop Richard Malone reinstated Smith to work at a nursing facility that after a short time threw him out after Smith allegedly made sexual overtures to two young male employees.
- Malone, in a quandary about what to do with Smith,** wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for him, attesting to his virtues and safety among passengers for a cruise ship company vetting Smith who wanted to serve as a ship chaplain.
- Malone, in an outrageous abuse of authority, ordered Fr. Ryszard (now his Secretary and Vice Chancellor) to notarize this false document (about Fr. Ryszard’s own molester!) that put cruise ship passengers at risk.
- Two months later, Malone wrote to the Vatican detailing all the sexual abuse allegations against Smith, completely contradicting his signed testimony to the cruise ship company.
- The diocese provided a $1,300/month condo in Williamsville for Smith to live in for three long years with the Vice Chancellor, LiPuma, attending to his concerns and needs.
- Malone coldly and without explanation, re-assigned Smith to work with full faculties at Blessed Mother Teresa Parish in Depew where he remained until spring of 2018 when a child survivor of sexual abuse telephoned diocesan offices to make his report against Smith. Shioban O’Connor happened to answer that phone call.
Inhuman does not come close to describing the actions of the clerics in this story. That is why artists like Ken Kesey craft characters like Nurse Ratchet and Doctor Spivey in novels to help us “see” that many times, agents of evil really and truly do not think they are.
So when we read through the well-intentioned documents of the good people of the Movement to Restore Trust (MRT), complete with workgroup recommendations and “areas of inquiry” to help instill trust and get our diocese on the road to healing, forgive us if our collective minds wander.
In the midst of so much inhumanity in the stories that have pierced the veil of secrecy, some of us just can’t wrap our heads around a call to include more women in diocesan leadership roles when probably the most heroic woman in the history of our diocese, Siobhan O’Connor, isn’t even asked for input and Sister Regina Murphy sits as Chancellor on the very executive floor where she has served in various capacities for decades with a front-row seat to the files containing the tragic stories of the slaughter of the innocents.
So much for the value of women in executive leadership roles. Fr. Ryszard said he couldn’t stomach the stories after his review of the files. Kim Patrella in diocesan accounting (another powerfully brave diocesan laywoman) couldn’t bear to literally write checks to the pedophiles and quit. Rev. Robert Zilliox, former diocesan canon lawyer, said he was disgusted by how the abuse cases he saw were handled with “hypocrisy and lip-service.” Sr. Regina Murphy told a chancery employee that Siobhan O’Connor had an “inordinate sympathy” for the victims.*** These are courageous people who threw themselves on a sword for the innocent victims in their midst because they saw them, heard them, touched their wounds, believed them, responded accordingly.
The most innocent of all the innocents, Jesus too endured the very cruelty (Sin) we can’t bear to watch. He came to us as a human being precisely so that we can “see” him more clearly, yes, but see him in others as well (Matthew 25:40). Thank God there were a few who DID SEE and understood the displays of inhumanity going on about them at 795 Main Street. It takes humanity to see inhumanity.