A note to Bishop Sharfenberger:
Rev. Ryszard Biernat should be restored to full and active ministry as the gospel would compel in this situation. Had you taken the time to speak with the dedicated laity protesting outside your office on Mondays when you were in Buffalo, you would have been presented with a different point of view enriching the facts of his case for your deliberations. Since you did not choose to engage these lay Catholics in respectful dialogue, here is a sampling of what would have been outlined for you to prayerfully consider. These committed Catholics and others among the lay flock in the diocesan family continue to hold you in prayer for a just decision in this matter.
Information that Bishop Edward Sharfenberger, Apostolic Administrator for the Diocese of Buffalo, has received to inform his decision regarding the future ministry of Rev. Ryszard Biernat is supremely suspect. This is because the bulk of his information has been collected within what has been revealed to be an objectively corrupt system which has a history of distorting/covering up details of sexual abuse cases by diocesan leadership over the course of decades. The fact that Bishop Sharfenberger said he knew nothing of the public allegations concerning Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz’s efforts to cover up decades of clergy sexual abuse is shocking to most laity with a rudimentary understanding of the situation in our diocese.
Now, the whistleblowing priest secretary to Bishop Richard Malone who attempted to expose this form of coverup has been suspended from priestly ministry under “penalty” which Bishop Sharfenberger has the authority to lift.
Recently, Rev. Ryszard Biernat put the “penalty” imposed on him in context of his own sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a diocesan priest (details here). Essentially, the priest who sexually molested Fr. Ryszard as a seminarian was never held accountable for that crime/immoral act, but Fr. Ryszard is supposed to be held “accountable” for whistleblowing in the public interest. This is not just an immoral double standard. It is an unjust abuse of power of a bishop over a subordinate easily interpreted as retaliation and a crime in New York State. Fr. Ryszard’s public revelations included an allegation Malone was not protecting the integrity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) concerning actions of what the bishop described as a “sick puppy” priest who also was allegedly engaging in serial sexual harassment of a seminarian. Sitting on knowledge of these credibly substantiated allegations for months and refusing to pull the rogue priest from ministry, Bishop Malone put the laity at risk, according to Fr. Ryszard. The fact that Fr. Ryszard had nowhere else to turn but a trusted public media outlet further exacerbated the moral dilemma facing the diocese’s Vice Chancellor. It was a situation in which this fine priest should never have been placed to begin with. That is not his fault.
The penalty Bishop Malone imposed on Fr. Ryszard back in early December– as Bishop Malone walked out the door to an early retirement with full benefits– forbids Fr. Ryszard from:
- celebrating the sacraments
- celebrating the Eucharist publicly
- preaching as a Catholic priest
Bishop Malone additionally removed Fr. Ryszard from his assignment as chaplain to the Carmelite nuns. To add insult, Malone publicly shamed Fr. Ryszard by deliberately disclosing a correspondence written by his priest secretary which the bishop characterized with innuendo-laced, unsubstantiated immoral claims that had nothing to do with the allegations Fr. Ryszard made concerning his bishop placing the laity at risk.
The Penalty is excessive punishment, disproportionate to the crime of whistleblowing particularly when we consider:
So many priests with substantiated sexual abuse claims were not held accountable for their crimes or immorality. Rev. Art Smith’s case is a classic example, as Fr. Ryszard points out. The diocese admits that Smith sexually molested Fr. Ryszard when he was a seminarian in 2003, yet never held Smith accountable for that criminal/immoral act. The diocese did not report the crime to law enforcement, its own diocesan attorney or its Review Board. Not only was Smith never held accountable, he was incredulously honored by the diocese with
- his office of pastor (including a school) for seven years AFTER the assault;
- the vocations office’s “Priest of the Month” designation AFTER the assault;
- invitations to celebrate televised Mass, preaching to a wider audience.
These honors elevated Smith’s moral reputation in the marketplace, making him all the more dangerous.
I have detailed the litany of Smith’s offenses salted with additional sexual abuse allegations including child sexual abuse, his predatory behavior and the diocese’s despicable reactions and coverups (many which followed his alleged assault on seminarian Biernat). A complete detail of Smith’s whereabouts/assignments/allegations is listed here. Bishop Edward Kmiec finally placed Smith under penalty which didn’t last long. Bishop Malone inconceivably decided to reinstate Smith into active ministry in 2012, a move many see as deliberately putting laity at risk, given all we know they knew at the time. Documents reveal that Malone was well aware of Smith’s pattern of predatory behavior.
In this case and in others, documents and witness testimony reveal that Bishop Malone appeared to objectively engage in criminal acts which also violated Canon Law, it can be easily argued, especially when we consider his acts of abuse of authority over a subordinate (Fr. Ryszard). Bishop Malone has suffered no repercussions while the whistleblower suffers a canonical penalty. Many news outlets have detailed those documented, credible allegations against Malone which I gathered together here and here. As one prominent Canon lawyer noted, a bishop first needs to adhere to Canon Law himself if he expects his subordinates to do likewise. Malone’s numerous alleged transgressions of the law, both civil and ecclesial, rather sets the stage for the subordinates he allegedly substantially abused under his authority to seek justice and to protect the lay faithful/seminarians.
We do not have an adequate system in place for priests to report abusive/criminal/immoral activity of bishops. If we did, Fr Ryszard would have used that avenue rather than take the risk he took with such heartbreaking consequences. Whatever system the diocese provides at this time clearly is not effective, as even the Movement to Restore Trust admits. To whom was the Vice Chancellor supposed to report his bishop? Fellow chancery officials? They already knew everything and agreed that the bishop should have taken appropriate action to pull the rogue priest. But they were not willing to do anything about the impasse. The Presbyteral Council? It is headed by the former Vice Chancellor who allegedly (as documents reveal) engaged in coverup of Smith’s crime against Fr. Ryszard! Cardinal Dolan? And how long would the laity have to continue to be exposed to an unsuspected rogue priest in their midst until Dolan acted–if he ever would? Do you not see the dilemma? Violate confidentiality or let the coverup continue. That is a moral dilemma in which NO cleric working in the chancery should ever be placed.
Bishop Sharfenberger, you are invited to read other opinions on the matter by laity who posted on social media following the WKBW-tv video report below. We note the sentiments of the observation of one clergy sexual abuse advocate: God would not punish a priest for protecting others from sexual harassment or the abuse of the sacrament of reconciliation, but the Diocese of Buffalo has and does so “in the name of God.”
May the Holy Spirit guide you in your deliberations regarding the future of this heroic priest in our “family.” Mary, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us.