6-part series: Laity's response to sex abuse crisis, Lay Advisory Groups

How laity can step up their response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Diocese of Buffalo. INTRODUCTION: A Call to Conversion.

I’m posting this on the eleventh anniversary of Rev. Ryszard Biernat’s ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Buffalo. It is the introduction to a six-part series of forthcoming articles revealing the dark underbelly of diocesan culture which led to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. There really is much we laity can do to help create lasting reform. It starts with conversion. While we may not be able to fix the clergy in the hierarchy, we laity can certainly change the system we operate under, particularly for those among us who advise our bishops.

Listen to INTRODUCTION to series. Audio read by the author.


Unbelievable and Unbearable to Watch

During the pandemic quarantine, you may have binged on Netflix’s true-crime drama, Unbelievable, in which skeptical police detectives coerce the survivor of a brutal rape into admitting she made a “false” report. After they forced her to walk back her story, they then charged her with the crime of making a false report. Of course, all this only created a living hell of the victim’s life. But remember: all along, television viewers know the truth. It’s frustrating to watch. Knowing this is a true story makes viewing positively unbearable unless you slog through all eight episodes which lead to her satisfying exoneration.

As someone with intimate knowledge of a particularly egregious clergy sexual assault case and the general way it was handled by diocesan officials, I likewise found it unbearable to watch the cast of characters at the chancery building running the Diocese of Buffalo the past 14  years. It was downright horrifying to witness not only the priest-perpetrator get off scot-free, but the diocesan officials who covered up the crime as well. To make matters worse, the diocese actually bestowed honors and titles to not only the credibly-accused sexual molester priest, but to some of the diocesan officials who took part in the systematic coverup of the abuse since the victim’s report in early 2004. One even became a bishop. Because the abuse survivor was eventually ordained a diocesan priest, he couldn’t eek a word of protest. [Detailed in a previous post]. But this survivor would agree with me that his re-victimization wasn’t the worst part of stewing in this tragedy the past 16 years. Let’s revisit what happened in that true-crime television drama, to help you understand.

“Even with good people, if the truth is inconvenient, they just don’t believe it, no matter how much someone says they care about you.” — survivor, Marie, in this true-crime NETFLIX drama.

[SPOILER ALERT] The principle detective, upon viewing photographic evidence that the rape actually did occur (precisely as the victim reported), set his ego aside to correct what he could–going out of his way to apologize to the survivor, admitting his fault. Acquiescing to truth, he took the time to hand-deliver the survivor’s exoneration paperwork along with a reimbursement check, sparing her the insult of having to petition to clear her name. You don’t see that often in television drama or in real life (and fact-checking verified all that contrition on display in high definition).

The worst part of the drama I witnessed in the Diocese of Buffalo the past 14 years was hearing of the deaths of one former diocesan official after another who never bothered to do what that police detective did–own up to their complicity in covering up clergy sexual abuse cases, apologize to the survivors, open up their case files and attempt to make restitution. In other words, these diocesan priests and bishops didn’t have the courage to do the minimum necessary to set a good example of Christian contrition, give some sort of solace to clergy sexual abuse survivors or to save their own souls. With each new death notice, the first thought that came to mind for many survivors and whistleblowers alike: “God have mercy on his soul.”

First Mass with Pastor
At the conclusion of his First Sunday Mass following his ordination to the priesthood (August 9, 2009), Fr. Ryszard Biernat embraces his priest-mentor, Rev. Gregory Dobson, at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. It was a harrowing journey culminating at this moment in his priesthood which you can see on his face. Ten years later, he finally blew the whistle on the corruption within the diocese concerning its handling of clergy sexual abuse cases. Fr. Ryszard is still without an assignment and prohibited from public celebration of the Eucharist, following his suspension by the 14th Bishop of Buffalo in December, 2019. Official lay advisors remain silent on this issue.

Last September, when my survivor friend, Rev. Ryszard Biernat, publicly disclosed the details of his sexual abuse as a seminarian at the hands of a diocesan priest and official diocesan coverup of that abuse– including threats from the auxiliary bishop– I started receiving phone calls from rank-and-file fellow pew-sitters at my parish, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. Gobsmacked over what the diocese had done to Father Ryszard over the years, they were sickened, angry and wanted to talk. A hospital orderly, choked with grief and anger, tried so hard not to sob so he could express what was in his heart. A waitress of 40 years said she had no idea that the seminarian who had served a year with our parish (in 2006-2007) had carried such a heavy burden while he was with us. Then she just broke down and cried. They wanted Father Ryszard properly cared for, they wanted the truth to be exposed to light, they wanted the guilty held accountable, and they wanted this wretched system fixed. These are simple, faithful people who do not have the personal connections or the knowledge of diocesan machinations to know where to begin to take action.

Frankly, it was refreshing to witness such appropriate reaction from ordinary laypeople because I know Father Ryszard never heard it from clerics working in the chancery building. Worse, he never heard it from the the very laypeople hand-picked to advise our bishops. It is why I created this website on behalf of voiceless abuse survivors and on behalf of fellow laity who have spent years (even decades) believing whatever spewed out of the wash-rinse-repeat cycle of the diocesan spin machine whenever this subject of clergy sexual abuse came up.

This cruelty needs to end. That end begins with conversion, especially among those who consider themselves “leaders” in this diocese. Apparently, our diocese’s apostolic administrator, Most Rev. Edward Scharfenberger, agrees.

“We all have to go through a penitential period.”

In surveying the epic failure of the Catholic Church’s handling of clergy sex abuse, specifically in the Diocese of Buffalo, Bishop Scharfenberger points to personal conversion as the only pathway he sees to restoring trust and confidence in the diocese. His remedy is echoed in the words and actions of that contrite police detective. You’re not going to hear this remedy when the bishop talks with secular reporters. It wasn’t until he talked with a Jesuit priest during a Station of the Cross radio interview [December 11, 2019] that Bishop Scharfenberger could confidently talk to we Catholic laity with more candor on a spiritual level.

Scharf Station of the Cross radio graphic
Graphic on the Station of the Cross Radio website hosting the audio file of the station’s December 11, 2019 interview of Bishop Scharfenberger.

To overcome this crisis, he said, we have to go through a penitential period in which there “has to be conversion,” because “committees, reports, regulations” are not going to bring us through this crisis. Self-conversion, virtue, growing in holiness comprise the action plan, he explained.

A half hour into the discussion,1 Bishop Scharfenberger returned to the penitential foundation of addressing the clergy sexual abuse crisis:

“We have to live the cross […] There is an element of sacrificial suffering that is involved in this […] Remember the original meaning of sacrifice […] it means to make holy, to purify. So we have to purify our minds and attitudes, prejudices, judgements […]”

No one can argue that the bishop is spot-on with his diagnosis/treatment plan. However, we cannot help but sense something is missing. Let’s take his observations out of the Catholic Church and apply them to another human organization. How about Major League Baseball and its cheating scandal with the Houston Astros’ world championship called into question. The MLB doesn’t have a bishop, but it does have a commissioner, Rob Manfred, who wrote a blistering report explaining that a “culture of operations led to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”  USA Today’s lead baseball reporter followed that observation up with the missing piece to the commissioner’s diagnosis: “Everything is systemic, and any culture in baseball operations is merely being executed at the pleasure of ownership.”

Bam.

Like the USA Today reporter, we laity need to follow up Bishop Scharfenberger’s excellent observations with the missing piece to his diagnosis/treatment plan: Conversion begins at the top because everything is systemic, and any perceived cultural rot is executed at the pleasure of the bishop.

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We cannot point to one precipitating event/person–one pulled Jenga piece–that toppled the block tower. The diocese toppled into scandal and bankruptcy because leaders allowed the corruption under their watch. Eventually the systemic rot causes the structure to fall under its own weight.

The coverup of Father Ryszard’s abuse case was initialized by a diocesan administrator and an auxiliary bishop who protected the offending priest. But all that coverup was eventually sanctioned at the top by the bishop assigned to our diocese several months after the victim’s report.

The call to conversion is not an option. It is a gospel duty no one can escape, including diocesan officials and anyone who advises them.

But we can’t stop with just serving hierarchy their call-to-conversion notice. Leaders on the next level of the diocesan machinery need to be called to conversion as well. It is not an easy remedy to swallow for anyone who claims a leadership role.

“There is a pain in letting go…” Bishop Scharfenberger explained in that radio interview, “of pride, overconfidence, false expectations, all the things that …play into our… pride and ego,” he said, adding, “Jesus has to be the center of my life. It can’t be about me about my plans about my projects.”

This is understandably why laity who have appointed themselves leaders in the efforts to reform the diocese are so resistant [documented in my upcoming posts] to criticism of their ideas or to any suggestion they may have underestimated their role in the crisis. After all, most of them had served in official advisory roles for our bishops for literally decades. It is more than disappointing they don’t offer opportunities for laity to seriously question their plans for reform, offer advice to them, challenge their assumptions, or even invite competent laity outside their close-knit circle to join their efforts in leadership capacities. This lack of openness to other ideas, including ideas from diocesan insiders like heroic whistleblowers, unfortunately displays evidence of lack of true conversion that we need in our lay leaders.

Bishop Scharfenberger explained that personal conversion should bring us to be less adversarial in our relationships with one another. He noted a need for “de-escalation of […] stereotypes and generalizations. Every human being must be treated with respect and dignity, and we have to begin with ourselves; admit it where we’re wrong, where we need to grow, and let God be our strength.”

Healing, he said, begins with building confidence. And then he said this: “Confidence only starts when people in relationship know they’re listening to one another and being taken seriously,” he said.

I’m offering an opportunity for our lay advisors to the bishop and all laity in general to listen to a different side of the story of this diocese. I don’t speak for me. I speak for that waitress and that hospital orderly and countless others who want to bring our Church back to what Jesus meant it to be. As one retail saleswoman said to to me when she pulled me aside at a company Christmas party: “Thank you for demonstrating downtown against corruption in our diocese. I need our Church. And my kids need the Church.” Well, to make the necessary corrections, everyone–including laity involved in advisory/leadership capacities– needs to face up to the need for their own personal conversion so we can all role up our sleeves and fix this clergy sexual abuse nightmare that our bishops have allowed to ravage souls for decades.

We may not be able to fix the clergy in the hierarchy, but we laity can certainly change the way laity operate, particularly the way laity represent us and our needs in this diocese. In my upcoming posts, I’ll walk you through the dark corners of the Diocese of Buffalo as we examine the pitfalls of the “committees, reports and regulations” our diocesan lay leaders have developed to fix this scourge of clergy sexual abuse. While their intent is noble, the outcome won’t meet their expectations if they continue to stiff-arm challenges from outside voices, particularly those who have first-hand experience of the sinister side of this diocese’s response to clergy sexual abuse. I back up allegations and observations with documents and witness testimony–some of which you will not see anywhere else. To make points clear, I’ll concentrate on the single case of the seminarian’s sexual molestation reported by the victim to the diocese in 2004 [a couple months after the alleged crime occurred] so that you can see where true reform, true conversion needs to take place. I’m sure we can all agree that the goal is genuine healing in the Diocese of Buffalo that will last as we take back our Church.

Let us continue to pray our daily rosaries. Our Lady, Queen of the Church and Hope for abuse survivors, pray for us.


The next post, PART ONE of this series, deals with the need to inoculate lay advisory groups from the toxic diocesan culture.

If you have any contributions to make in this dialogue on this series, please post them in the comments box below or through the website contact portal LayDOB.com. Thank you for your time reading this series. May God bless you.

 

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