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 PART TWO: Accountability is a fundamental expectation.

An institutional sexual abuse crisis of this magnitude in the Diocese of Buffalo demands that every piece of the apparatus be examined and reconsidered. Laypeople who agree to the enormous responsibility of advisory roles for our bishops are not exempt from scrutiny. This series of posts examines our diocesan lay advisory groups through the lens of a particularly egregious clergy sex abuse case the diocese tried to cover up for 14 years. These lay groups are the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Bishop’s Council of the Laity and the organizing committee of The Movement to Restore Trust. We may not be able to change clergy or hierarchy, but we can change ourselves and the lay groups who advise our bishops on our behalf. This series of posts offers rationale and principles for establishing effective reform of laity’s response to this crisis.

Listen to PART TWO Audio read by the author.

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Upon hearing details about an abuse case the diocese tried to cover for 14 years, a state sex offender investigator for the Attorney General expressed shock and abhorrence. Upon hearing the same details, a huge segment of our diocesan lay advisers to the bishop responded with peevish silence.

Surely we can all agree that clergy, especially those who agree to take on responsibility as diocesan officials, must be above reproach and demonstrate unassailable moral and professional conduct. After all, they reflect the person of Christ in all that they say and do, including how they conduct the affairs of the Church.1 Not holding them accountable for their decisions and actions would certainly be a doomed strategy to instill trust in the diocese, not to mention maintain the integrity of its operation. If we do not have faith in the integrity of people within the system, how can we have faith in the system itself and what it produces? And if credibly-accused bad actors are not handled appropriately and responsibly, the entire standard of operation is called into question.

Let’s examine this idea of accountability through the lens of one case.


WKBW-TV report by Charlie Specht, “Buffalo Bishop Silenced Fr. Ryszard about alleged sex assault” aired September 5, 2019.

As you watch this video, please stop the timeline at 3:11 and spend a moment looking at his face. This is your front-row seat to pain, embarrassment, shame, guilt, betrayal and loss of dignity that are as real and raw as they were when I first talked to Rev. Ryszard Biernat about his tragedy in 2006. If you did not watch that brief video, PLEASE do so now or you will not understand what I am about to write.

The case you witnessed in the video reflects the devastating effects of diocesan abuse upon an individual by chancery officials, seminary officials and the bishops, many still alive and working in the diocese in the fall of 2018–the same time 60 Minutes revealed Shiobhan O’Connor as the whistleblower who released secret diocesan documents exposing corruption and coverup of clergy sexual abuse crimes like this one and others. This is not a case that happened “decades ago,” as Bishop Richard Malone repeatedly tried to frame this entire crisis.

List of diocesan officials the seminarian said knew of his report about the alleged crime.

It isn’t “the Diocese” that makes decisions to conceal the grave immoral acts of its clergy. People do. Above is a portion of the report I mailed (twice without reply) to Bishop Scharfenberger this year. The victim also alleges that Monsignor Robert Cunningham called Fr. Art Smith in to diocesan headquarters to discuss this allegation with him (as diocesan administrator) in early 2004. [UPDATE] This was verified by the NY State Attorney General’s lawsuit in Nov. 2020 .

In this post we look at accountability for such atrocities with the expectation that laity, particularly those chosen to advise our bishops, should hold diocesan officials accountable for their actions or decisions or omissions in performing their duties (Ezekiel 33:7-9 and Matthew 18:15-20).

After the 60 Minutes story aired, six long-time Buffalo-area lay advisors to the bishop,2 along with three other Buffalo-area laywomen competent in their respective fields, announced the formation of an independent lay initiative to help come up with a plan for reform to help heal the diocese and restore trust. After months of rolling news stories revealing the extent of horrific clergy sexual abuse and diocesan coverup of those crimes, who could not be edified by the group’s very name, The Movement to Restore Trust.

This was the first time any one of the 3113 official lay advisors to our bishop spoke up publicly [in their advisory capacity to the bishop]– a full eight months after Michael Whalen provided the spark to this crisis with the public disclosure of his tragic case as a teenager at the hands of a self-admitted serial child-molester-priest. The media conference announcing the formation of the MRT was held indoors in a warm, respectable environment as opposed to the chilly, outdoor environment Mr. Whalen had no choice but to use. At the MRT’s conference, someone in the audience naively asked if they were going to work with Shiobhan O’Connor, former administrative assistant to the bishop, now internationally recognized as a lay Catholic “hero,” as CBS’s Gayle King described her. The lay leaders on the dais looked at each other and demurred to answer outright. That should have been our first clue that something was awry.

Following the MRT’s November, 2018 announcement, the nine Buffalo-area leaders said they worked for ten weeks in collaboration with about 150 unnamed and admittedly “amateur” (according to Dr. John Hurley) volunteer laity to ultimately come up with recommendations for the diocese.

During the time they deliberated, I thought perhaps these prestigious Catholics leading the MRT along with all those 287 laity who have been advising the bishop on the Bishop’s Council of the Laity would be interested in hearing a different side of the clergy sexual abuse story. Most of the MRT leadership core had been on the BCL for literally decades so my letter mailed to their homes in January, 2019 covered them. That’s the letter discussed at the end of the video. 

The box full of letters mailed in January, 2019 to 162 households comprising 287 members of the Bishop’s Council of the Laity detailing sexual abuse of a seminarian in 2003 and coverup of that abuse by diocesan officials. Exactly ONE couple responded to the tragic report stating: “It took me two attempts to get through it.” They noted on social media they had since quit the BCL.

One thing was certain; diocesan officials would never have told those 287 laity about this case. Shioban O’Connor had disclosed documents publicly exposing for the first time the crime against the seminarian and coverup. I offered a peek behind the curtain for them to see a hidden side of this case and the system of diocesan operations (with some officials still working for the diocese today, not decades ago), so they could see the character of the diocesan officials in whom they placed so much trust–the depths of depravity some of them would plunge to keep the seminarian from talking (including threats), shield their friends, protect the reputation of the diocese, follow orders, or safeguard their careers. Surely, the collective conscience of these prestigious laity could be pricked to at least question the integrity of some of these officials as the MRT formulated plans for reform.

Months later we found out about the reprehensible manner in which my report was actually handled. The video testimony you just watched covered the bishops’ responses. But the laity to whom it was sent for their reflection and aid in their pursuit of truth, blithely passed it on to Bishop Malone. With the exception of one lone couple on the BCL who contacted me with a thank-you message before quitting that organization, the 285 other lay advisors to Malone were apparently okay with the way my report was handled–evidence, no doubt, of their tenure in the toxic culture of the Diocese of Buffalo. Qui tacet consentit. Silence means consent.

It is important to note: Bishop Malone did not deny the validity of a single allegation I made.

A couple months after receiving my report, in early March last year, the Movement to Restore Trust announced its preliminary recommendations at a symposium held at Canisius College. Dr. Hurley stated [page 1] those “recommendations are based in many cases on perceptions [my emphasis] of what is occurring in the diocese.” Regrettably, the areas of inquiry in their report did not begin to touch some of the grave circumstances that surely needed to be addressed, revealed in my report in that one case alone in which I offered facts, documentation and witness testimony, not “perceptions,” to help inform their recommendations.

p1ds64m32r9201aguje2nl71r406Following the peevish silence from the lay advisors, I contacted the New York State Attorney General’s Office to report the 2003 sexual assault perpetrated by a priest upon a seminarian. I provided not only my witness corroboration of the leaked reports already out there on this alleged crime, but testimony about the threats the victim reported to me which were not in the leaked documentation, just as I had done for the 287 lay advisors. I suspected the AG wasn’t aware of this alleged sexual assault because the diocese never filed a report with civil authorities, never filed a report to the Diocesan Review Board, never even mentioned it to the diocesan attorney. The victim filed his report with the diocese in the spring of 2004, a few weeks after the alleged crime. Chancery officials, including Monsignor Robert Cunningham (Diocesan Administrator, and Bishop Emeritus of Syracuse),4 Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz, and subsequent bishops and diocesan officials to the present day ignored the report, according to the victim, and I wanted the AG to know of its existence. These are all verifiable facts to which the diocesan attorney, Terry Connors, can attest today. 

Chew on this quote:

“The auxiliary bishop actually threatened this seminarian to keep him from reporting the crime!?”

The investigator on the phone gasped. Keep in mind, she serves in the Attorney General’s Sex Offender Management Bureau. I didn’t think much could shock an investigator in her position, but this revelation apparently did. 

After our lengthy interview, the inspector thanked me with no little sincerity for having the “courage” to come forward. I wasn’t courageous. I was ticked off. 

For 16 years this young man had to live under the tyranny of official diocesan coverup as a seminarian and then as a priest, watching his abuser get off scot-free along with the bishops and chancery and seminary officials who covered this alleged crime. But he said that was nothing compared to how he felt after hearing that his abuser chalked up two more sexual predatory incident reports with innocent victims after the vice chancellor, Monsignor David LiPuma, under Bishop Malone, coordinated the placement of the alleged sexual molester as chaplain at an adult care facility in 2012. This was part of Bishop Malone’s effort to put Art Smith back into ministry after his predecessor moth-balled Smith a few months earlier. And over the years, all those with knowledge of or involved in the coverup of the alleged sexual molestation of the seminarian in 2003 (confirmed by Bishop Malone to the Vatican) retained their positions in the diocese; some even received prestigious assignments or have sailed off into retirements free of any consequences, duly lauded [pg. 4] for their service. The optics are clear: crime does, indeed, pay

jesserer smith screenshot
As this National Catholic Register reporter observed March 2, 2020: in Buffalo we allowed Bishop Grosz to retire into the sunset with absolutely no repercussions and  without a breath of complaint.

As shocked and abhorred as the AG investigator was at hearing about the diocese’s response to the alleged crime against their own seminarian, how do you think Father Ryszard felt to have this report handled so coldly by “respected” and “prestigious” laity and responded to in such a demeaning fashion in bouncing my report to the “diocese” with his tormentor, Bishop Grosz, to his face in front of Bishop Malone, shamefully denying that he made the alleged 2004 threats to keep that seminarian quiet? Talk about putting your cigarette out on someone’s soul. Here were two bishops engaging in horrendous abuse of authority over a subordinate AND a clergy sexual abuse survivor, and our lay advisors to Malone apparently condoned this, given their silence on the subject to this day. You can’t make this up.5

The callousness on display from the lay advisors to the diocesan officials to the former seminary rector to the bishops in that chancery room last January should cause every single one of us to cry out to God for Mercy.

God help us all.

It seems objectively clear. The incident in the chancery building in late January, 2019 certainly reveals much about not only the nature of diocesan culture, but the nature of the relationship between our entrenched Buffalo-area lay advisors and diocesan officials.

As stated in my letter to the BCL, my intent was for them to absorb the information and reflect upon it for their deliberations in advising the bishop, not bounce-pass it on to “the diocese.” I already informed them in the letter it had been duly reported through the seminary. When industry executives, a president of a Catholic college, medical executives, judges, lawyers, a television news investigative journalist and various other highly qualified and respected members of the BCL do not offer a squeak of a response (or acknowledgment of receipt) to a legitimate report addressing the heart of this clergy sexual abuse crises, we naturally ask: who or what are they trying to protect?6

Four of perhaps the most significant experts on the clergy sex abuse scandal in the U.S. said they all discovered in their research extraordinary communications of affection, empathy and coddling of sexual abuser priests by their bishops and virtually no communications of sympathy for their victims. [see video timeline 1:03:00]  This was certainly revealed in Fr. Ryszard’s case with the coddling of the priest he said abused him [documented here and here in Msgr. LiPuma’s own handwriting, for example]. The four panelists at this extraordinary 2016 Georgetown lecture included [left] Tom Doyle (Canon Lawyer and internationally-renown researcher and advocate for survivors), Mike Rezendes (Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist from the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team), Martin Baron (former Editor of the Boston Globe), Richard Sipe (leading authority on the clergy sex abuse crisis). Rezendes: “Never did we see a letter to the victim or the parent of the victim exhibiting the same sort of compassion, the same level of understanding (as diocesan officials extended to their abusers).”  No reform measures can induce a bishop to care for victims of his clergy. Laity need to work to change that culture, not become a part of it as many Buffalo lay advisors certainly appear to have been in January, 2019. [Photo: screenshot from video]

Curiously, according to the MRT reform proposals, they actually do support laity coming forth with information on bishops’ behavior. So how do we reconcile the treatment of my report with this statement in the reform proposals under the report heading, “Monitoring Bishops,” [page 41] where we read:

“[…] members of the laity may be well positioned to identify serious problems with the conduct of a bishop once in office. The laity can have valuable information about a Bishop’s abuse behavior (not solely sex abuse) or financial mismanagement or corruption.”

The hypocrisy with the way my report was handled vis-à-vis this statement is astounding.

MRT meeting
MRT organizing committee meeting. Some survivors have expressed that not holding diocesan officials accountable for the way they handled clergy sex abuse cases is a form of re-victimization. That re-victimization is doubled-down when these same diocesan officials receive honors, titles and prestigious assignments. Calling these clerics to accountability is a form of calling them to conversion. Photo: MRT website.

Some have argued that we can read exactly what’s going on in the relationship between entrenched lay advisors and diocesan officials within the very documents the MRT produced that spring and summer. Recommended “accountability” measures are only directed to future bishops. We do not read any clear statements about accountability for diocesan officials still alive (some at work) today tainted with credible allegations of covering up clergy sex abuse cases or other forms of corruption.7

That MRT officials were attempting to “provide a lifeline” to Bishop Malone was openly acknowledged (in those very words) by the MRT’s de facto leader, Dr. Hurley, at the March 9, 2019 Symposium.

This is not to dismiss the entirety of the of the MRT committees’ full report which contains many solid and worthwhile recommendations. But what is the point of drafting pages of ideas to “assess progress against defined metrics,” when the agents of corruption are left in place with no accountability, and bishops are not challenged to examine cases and use their authority8 to pass moral judgement as they have done with Father Ryszard? Consequently, we are supposed to rely upon the very officials who participated in taking this diocese down its destructive path to lead it out, with the help of MRT lay leaders, of course.

Accountability is inherent with any office a priest accepts. Laity cannot ignore this fundamental expectation.

Let’s revisit our goal to establish trust in the diocese.

  • If the first breach of trust was with clergy sexual abuse survivors,
  • the second breach of trust was with we unsuspecting laity who trust our administrators to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church, follow the law, assist the victims, protect the public, and appropriately and justly hold accountable the diocesan officials among them who broke that trust.
  • The third breach of trust was also with we unsuspecting laity who trust our lay advisors to at least make an attempt to hold those officials accountable for their actions/decisions which caused us to lose our trust in the diocese.

Clergy who take on the enormous responsibility of leadership roles in our diocese should also understand they own the effects of their decisions–and that includes decisions not only to give unjust, illegal or immoral orders but to follow them as well.

If they want the prestige, the perks, the tailored suits, the upgraded housing, the titles of office, diocesan officials also have to accept the consequences of their choices, especially in how they handled sex abuse cases.

Despite consensus of diocesan senior staff that the bishop was engaging in ongoing coverup of sexual misconduct by a diocesan priest along with that priest’s alleged violation of the seal of confession, Father Ryszard broke ranks with their collective enabling. In whistleblowing this grave misconduct of the bishop, he chose to follow the law, his moral conscience, and moral principles in accord with that last line of Canon Law, the law that supersedes all other Church laws. And because of that, last December, Bishop Malone suspended Father Ryszard’s priestly faculties for revealing the bishop’s ongoing coverup of sexual misconduct by a diocesan priest along with that priest’s alleged violation of the seal of confession.

Not long after Bishop Scharferberger assumed his responsibilities in Buffalo, he said Father Ryszard–the whistleblower priest who is also a victim of clergy sexual abuse– would have to show “accountability for his actions” before he would reinstate him in priestly ministry. You can’t make this up.

Transformation of diocesan culture begins with a personal gut-check of every individual who agrees to the enormous responsibility he or she assumes on behalf of innocent laity.

Let us keep praying our daily rosary. Our Lady, Queen of the Church and Hope of Abuse Survivors, pray for us.

The next post, Part THREE of this series, further examines the notion of accountability in the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the context of enabling tactics used by bishops and their lay advisors which prevent them from holding accountable diocesan officials and the abusers they protect. More dark corners in the diocese revealed to illustrate how this works.

If you have any contributions to make in this dialogue on this series, please post them in the comments box below OR the contact page of this website. Thank you for your time reading this series. May God bless you. 

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