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 THREE Audio read by the author.
“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”
To combat the clergy sexual abuse crisis, it is not enough to responsibly address the abusers. We have to change the toxic, look-the-other-way culture that allowed the abusers to flourish.1
We see this with well-intentioned loved ones trying to help drug addicts or alcoholics in their recovery actually making the situation worse. They’ll lie for them, make excuses for their behaviors, cover for their mis-deeds, or just ignore behaviors that need to be addressed. These are enablers. And one of the hallmarks of classic enablers is the extraordinary measures they go through to help addicts avoid taking responsibility for their actions. One addiction recovery center warns: typically, enablers do not even know they are enabling, and this is the addict’s “Kryptonite.”
In this post we’ll examine the astonishing lack of interest among bishops and their lay advisors in holding accountable those diocesan officials (active or retired) complicit in the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Good people obstinately clinging to a hands-off attitude towards bad actors is a phenomenon spawned within the toxic system over decades. A Catholic Oxford University professor of philosophy who specializes in ethics observed, such culture could certainly create enablers out of people who otherwise possess sound judgment.
Our “addicts” in this analogy are those officials who contributed to hurting other people, willfully concealed sexual abusers and/or put people at risk. These officials need two things they are not getting: healing and a just accounting for their actions.
At the Movement to Restore Trust’s symposium in the spring of 2019, someone from the audience asked lay leaders who had met with Bishop Richard Malone if he “gets it.” We may ask the same of our lay leaders/advisors in the Diocese of Buffalo.
Case in point: Abuse survivor, Michael Whalen, flat-out demanded the resignation or firing of particular diocesan officials during his speech at the MRT’s December, 2019 symposium. He also used the phrase, “clean house” in his recommendations to the diocese’s new apostolic administrator, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, who politely nodded while seated in the front row. While his suggested remedy may seem drastic, Mr. Whalen’s plea was unmistakable and in clear language. The MRT, for its part, has failed to address this valid concern over the objectively verifiable and fully documented complicity of some of our officials. Worse, the MRT offers no public reason why they won’t address this subject–another punt in favor of enabling.
It was after that symposium, in the rear of the hall, that abuse survivors gathered and referred to our lay leaders as “enablers.” That is unfortunate, but the problem also extends to the bishops they are charged to appropriately advise.
Waiting for “criminality” to be determined is a form of enabling.
When he first came to town, Bishop Scharfenberger announced, “Criminality is not entitled to secrecy […] I have a zero-tolerance for any form of behavior that is criminal.” He holds both civil and Canon Law degrees. He knows that only the legal system can determine criminality. With all due respect to the good bishop, that is probably why he is careful to say “criminal” activity, not “immoral” activity. Some have argued it gives him cover from having to make a judgment because legal conclusions could take years. But the bishop IS the competent authority to determine the morality of a diocesan official’s activity. Bishop Scharfenberger knows that too, but sadly does not appear to put himself out there to make those judgments even with overwhelming documentation and witness testimony directly tied to grave moral malfeasance by some diocesan officials in the course of overseeing the affairs of the Church.2
This past January, Bishop Scharfenberger sat down with Steve Brown from WGRZ-TV3 who revisited Mr. Whalen’s request, a natural concern of most abuse survivors and, frankly, laity in general who do not trust a strategy to heal and restore trust by utilizing some of the very individuals who played a role in bringing the diocese to its knees to begin with.
The bishop stated he would need a valid reason to dismiss someone or remove them from the diocese. Elsewhere he mentioned the need for due process, which we get. Again, he appears to punt on determining moral culpability. He would do well to heed Venerable Fulton Sheen’s warning:
“Anyone is free to deny morality, but he is not free to escape the effects of its violation.”4
Previously in this series, we examined the absolute necessity of holding diocesan officials just as accountable for their actions enabling the perpetrators as the perpetrators themselves. The entire standard of operation is called into question with even one enabler left in a prominent position within the organization.
Let me offer three point-blank examples with just Father Ryszard Biernat’s case alone: His former seminary rector knew about the sexual assault upon him and played along with the diocesan coverup. I can comfortably state that because I watched this abusive effect upon the seminarian. The rector suffered no repercussions for his complicity, offered no consolation to the seminarian, never encouraged him to file a report to civil authorities. What confidence do we have with this former rector now acting as Director of Formation for final-year seminarians in this upcoming academic year?
The former vice chancellor, who the victim says also played along with the diocesan coverup of this case for years, orchestrated placement of Father Ryszard’s known sexual predator priest at an adult care facility in 2012 which tragically resulted in reports of two more alleged victims of his predatory grooming. What confidence do we have with him serving on the MRT’s Joint Implementation Team, as president of the Presbyteral Council and now a leader for Bishop Scharfenberger’s new initiative for the diocese?
UPDATE : After an investigation by an unknown entity that did not bother to interview Rev. Biernat, the Diocese of Buffalo reported on June 13, 2022 that my report to the diocese corroborating Rev Biernat’s claims concerning Monsignors Siepka’s and LiPuma’s complicity in covering up Rev. Biernat’s report of clergy sexual abuse were unsubstantiated. [Details here]
And what does it say about the integrity of our diocese when Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz completely escapes accountability5 for the numerous credible allegations racked up over the past 30 years of not just covering up clergy sexual abuse but making threats against a victim of abuse? With all the documentation and witness testimony out there–just in Father Ryszard’s case alone–how long do those officials think they can hide their moral culpability? A long time, apparently, as long as laity remain quiet–a form of enabling.
Making excuses is a form of enabling.
Even with the volume of evidence supporting their complicity in coverup and putting laity at risk, Bishop Scharfenberger still persists in covering for these diocesan officials with this incredulous statement6
“Just because someone worked with someone, it doesn’t mean they agreed with everything they did.”
Has he not heard of the Nuremberg trials and: “We were just following orders”? Are we laity now given a free pass from having to follow our moral conscience when we are confronted in our work environment with illegal or immoral requests from our superiors?
Feigning ignorance is a form of enabling.
Since Mr. Whalen’s heartbreaking revelations of clergy sexual abuse he suffered as a teenager, the Diocese of Buffalo had experienced almost two years of constant media bombardments as fresh accusations against clergy poured in. The particularly egregious abuse Father Ryszard suffered culminated in the crescendo of drama surrounding not just details of his case, but allegations of threats from the auxiliary bishop, whistleblowing by the bishop’s own priest-secretary–all funneled into mainstream secular and Catholic national and international news outlets. Bishop Scharfenberger admitted in a radio interview that he knew he would likely be appointed as apostolic administrator in Buffalo before he joined all the New York State bishops in Rome meeting with the pope last Fall. To claim they never talked about the Buffalo situation is just incredulous on its face. The national news reports coming out of Western New York were beyond epic.
So when Steve Brown reported that the bishop said he was not familiar with Father Ryszard’s allegations against Bishop Edward Grosz, I could hear the jaws drop in Buffalo, and I live near the Pennsylvania border. The bishop followed that up with: “If, in fact, Father Ryszard comes forward and presents that [report on Grosz], we can certainly look at that …and do that investigation.”
“It’s skillful, willful ignorance,” said Shiobhan O’Connor, Bishop Richard Malone’s former administrative assistant, who recognized this tactic in her boss.7 “Don’t ask about that which he does not wish to know,” she said. O’Connor said she has seen this as a tactic bishops use to keep their hands clean of certain issues: “If I don’t know, I don’t have to do anything about it because I don’t even know what it is.”8 Sadly, the way he comes off in these interviews, it makes one wonder just how obtuse he thinks we laity are. On a more sinister level, clergy sexual abuse expert, Richard Sipe, says such toying with truth plays to the instutional culture of secrecy.
Please watch this brief embedded video interview with Steve Brown in which Bishop Scharfenberger appears to skillfully navigate the question utilizing clever language to excuse him from responsibly addressing bad actors in the diocese.
“Bishop Scharfenberger: ‘Who do I purge?'” Interview with Steve Brown, WGRZ-TV, 6 January 2020.
False Mercy is a form of enabling.
Our lay advisors/leaders’ lack of interest to even inquire on our behalf about this apparent injustice in Father Ryszard’s case alone is more than disturbing. Perhaps these good people and the bishop are just being merciful. After all, everyone makes mistakes, and who is justified to throw the first stone? “Where is your mercy and forgiveness?” and “We need to look forward, and just make sure it doesn’t happen again,” are additional platitudes trotted out just about every time there’s a call for professional and moral accountability in the Catholic Church.
But it is not within the realm of “mercy” to let off diocesan executives who abuse their authority over subordinates, coddle sexual molesters, fail to follow minimal ethics in reporting sexual abuse, fail to consider sexual abuse of human beings of any age as a grave evil, threaten seminarians, fail to offer aid and comfort to abuse victims, lie to abuse survivors and put laity at risk. Such “mercy” is an emotion, not a virtue, as Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen warned, adding:
“The divorce of mercy from justice is sentimentality.”
Willfully ignoring reprehensible behavior and decisions by our diocesan executives is nothing more than enabling. It’s time to call it what it is.
This is not a comment on the integrity of well-intentioned lay advisors and the bishop, but, as that Oxford University philosophy professor put it, this is an observation of the direction they have been pushed in dealing with “the poison of abuse eating away at the good sense of good people in the Church over many decades.”
Doubling down on feigning ignorance is a form of enabling.
On the same day WGRZ-TV ran its interview of Bishop Scharfenberger, WKBW-TV aired Charlie Specht’s interview of him. This reporter too questioned the bishop about his willingness to reconsider looking into allegations of coverup and other alleged nefarious acts of diocesan executives like Bishop Grosz. The bishop responded with ease: “If someone comes to me and specifically says this is something you have to look at, I have to see the specific; I can always do investigations in that regard.”9
WKBW-TV aired Charlie Specht’s interview of Bishop Edward Scharfenberger on January 6, 2020.
I took him at his word and mailed a notarized version of my report corroborating many of the allegations in Father Ryszard’s testimonies to Bishop Scharfenberger.
I still await a reply or even acknowledgement of receipt of my report sent January 10, 2020 and re-sent June 4, 2020. But as O’Connor pointed out, if he acknowledges receipt of it, then he has to admit to “knowing” about the case. How long are we going to play this game?
This would be a good question our lay advisors/leaders could properly ask on behalf of the victim and on behalf of the laity in general.
Arbitrarily applied hammer of justice is a form of enabling.
Even if he doesn’t impose canonical “penal remedies” against them, the very least the bishop can do is address accountability pastorally–invite the culprits to publicly fess up, repent, apologize and do penance. The bishop can certainly call for credibly accused diocesan officials on moral grounds to work on saving their souls. THAT is mercy. The astonishing lack of interest in simply apologizing to people they’ve hurt, notes Dr. Thomas Doyle, is a “profound flaw in the institution’s understanding of who the people are and what pastoral care is.” This internationally-recognized expert in clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church also insists the “bishops are the number-one culprits [in not apologizing].”
Bishop Scharfenberger calls for Father Ryszard to repent in some fashion (and jump through other hoops) for whistleblowing in order to get his priestly faculties reinstated. If we accept that, may we suggest the bishop make the same request of those diocesan officials who actually DID transgress with grave moral failures in their duties? That he allows diocesan officials with their outrageous handling of sexual abuse cases to continue their sacramental ministries unfettered is not our concern (although the U.S Bishops’ Conference absolutely makes allowance for removing that privilege for retired bishops). We understand that the ability to say a public Mass, for example, is not a “reward for sanctity or virtue,” as the bishop implies some of we laity think. But can he apply to Father Ryszard the same reprieve?
Let me put it plainly. If Bishop Grosz–in retirement– can continue with sacramental ministry in this diocese for all the many reasons Bishop Scharfenberger offered in a radio interview, why can’t Bishop Grosz’s victim continue likewise in the same ministry? The hammer used against diocesan clergy is applied arbitrarily. More enabling.
Remaining silent when you are in a position to speak up is a form of enabling.
Father Ryszard still remains under Bishop Malone’s abusive retaliation, stripped of priestly faculties and duties because he dared to do what no one else on the executive staff would do: come forward with the truth about his bishop who continued to provide cover for priests credibly accused of sexual abuse (and sacramental abuse, in this case). Would that a diocesan official in the chancery building did the same thing for him back in 2004. Father Ryszard is from Poland. Given their tragic history, we can imagine most Poles likely do not warm up to the idea of abandoning their moral consciences in the workplace with the notion: “We were just following orders.”
A veritable gag order on all clergy is a form of enabling.
Folks, time to revisit that picture of the face of Father Ryszard captured at 3:11 on that video in the second installment of this series and place it in context. The culprits, unrepentant and without contrition or breath of apology, who participated in putting laity at risk, covered up criminal behavior and sheltered priests with credible accusations of sexual abuse get off scot-free in the MRT recommendations. The other two lay councils are equally silent on the matter. And with that, our lay leaders/advisors and bishop have tacitly recommended a universal gag order on all clergy who witness corruption or criminal/abusive behavior because it won’t be addressed by hierarchy–or laity charged with advising hierarchy–if they won’t bother to address it in this case. The repercussions against whistleblowers are just too damn severe.
The Chancellor of the Diocese of Buffalo, Sister Regina Murphy, SSNM, long-entrenched in diocesan headquarters with perhaps the most comprehensive knowledge of clergy abuse cases,10 drew the line in the sand for Father Ryszard when she scolded him:11
“Please note that a penal remedy [imposed by Bishop Malone on the eve before he retired] is not permanent and can be lifted if you do what has been requested of you and if you truly regret what seem to have been poor choices on your part. I hope this time of discernment has been good for you.”
My fellow laity, THAT is an example of official abuse and retaliation for whistleblowing. Our lay leaders/advisors to the bishop continue to say nothing on this subject. More enabling.
Institutions that attack whistleblowers seek two things, according to that Oxford professor: first, to provide “a scapegoat to blame for their poor functioning” and second, to apply social pressure like implied gag orders and vilification with their implication that “whistleblowers are traitors.”
Taking responsibility for actions/decisions of others is a form of enabling.
Here’s another bit of insight about enabling from a licensed psychotherapist: “The one thing that all enablers have in common is […] taking more responsibility for the actions of that person than the person is taking for themselves.”
Like responsible adults, we should call the culprits to take more responsibility for their actions, not hide behind a bishop’s statements or pretend they didn’t play a part in destroying a person’s life. They need to be relieved of that burden of guilt by going through a healing process that includes penance and prayer and personal mortifications/detachments, as the Church prescribes. In the final post of this series, I’ll list a few minimal recommendations our lay advisors should make to the bishop to hold our diocesan officials accountable if he hopes to restore any semblance of trust among survivors and laity.
It is evident that enabling culprits by avoiding a call to accountability, the culture which made the abuse possible is still largely intact, according to that Oxford philosophy professor. “…people who have consciously or half-consciously been aiding abuse and its cover-up,” he wrote, must come to understand that they perpetuate a toxic diocesan culture that spreads deeply damaging attitudes and behaviors–and that is itself abusive.
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 FOUR of this series, examines evidence of loss of objectivity within our diocesan lay consultative bodies as a byproduct of working in a toxic 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. Thank you for your time reading this series. May God bless you.