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 FOUR: Loss of Objectivity is a product of toxic diocesan culture.

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 lay leadership.

Objectivity: impartiality, absence/lack of bias, absence/lack of prejudice, fairness, fair-mindedness, neutrality, evenhandedness, justice, open-mindedness, disinterest, detachment, dispassion, neutrality.

In this post, we explore indications that the Diocese of Buffalo, over the course of many years, groomed a tight-knit circle of lay advisors in a system that effectively compromised their objectivity. 

Listen to PART FOUR Audio read by the author.

melting ice in cocktail
To at least one participant at a Bishop’s Council of the Laity function, the image of ice melting in a cocktail glass is a regrettable reminder of the banality of their gatherings, particularly during a time in 2018 when the clergy sexual abuse crisis exploded all around them.

In the midst of the horrific clergy sexual abuse revelations in 2018, the Bishop’s Council of the Laity gathered with Buffalo’s Bishop Richard Malone. It was one of the year’s planned social events. The bishop spoke just a few words about the crisis at hand and then abruptly ended his talk with a quip that ice was melting in their cocktail glasses. The lay advisors accepted this as end of the discussion on the chaos exploding all around them, and the evening resumed as planned. 

Fast forward a year to another group of lay advisors, the Diocesan Pastoral Council, who gathered September 14, 2019 to effectively cast a vote on whether or not they support the resignation of Bishop Malone. The DPC roster from that month indicates five vacancies to go along with five absences1 of representatives that day–ten people missing at this meeting with the bishop during this epic crisis for this historic vote. 

Diocesan culture likely tainted lay advisory councils, cultivating lack of objectivity.

It is indisputable that for decades, lay advisors to our bishops missed the boat in detecting the moral depravity and corruption in the institution and its bishops they were charged to advise.2 It doesn’t mean they were not operating in good faith. We may forgive these dedicated Catholics since they cannot be expected to confront evil if they are duped into thinking it doesn’t exist in this particular arena. Governance, after all, is supposed to be predicated on the virtue of its leaders. We presume virtue in a Roman Catholic bishop and the enterprise he oversees.

So how did they get so flagrantly hoodwinked? We’re talking about intelligent and gifted Catholic laity, exceptional in their dedication to the Church, who probably naturally assumed clergy were going to act, um, like men of God. These volunteers give generously of their time in service to the Church in this capacity. As well-meaning as they are, it appears they could have unwittingly been caught up in a system created by the diocese which ultimately cultivated in them lack of objectivity. Lose that, and you can easily get duped.

Dr. Russell J. Jandoli, who founded the journalism program at St. Bonaventure University, taught: never socialize with the people you report on; never accept gifts from them; never accept favors from them. This was to secure a precious measure of objectivity in journalistic work which is to speak truth to power and hold people to account.

As I pointed out in a previous post, many of our lay advisors’ close, personal associations with the bishops of our diocese cultivated over 15, 20, 30+ years (for some) is understandable. Siobhan O’Connor has confirmed the amicable social and personal relationships Bishop Malone enjoyed with several members of the Movement to Restore Trust’s leadership and folks on the BCL. But that type of fond relationship forged over time comes at a price—loss of objectivity in giving him sound advice. And, one could argue, this could very well be the desired outcome by the diocese’s own design.

WBFO-NPR photographer captured a rare photo of St. Bonaventure University’s president, Dr. Dennis DePerro, in context of the Movement to Restore Trust which has excluded his leadership participation. Here he attended (as a member of the public like the rest of us) the December, 2019 MRT Symposium held at Canisus College and chats with Bishop Edward Scharfenberger. Photo from WBFO-NPR website.

Let’s look at the environment in which our lay advisors have been operating for decades:

  • The bishops kept the Bishop’s Council of the Laity, in particular, in tight geographic corral within the city region of the eight-county diocese, making it easier to cultivate friendly relations and maintain like-minded thinking.

  • The bishops kept all meetings (which required one’s physical presence) of both lay consultative groups in the city region, making it difficult for laity who live outside that region to participate.
  • The bishops left membership of the Diocesan Pastoral Council at the sole discretion of the Vicars Forane with no oversight in making sure vacant positions were appropriately filled with competent laity representing vicariates.
  • The bishops made sure BCL membership fit certain economic profiles for the main task which was to raise money for the bishop’s separate charity fund.
  • The bishops limited the talent pool of Catholic advisors for the BCL drawing almost exclusively from the city region,3 excluding supremely competent lay leaders from other regions of the diocese. This is probably why we don’t see the lay president of St. Bonaventure University, Dr. Dennis DePerro, among ranks of leaders or participants in diocesan lay consultative groups, but we see the president of Canisius College and his wife on board since 1995. The Movement to Restore Trust continues the tradition of this discrimination among its leadership ranks. Another executive of Canisius College now co-chairs the BCL. It is almost ridiculous to say there are no executives from St. Bonaventure University on the BCL because there is not a single person from Cattaraugus County on the BCL.
  • The bishops kept BCL gatherings social, minimizing discussion on substantive issues by offering cocktail parties and dinners at venues including the posh Buffalo Club.
  • The bishops never set up term limits for lay advisors.
  • The bishops lied to their lay advisors about how clergy sexual abuse cases were handled, as some of the BCL’s own long-time members acknowledged.4
Buffalo Club
Buffalo Club on Delaware Ave. where Bishops Council of the Laity have gathered with the bishop. Other venues included the seminary and the bishop’s residence.  Photo: Buffalo as Architectural Museum website

Lack of seriousness in BCL crisis response indicates loss of objectivity.

Yes, lay advisors and diocesan officials engaged in spiritual events like Mass together which is fundamentally important. But honestly, during 2018, when the entire world learned the shocking revelations about how clergy sexual abuse was handled in the Diocese of Buffalo, wouldn’t you think that lay advisors would want to jettison social events (like the one described at the beginning of this post) and focus on substantive issues like, pressing for accountability for diocesan officials, pressing for ways to support abuse survivors and pressing for an assessment of needs around the diocese brought on by collateral damage. A public statement of their united voice condemning the ways the diocese handled sex abuse cases was an obvious miss during that time.

According to the BCL co-chairperson that I talked to in late 2018, those concerns were decidedly not their focus, even amid this crisis. Keep in mind, this is the group that produced six of the nine leaders of the Movement to Restore Trust.

protest signs
Members of the Diocesan Pastoral Council drove right past their fellow laity pictured here in prayer and protest before a DPC meeting at Christ the King Seminary- September 14, 2019. Nine days earlier, the MRT had pulled its support for Bishop Malone and called for his resignation.

Not even heart-wrenching news indicting the bishop or MRT pulling its support of the bishop could sway the Diocesan Pastoral Council.

It is not surprising that, according to Shiobhan O’Connor and diocesan officials in the know I spoke with the past few years, nobody in the chancery took these lay consultative bodies seriously. They didn’t need to. By 2018 it was obvious both the Bishop’s Council of the Laity and the Diocesan Pastoral Council had been groomed to circle the wagons and protect the bishop, no matter what was revealed. How else do we interpret the action of the DPC, for example? This group:

  • made no public statement for the rationale behind their vote of confidence for Bishop Malone when polling data among lay Catholics in populous northern counties overwhelmingly backed his resignation, and the MRT had just pulled its support of the bishop more than a week earlier;
  • offered no breakdown of how individual members voted5;
  • didn’t list the names of the five members who did not show up for this historic vote6;
  • and overall, just gave no public witness to any outrage concerning the crisis as they
  • remained anonymous and aloof,
  • driving right past their fellow laity in prayer and protest outside their meetings.

Few laity had even heard of the Diocesan Pastoral Council until the diocese announced the group’s 24-4 vote to back Bishop Malone almost two weeks after the airing of the video you watched in my previous post giving witness testimony to Bishop Malone’s coverup of that crime and others.

Here it is again, in case you missed it.

And that’s what troubles so many of us. Do they really not believe the heart wrenching testimony and documentation they hear and see all around them? Or did they collectively sink into an abyss of enabling the clerics they had grown so fond of? What other conclusions can we draw because, honestly, whose heart does not bleed watching this video?

Sadly, If you write to MRT leaders to make the obvious case that the diocesan officials credibly tainted by the seminarian’s case should not be utilized as integral agents in the “healing” process for our diocese, don’t expect the response to stray far from the diocesan culture that produced the heartbreaking story in that video.

For example, in June, 2019 I emailed these concerns to Dr. John Hurley, de facto leader of the Movement to Restore Trust, who, along with his wife, had also served in the past as co-chairpeople of the Bishop’s Council of the Laity. Both of them also serve on the MRT’s organizing committee. Some of the other MRT leaders were copied in my email. Here’s Dr. Hurley’s response, emailed to me three days later:7

“You have previously advised us of this incident and it was duly reported to the Diocese. I’ve forwarded this along to the Diocese as well. The MRT is an all volunteer group of laity and clergy dedicated to restoring trust. Since you and others with a claim have other independent trained and experienced options we decline to enter into an area of Church , Civil and Criminal law in which we have neither authority or competence. We encourage you to choose a proper vehicle for the pursuit of your cause.”

Are we surprised at the nature of this response by someone who’s been a part of the diocesan culture for more than a quarter century? What’s most troubling is the fact that MRT officials responded in a manner consistent with a religious organization that for decades has outsourced the gospel to lawyers, as one survivor put it. This cold treatment of laity is part of the long-standing diocesan culture revealed in this WKBW report and this report from Siobhan O’Connor, for example. Clergy sexual abuse survivor, Daniel Bauer, disclosed to WKBW his exacerbating experience trying to communicate to the bishops. They “[…] give a bare minimum of what they can get away with until somebody else comes along and pushes them and pushes them and pushes them and they have to talk.” We cannot imagine lay leaders similarly stiff-arming lay concerns unless…

Did the diocesan culture groom among lay advisors uncritical devotion to the officials they were suppose to advise?

Evidence of uncritical devotion to diocesan clerical leaders among too many of our lay advisors was supremely evident in the BCL co-chairperson’s unwavering support of the Bishop to the exclusion of even attempting to read the leaked diocesan documents8 and other curious omissions and responses from lay advisors examined above. Given the fact that power attracts people bent on corruption, do we really want to encourage a system that all but guarantees a clergyman’s impunity with slavish devotion from lay advisors with whom he works on a friendly basis for 10, 20, 30 years or more? Collateral damage resulting from such devotion can be significant.

[UPDATE: WKBW’S chief investigator, Charlie Specht, revealed on March 1, 2021 that Dr. Hurley called him on April 12, 2019 “to retract his quotes from the [WKBW] article that were critical of Malone…calling our story a ‘distraction’ from the work of his reform group,” the MRT. The “distraction” was WKBW’s revelation that Bishop Malone concealed the names of 25 priests who were accused of sexual abuse.]

For example, we are not surprised the Presbyteral (Priests’) Council9 heartily endorsed the MRT upon its formation. As some diocesan insiders relayed to me, the MRT’s leadership would likely continue to provide ample protection from accountability for the Presbyteral Council chairman, Monsignor David LiPuma, who remains under a huge cloud of suspicion concerning his role in the coverup of clergy sexual abuse during the decades he served under three bishops in the chancery, including as vice chancellor.

This MRT endorsement of that monsignor, we presume, is significant to Bishop Sharfenberger and to the papal nuncio [papal ambassador to the United States]. Both play a significant role in determining future leadership for the diocese. Dr. Hurley met with the papal nuncio this past January, ostensibly representing all 600,000 Catholic laity in the diocese.

Even before Dr. Dennis DePerro called for Bishop Malone to resign, the MRT leadership would not reach out with an invitation for the St. Bonaventure University president to join their leadership team. Photo from Olean Times Herald website.

Troubling bias: Deliberately avoiding heroic and supremely competent lay Catholics reveals lack of objectivity.

The tight-knit circle of laypeople the diocese groomed for years, particularly among the more tenured members of the BCL, has certainly had its impact in lay crisis response. While other competent Catholic laity throughout the diocese were systematically excluded from participation as lay advisors for decades through the BCL or through the DPC (with its lack of term limits/vacancy fulfillments), entrenched Buffalo-area lay advisors were just about all that were available from a pool of lay leaders to choose from to help in crisis response starting in 2018.

It wasn’t a surprise that Bishop Malone welcomed the creation of the Movement to Restore Trust as six of its leaders had been pretty stalwart allies over decades, even making it on the bishop’s personal Christmas card list.10

Their work was a deliberate “lifeline” offered to the bishop, Dr. Hurley disclosed at the March 2019 MRT Symposium.

The problem with forming a lay leadership group almost exclusively of decades-entrenched BCL members from the city region is obvious. Besides bad optics, it can be argued they had come from an experience of working in the diocese’s culture so myopic they apparently could not see the need to diversify by reaching out to other supremely competent Catholic lay leaders in outlying counties in the diocese for their independent group’s important work. Now, we don’t know if this was intentional or if this is just the way they were groomed in the diocesan culture, but the omission of the St. Bonaventure University president, Dr. Dennis DePerro, among the organizing committee of the MRT speaks volumes. He acknowledged he was never invited.11 Dr. DePerro didn’t call for Bishop Malone’s resignation until after the MRT had already formed, so his opinion was not publicly known. The MRT did eventually withdraw its support of the bishop on September 5, 2019.

As the sole Catholic university president in western New York to voice such an opinion, Dr. DePerro demonstrated a measure of heroic honesty among Catholic lay leaders throughout the diocese. Would not such a leader be a valuable asset in addressing this crisis?

“I want not only to be a whistleblower but to be a part of the reform and renewal the Church needs.”

–Siobhan O’Connor on CBS This Morning

The omission of Shiobhan O’Connor from among advisors for the MRT tells us much too. If your goal is to instill trust, why wouldn’t you include among your advisors the one layperson universally trusted among laity in the diocese and clergy sexual abuse survivors everywhere? This brief video [below], illustrates the enormous national impact she has in bringing the face of reason and love and courage-in-seeking-truth to the forefront of the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis–something no bishop has been successful at doing, including Pope Francis. If your goal is to include more young people and more laywomen in leadership positions in the Church (an obsession throughout the MRT workgroup recommendations), why would you exclude this remarkable, nationally-revered young woman in your own diocese? As Deacon Paul Snyder said in this CBS interview, “…everybody should be supporting her. And anyone who doesn’t, must not be seeking truth.”

Video– Oct. 29, 2019 — Interview of Siobhan O’Connor and Deacon Paul Snyder on CBS This Morning the day after CBS aired its 60 Minutes interview revealing O’Connor as the whistleblower who leaked diocesan documents which disclosed systemic clergy sexual abuse and diocesan coverup for decades. “I had to do this for the survivors, for the diocese I love, and for the Church I love. I want not only to be a whistleblower but to be a part of the reform and renewal the church needs,” O’Connor stated.

Not sure about Ms. O’Connor’s character or what she experienced working in the chancery or her effectiveness in reaching out to clergy sexual abuse survivors that the Church turned into stone-cold anti-Catholics (with many having lost all faith in God)? I beseech you to watch this video below of her speech last summer at the national conference of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Here’s your chance to experience genuine gospel witness by a laywoman engaged in social activism for some of the most damaged among Christ’s flock. It is not possible to watch the end of this talk to a room full of survivors abused by Catholic priests and not just sob with her.

Saturday, July 27th 2019– Siobhan O’Connor speaks at the NSAP national conference in front of a room full of survivors sexually abused by Catholic clergy. She discusses how speaking with survivors plus her Catholic faith compelled her to expose the cover-up within the Diocese of Buffalo. When her concerns about cover-ups and complicity fell on deaf ears, she decided that leaking documents to the media was the best tool at her disposal to validate survivors, inform the public, and affect much-needed change.

Dumbfounding that she would not be included as even an outside resource to lend credibility and trustworthiness to the MRT’s work, never mind her encyclopedic knowledge of how the chancery operates and where skeletons lie.

Sadly, these omissions are a disturbing reflection on the MRT’s leadership, undermining its credibility.

Inoculation against getting played by the system again would help laity to better engage in co-responsibility of managing our diocese.

Aside from brief MRT proposals specifically addressing ideas for reforming lay consultative bodies12, the document offers no recommendations for how the laity themselves currently in advisory positions should reform. And that reform should involve the same level of inclusivity and transparency and willingness to be open to radical ideas just as MRT reform proposals request of their bishop.

It isn’t a matter of reforming present lay entities. It is a matter of blowing up the old models and forging a new framework of operation designed to inoculate lay advisors from getting played by the system again. You won’t find that language on page 41 of the MRT proposals for reforming consultative groups because they understandably have not come to that stage of vital introspection. The notion of term limits is treated as an option…maybe…at some point down the road.

According to Dr. Joseph Shaw, an Oxford University professor of philosophy who specializes in ethics, the culture of the Church [or diocese] cannot help but affect the people working in its system. If the culture is rotten, and we know the Diocese of Buffalo’s is, it will have an effect on laity working within it, especially over a long period of time. He said the “endemic abusive system at the heart of the institution for fifty or more years” is going to affect the culture of the Church and “draw into its distorted mind-set as many people involved with the Church as possible” doing its best to inculcate among them such “abusive assumptions” as “whistleblowers are traitors.” This might explain the MRT’s exclusion of obvious choices of lay leaders like Dr. DePerro or Ms. O’Connor, for example.

It will take all of us pulling from an entirely different direction of the Holy Spirit to eradicate the human depravity in which our diocesan abuse crisis is rooted. Projecting blame on “clericalism” or a system that needs more saucy ideas expressed in Vatican II documents will not reform or renew anything. “If we would remake the world,” Venerable Fulton Sheen instructs, “we must begin by remaking the individual.”13

Without a humble introspection by the more than 300 lay advisors, MRT proposals, sincere as they are, rather put the cart before the horse.

This is not to dismiss the entirety of the MRT’s important work or the documents they have produced to lead the reform effort. What they have attempted is a valiant all-volunteer and personally-funded initiative, done for their enormous love for the Church. But to gain the trust of laity, especially abuse survivors, and to achieve the outcome we all seek for lasting healing and renewal, they need to create an entirely new system in which laity may objectively and responsibly advise our bishop.

Let us keep praying our daily rosaries. Holy Mary, Queen of the Church and Hope of Abuse Survivors, pray for us.

postscript–In the next post, PART FIVE of this six-part series, we’ll offer 10 foundational principles for reforming the way laity operate in co-managing our diocese. The final post in this series, PART SIX, will detail concrete recommendations for how laity can reform and renew our participation in co-responsibly managing our diocese with the clergy.

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, and may God bless you.

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