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 SIX: Concrete Reform Recommendations based on revelations in this series

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 SIX Audio read by the author.

“Unchartered Territory” for a task that is “frightening and tragic.”

This six-part series walked you through dark corners of the Diocese of Buffalo in which we explored areas of moral depravity laced with chilling aloofness and missed opportunities as we examined the intersection of laity with the clergy sexual abuse crisis. To help see the dynamics of how the diocese manages systemic secrecy with stunning arrogance and the effects it has on others, including lay advisors to the bishop, we looked through the lens of that one case of the seminarian molested by a trusted diocesan priest 17 years ago.

Regrettably, this case alone singularly illustrates among Catholics of our generation a body politic of inhumanity in action in our diocese–laity, religious and clergy alike. Who can question the effect of this toxic diocesan culture upon otherwise fine people of good will?

In March, 2019, the Movement to Restore Trust held a symposium to release a synopsis of a detailed report offering recommendations to fix this system. They featured a pleasant gentleman from a national organization that guides such work among laypeople in dioceses all over the country.

leadership roundtable
Dominic Perri from Leadership Roundtable. Source: screenshot of his presentation at MRT’s symposium in March, 2019 from MRT website.

“We are moving into unchartered territory in our Church,” said Dominic Perri of the historic endeavor to restore our diocese to a place of trust and healing. He represents Leadership Roundtable,1 a national consulting organization brought in to survey the damage and make recommendations for lasting repair. His organization offers sound leadership and management practices to aid the Church and its dioceses. “The task is frightening and tragic,” Mr. Perri said, “but it offers great potential,” he said of Leadership Roundtable’s new partnership with the diocese and the MRT.

Mr. Perri admitted that there is no formula, no recipe for fixing a diocese embroiled in a clergy sexual abuse crisis, so we are going to have to continue to invent new ways of engaging with the diocese going forward, he explained. That reform proposals produced by the MRT align with proposals generated by Leadership Roundtable should bring some consolation that we are on the right track, Mr. Perri explained.

Aside from the fact that the recommendations don’t address fundamental personal conversion, his organization’s assessment falls short in three dramatic areas explored in this series.

Bishop Head
Most Rev. Edward Head served as Bishop of Buffalo 1973-1995. Some of our lay advisors to the bishop have served under Bishop Head and all three of his successors as well as Bishop Sharfenberger and are planning to serve under their SIXTH Bishop of Buffalo. Photo: Diocese of Buffalo website.

First: Many of the lay advisors–upon whom the MRT reform plan relies–are working with their FIFTH bishop in Buffalo and planning on working for their SIXTH bishop once one is assigned. That fact alone should have red-flagged that national consultative group on many levels in this toxic environment. Did Mr. Perri not recognize the MRT leaders’ Buffalo-based, decades-long tenure was a beneficial prejudice that could only favor the bishops? 

Second: Mr. Perry said seeking accountability in addressing survivors’ cases is “dwelling in the past.” He actually said that.2 He described a plan to bypass current cases of diocesan officials (still alive) who are documented to have of covered up sexual abuse cases, contributing to ruining people’s lives. As we learned in this series, his views perpetuate the abusive and dangerous look-the-other-way culture of ignoring clergy malfeasance that caters to systemic enabling. That will not heal or restore trust in anything. Ignoring individuals who compromised their integrity jeopardizes the integrity of the entire system. Surely, Leadership Roundtable knows this. But we can presume they would never get a contract working with a diocese [they need the bishop’s permission] by seeking accountability for clergy who mis-handled sexual abuse cases. Mr. Perri said we should instead just “focus on the future.” Well, if we rid diocesan leadership of enablers, wouldn’t that help prevent future clergy sexual abuse? Even more disturbing, please notice in the video that no one in the audience voiced objection to this abusive, unjust notion that caters to enablers and perpetuates the toxic diocesan culture. But then again, public commentary is extremely limited and controlled in MRT gatherings. 

Finally, Leadership Roundtable/ MRT reforms focus almost exclusively on the institution itself which can be repaired with ink on paper–strategies, performance metrics, best practices, oversight, accounting principles, procedures. What they fail to recognize is the fact that all the documents in the world cannot make a bishop acknowledge and confront sin and moral depravity among his clergy, have compassion for traumatized souls of abuse survivors, and force him to want to confront evil. And they cannot create enough oversight committees that can prevent a bishop’s moral recklessness. If the very laity assigned to advise him do not take the basic measures necessary to confront such culture, the bishop will reign over this toxicity with impunity because at that point of lay complicity, he reigns unfettered. Remember, clergy cannot speak out about what they hear, see or know without severe repercussions. 

Therefore, to confront the toxic culture that brought on this crisis, reform measures must start with producing a body of laity designed to target and destroy:
lack of just accountability, systemic enabling, and loss of objectivity.

I offer below a synopsis of reform recommendations that are in the hands of laity to combat this toxic culture. Following that synopsis, I offer suggested options for rank-and-file laity to roll up their sleeves and engage in this battle for the soul of our diocese. At the end of this post, I flesh out specific reform recommendations based on the synopsis with concrete initiatives and rationale for the MRT’s consideration.

Synopsis of Reform Recommendations

  1. Foundational for lasting and effective reform is a complete overhaul of the selection and makeup of an official diocesan lay advisory council. If we don’t get this right, nothing else matters. 
  2. Manage lay advisory board membership.
  3. Establish consistent and transparent communications with stakeholders.
  4. Once the structure and makeup of a new lay advisory council is established with proper management and communications, specific lay advisory reform recommendations can flow forth from this council to combat the toxic diocesan culture which enabled the clergy sexual abuse crisis to happen. Concrete Diocesan Reform Recommendations that address the current lack of accountability and systemic enabling and lack of objectivity–offered below at the end of this post–are just a start. 

Your next step.
A practical action guide for laity to step up their game and engage in this battle for the soul of the Church.

Dr. Richard Sipe, an internationally recognized expert on the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis, said that the Catholic Church has never instigated a response to the abuse crisis. It takes outside forces to get the Church to respond, and he observed that only three forces have been successful: “victims, lawsuits and the media.” He said we need a fourth force to get the Church to respond: laity.

Commit. The recommendations (detailed below) merely address the first step of reform dealing with the toxic culture. As you can see, reform starts at the top because the evil which perpetuated this crisis starts at the top, as illustrated in the introductory post in this series. We need sound, qualified, competent, faithful, courageous Catholics, zealous in their love for Jesus Christ and his injured flock to come forward as candidates for a new lay council to advise our bishop. We need to do exactly what we expect of our new lay advisors in all those bullet points in the recommendations below. Concentrate on the verbs: repudiate, reject, press, rescind, develop, provide, commit. Is the Holy Spirit calling you to commit to this level of engagement within our Church in co-managing it? 

Write. If not, could you write to Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, 3 our apostolic administrator, and encourage him to act appropriately on the points that concern you the most? Let him know with your brief, well-tempered and informed opinions and copy your pastor and any other diocesan officials along who should know of your concerns. Send a copy to the MRT.4 Let the bishop know you are praying for him. Include a form of your brief, tempered and informed comments on the diocesan and bishop’s social media accounts as well as the MRT’s. Mail your letters registered/certified if possible. For example, mail a card that simply states: “Reinstate Fr. Ryszard Biernat to full and active ministry.”5 Post a video stating your concerns on social media. Include your home town and name of your parish in your communications so they understand laity come from a huge geographic area, not just the city. Let your voice be heard. Encourage family and fellow laity to do likewise. 

Act. Report to civil authorities and to diocesan authorities (under its new their-party reporting system) any criminal/immoral acts by diocesan employees that you have personal knowledge of. Did you witness something in the past? Let them know as it may be helpful in other abuse cases. If it isn’t written down (and notarized), it didn’t happen. Other options: Attend your parish council meetings and advocate for similar changes in that lay advisory group. Advocate for clergy abuse survivors and courageous whistleblowers who are often treated by Church officials (and even some laity) as waste products of this crisis. Join your fellow diocesan laity in outdoor prayer/demonstrations led by laity who advocate for reform of our corrupt diocesan culture.

Dr. Richard Sipe said,

Speaking up is a powerful resource we all have. We all have the power of telling the truth. Truth will stand up. Lies, wherever they come from, don’t stand up.”

Love. Had our bishops loved their flocks with the heart of Jesus, this evil would never have taken hold of Christ’s Church. St. John of the Cross said: “Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.” Pray for your pastors and our bishop to love us better. In turn, you must love them better. Encourage them to love by being the face of love which is Jesus. Commit to personal conversion each day. Be compassionate toward sexual abuse survivors and lend a helping hand or heart to them where you can. In short, love more. [“Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8)]

Pray. Nothing happens without prayer which is our most valuable weapon against this pernicious evil which has taken hold of our diocese and refuses to relinquish its death grip. Engage in spiritual warfare with a two-edge sword of prayer and love as part of your personal conversion. Attend Mass if you can amid the pandemic. Souls have been murdered. Lives have been destroyed. Pray for them. And we must pray for the enemies of the Church so captivated by impurity, lust, greed, worldly honors, worldly titles. Many individuals within the Church are actually filled with contempt for abuse survivors and those who speak out on their behalf. Pray for them and stay the course. Pray a daily rosary for this intention. This evil cannot persist under the heal of Our Lady, Queen of the Church and Hope of Abuse Survivors. 

Screen-shot from an NBC Nightly News report on Fr. Ryszard Biernat’s tragic revelations 5 September 2019. On that day, diocesan laity held a prayer/demonstration/protest outside the diocesan chancery offices in downtown Buffalo–on the very spot Michael Whalen held his historic news conference in Feb., 2018.

Concrete Reform Recommendations for Lay Advisory Groups

to Combatant Toxic Diocesan Culture

The first proposal for reform must begin with a complete overhaul of the selection and makeup of official diocesan lay advisory councils. If we don’t get this right, nothing else matters. 

Rationale— As illustrated throughout this series, lack of diversity and turnover has objectively crippled our lay advisory groups to the point of irrelevancy in the system. Besides helping to ensure objectivity, organizational and membership reform would cultivate and circulate sound Catholic lay leadership as a formidable partner in co-managing the diocese, something leaders among lay advisory groups should have responsibly and ethically addressed years ago. With exceptional Catholic laity as much a part of the fabric of the region outside Buffalo as they are within that city region, geography should never be a rationale for systematic exclusion of participation from people endowed with academic degrees, professional excellence and experience, personal integrity, love for Jesus Christ and His Church and common sense. 

Map of Diocese of Buffalo
Of the 311 lay advisors to the bishop in 2019, the vast majority lived within a relatively short driving distance to that black dot. The rest of the diocese is in red. Map Source: WikiMedia Commons licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Specific reform measures to overhaul diocesan lay advisory entities include:

  • Cut diocesan lay advisory boards to one council with laity functioning “under the higher direction of the hierarchy itself,” as explained in documents of the Second Vatican Council. 6 

  • Create a charter document with by-laws and operating guidelines establishing the council under the auspices of the diocese with agreement on areas of complete autonomy (selection of members, public communications, mandatory role in diocesan policy reviews, etc.).

  • Establish an exclusively lay council, eliminating clergy from membership (as they are with the current Diocesan Pastoral Council) given the fact:
    1. Clergy are inherently hampered by severe penalties they face for challenging the bishop.
    2. Clergy operate under a built-in deference to the bishop to whom they vowed obedience.
    3. Too many laity operate with a built-in deference to clergy at the discussion table.
    4. Clergy are already represented by their own advisory groups which do not include laity.
    5. Bishops are known to hand pick overly obsequious clergy to work with them in such advisory groups. 
A call for a new crop of diocesan lay advisors. Many of our diocesan lay advisors have worked with all three of these bishops of Buffalo and plan on working for their FIFTH bishop (including Bishop Scharfenberger), once he is assigned. Such tenure has resulted in various forms of enabling the abuse crisis and crippling objectivity among advisors, as demonstrated in this series. Photo from Diocese of Buffalo Twitter account (9-24-15) of Bishop Henry Mansell, Bishop Richard Malone and Bishop Edward Kmiec.

As the National Review Board noted: “A spirit of collaboration does not imply clerical membership on the Board.”

  • Diversify the geographic makeup of the lay board to include supremely competent laity in good standing with the Church. Invitations to laity to apply for advisory council positions should be extended throughout all eight counties with equal weight and without prejudice.
  • Diversify the competency of the lay board membership in recruiting candidates competent in fields which address the needs of a Catholic diocese.
  • Diversify the constituent make-up of the lay board to include representation of age, cultural and ethnic interests to justly represent laity in this Catholic diocese. 
  • Establish term limits and impose them retroactively as part of an overall exit plan for current lay advisors who have served beyond the new terms of service. While their volunteer service is appreciated, a systematic reformation of an entirely new lay consultative body should be the goal with all due haste. Lengthy advisory tenures have been demonstrated to cripple objectivity. Four-year terms with one-third rotation every three years is the model utilized by the all-lay National Review Board advising the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Benefits of term limits include:
    1. ensure objectivity in giving sound advice
    2. make room for new members 
    3. ensure a healthy circulation of competent lay Catholic leaders from throughout the diocese
    4. ensure a healthy cultivation of competent lay Catholic leaders throughout the diocese
    5. restore a sense of trust with laity.
  •  Overhaul the selection process for lay advisors which should include a democratic system in which laity throughout the diocese at least have an opportunity to choose their representatives from a supremely competent pool of Catholics in good standing with the Church from across the eight counties of the diocese. The idea of clerics and/or hierarchy selecting lay advisors is incompatible with the documents of Vatican II. Richard Sipe said bishops like to work with “toadies.” Independent lay selections help ensure we don’t seat such obsequious people. Parish councils should follow the same reform guidelines with the same principles of lay selection “so that they [not clerics] may supply what is lacking to their brethren and refresh the spirit of pastors and of the rest of the faithful.”7
  • Create an exit plan for the Movement to Restore Trust organization so we can responsibly and rapidly transform to a new lay council structure under the auspices of the diocese using its brand which we laity are entitled to use in our role exercising co-responsibility. Current MRT proposals imply the nine current organizing committee members from Buffalo serve in some sort of perpetual roles as lay leaders/advisors under their own brand without an exit plan and without a mandate from the laity. The new lay council, truly representative of the diocese, would be integrated into the diocese giving it genuine authority to speak/advise on behalf of all 600,000 laity TO the bishops and FOR laity in a “fairly independent” state, as the NRB operates.
  • Re-imagine meeting locations to accommodate members throughout the sprawling geography of the diocese. This could include virtual meetings online.
  • Establish annual retreat for lay advisors.
National Review Board document illustrating its authority to speak to  bishops for laity under the USCCB brand.
The National Review Board communicates under the brand of the USCCB, giving weight to its authority to speak TO the bishops and FOR laity. In this communication pictured, the board, “echoing concerns of the lay faithful, requests the bishops take immediate action…” This is the type of public communications our diocese’s lay board should be producing–utilizing diocesan branding which the proposed lay advisory board has every right to use working under the auspices of the diocese and in its role exercising co-responsibility.

Manage Lay Advisory Board Membership 

Rationale–Once the makeup of the new council is determined, it needs support with appropriate management. As illustrated in this series, the diocese is a poor manager of membership of lay advisory groups. This task should be placed in the hands of laity who share responsibility of managing the diocese with the clergy. 

Areas of management would include:

  • monitoring optimal membership numbers–determined by lay advisors in their by-laws,
  • overseeing outreach for new members,
  • cultivating lay leadership throughout the diocese,
  • ensuring appropriate demographic and geographic representation,
  • overseeing term limits
  • reviewing membership irregularities, 
  • providing orientation for new members,
  • coordinating the content of meeting agendas with the bishop,
  • limiting social gatherings to separate events.

Following creation and management of a new lay advisory council, establish consistent and transparent communications with stakeholders.

Rationale— This series has illustrated the appalling lack of transparency with the diocesan lay organizations, in particular. Any future lay advisory organization’s information webpage should be under the auspices of the diocese and linked on the diocesan website containing details such as:

  • purpose of the organization;
  • explanation of how members are chosen and by whom;
  • criteria for membership;
  • complete membership roster (including towns/cities where the member resides and parish member attends);
  • day/time/place of meetings for the calendar year;
  • meeting agendas;
  • Venue/date/time changes to meetings–updated in a timely manner;
  • timely posting of minutes of meetings;
  • a structure for open communications between laity and advisors (easily accessible online);
  • timely and courteous response from designated advisors (not through third parties) to stakeholders.
National Review Board home page
This all-lay advisory board to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has its own webpage on the USCCB website. Notice the nod to transparency on its home page by listing all its members, its function, and the most recent documents the board produced communicating its rather forceful recommendations to all U.S. bishops on behalf of laity and clergy sexual abuse survivors.

Reform work begins with Accountability

Once the structure and makeup of a new lay advisory council is established, specific lay advisory reform recommendations can flow forth from this council to initially focus on combating the toxic diocesan culture, a foundational principle upon which subsequent recommendations rest so they can at least have a chance at successful implementation. 

Rationale–The reform measures outlined below are designed to combat toxic diocesan culture by fostering objectivity and accountability while helping to eliminate systemic enabling. Subsequent recommendations for reform (such as those submitted by the MRT) have no chance at success without addressing the culture that created the need for reform. 

While we wait patiently for the civil justice system to determine criminality in clergy sexual abuse cases in the Diocese of Buffalo, we can still press for accountability through a variety of just measures that the Church provides.

  1. Request a just accountability of all diocesan officials (past and present) via a review process as requested of all bishops by the National Review Board. This includes an accurate list of clergy who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, and whether those cases were handled appropriately by bishops.To maintain credibility, the review process must involve the laity in some form, such as an independent diocesan review board or external firm.
  2. Advise the bishop to perform his moral and canonical duty to determine moral culpability of diocesan officials and determine penalties for those officials 8(active or retired) concerning their involvement in handling clergy sexual abuse cases. 
  3. Advise the bishop to give unfettered access of case files to survivors as requested by survivors.
  4. Advise the bishop to commit to responsible and consistently applied penal and non-penal remedies for diocesan officials (including retired bishops) who credibly demonstrated complicity in covering up sexually abusive clergy and put laity at risk. Through their own immoral/ unjust decisions (including following such orders), and by virtue of their lack of initiative to make public repentance, contrition and restitution for their acts while performing their duties of office, these diocesan officials/clergy have: forfeited any right to claim a position of authority and are unfit to hold titles or honors, including the title, “emeritus.”

Therefore, in the interest of just accountability and the salvation of the souls of such diocesan officials, advise the bishop to draft concrete decrees modeled after the recommendations of the lay Vatican investigators of the Bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling/Charleston and recommendations Jesus made to the wealthy official (Luke 22:18) to give up everything and follow Him:

  • Ban them from future awards, titles, board membership, offices (including pastor9, or any form of honors.
  • Rescind any diocesan awards or honors they have received.
  • Remove them from executive positions in diocesan-run institutions.
  • Ban them from ecclesial or diocesan career promotions.
  • Publish these decrees in the interest of transparency and to help instill a measure of trust among laity.
  • Send the offending clergy out of the diocese for a period of time for healing.

Part of a just accounting includes practical measures related to a cleric’s status. It is well known the elitist clerical culture (a part of the toxic diocesan culture) fosters covetous hearts for honors and titles. Rescinding or barring such worldly honors/titles should also serve as a healthy deterrence if applied justly and not arbitrarily. 

Concrete Reform Recommendations
for the New Lay Advisory Board

  • Commit to pressing for just and charitable outreach to survivors of clergy sexual abuse, recognizing that if we cannot attend to those who suffered the first breach of trust, we cannot hope to restore trust in the diocese or in the Church. Attending to just accountability for diocesan officials is a point of healing for many abuse survivors and offers a modicum of assurance such abuse will never happen again (because the enablers were removed from the system).
  • Devise protocol for lay advisory councils to make public statements, engage in advocacy for laity, and get answers on behalf of laity about grave issues, particularly where questions of safety are concerned;
  • Commit to genuine dialogue with constituents. If it is the goal of lay consulters to help instill trust, it would be incumbent upon them to charitably open their doors to other voices and address valid concerns expressed by laity so these folks don’t have to suffer the indignity of protesting or blogging or taking their grievances to social media or emailing questions through an independent website or writing lengthy posts like this. 
  • Participate in choosing members on Diocesan Review Board and other oversight boards/committees. Current MRT reform proposals have the organizing committee for the MRT advising diocesan officials and choosing members for various diocesan boards, for example. This is highly irregular, not to mention problematic, as demonstrated in this series. 
  • Provide protections against retaliation for whistleblowers, clergy, seminarians or laity. 
  • Develop a dignified system for engaging in dialogue between the bishop and individual laypeople who wish to air legitimate, grave concerns;
  • Agree to be held by fellow laity to specified gospel “metrics” in advising the bishop. At the very least, lay advisors should be held to the same standards they require of their bishop (transparency, accountability, openness, rapid transition to new standards, etc.);
  • Provide for protection/support of laity who happen to be news reporters from abusive retaliation from clergy or laity;
  • Commit to seeking dialogue with whistleblowers and other reliable sources. It is incumbent upon lay advisory members to seek information from competent sources outside the diocesan machine to inform their deliberations.
  • Develop protection measures for unsuspecting laity with a sexual-predator priest or deacon at their parish because the clergy and diocesan executives are too afraid to blow the whistle because the retaliation from the bishop is STILL too severe. It would be advisable to seek assistance from the National Review Board on this front to encourage the USCCB to address this fundamental flaw in protecting laity– lack of whistleblower protections.
  • Work with the USCCB’s National Review Board to lend support to their initiatives10 where they relate to dioceses and bishop action items. 

A final thought on this series: 

“Constituencies forged in crisis are not stable,” warned Judge Michael R. Merz, former chairman of the National Review Board. He noted that because his historic all-lay board was established by the USCCB following the Boston Globe revelations in 2002, they were formed in a bit of a panic. In this environment, he warned, “Some constituents will try to use a crisis to leverage additional changes in an institution. Some will look to return to ‘business as usual’ once the crisis passes,” he said. 

But if we keep our eyes on the crucifix–Jesus suffering–we will in turn keep our eyes on the abused, ravaged souls among us as we attempt reform and renewal of our Church. Pope Francis challenges us in this crisis to “come together, on our knees, before the Lord and let ourselves be challenged by his wounds, in which we will be able to see the wounds of the world.”11 THIS is our focus in reforming our diocese, our Church on a road to true healing and restoration of trust so we can continue Christ’s mission to lead souls to Heaven.

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

This is the final post of this series. If you have any contributions to make in this dialogue, 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.

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