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 ONE: Recognizing 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 laity’s response to this crisis.

Listen to PART ONE Audio read by the author.
Direct link to article so you have full access to footnotes and audio.

We laity are called to co-responsibility in the mission of the Church with the clergy. And what have we done with this responsibility while we blithely participated in a system of operations that raped children, decimated lives and ravaged souls?

St. John the Baptist Church in West Valley where in 2003, Rev. Thomas McCarthy was one of two priests in the diocese who suddenly “retired” on the same day. It took two Buffalo News reporters to find out why for stunned laity at both parishes who found out they had been placed at risk with a credibly-accused pedophile.

In 2003, following the Boston Globe clergy abuse revelations, priests mysteriously disappeared from churches across the Diocese of Buffalo, causing quite a stir among laity. That fall, Bishop Henry Mansell abruptly removed two more priests in rural parishes prompting questions from two Buffalo News reporters who knew the names of the priests. It is an all-too familiar scenario: a news outlet appears to be the only agent that can get the bishop to respond to laity’s concerns.

Taking on the job that one would think our lay advisors to the bishop should have done, the reporters were able to get the bishop to publish a two-page public statement. In this, laity learned that Bishop Mansell “removed several diocesan priests in accordance with church policy relating to child abuse and sexual abuse of minors,” the News article informed us.

Brazenly flaunting his lack of transparency,1 the bishop, “… refused to identify the priests, say how many have been removed or specify when they were removed,” according to the article. So the big question needed to be answered. Had these Catholic families at the two rural parishes been at possible risk all along with a credibly-accused sexual predator in their midst? The News reporters got that answer for them: Yes.

Here’s another question: Why didn’t the lay advisors to the bishop attempt to press for answers for the stunned and reasonably concerned laity they represent?

Apparently, it is not part of diocesan culture, in this case likely for peripheral legal reasons. But that does not mean lay advisors cannot press for a responsible response to laity from the bishop in the interest of transparency if not outright public safety.

Whalen-BN tweets
Twitter posts from a Buffalo News reporter the day Michael Whalen announced he was abused by Rev. Norbert Orsolits who escaped all legal consequences for destroying his life.

We witnessed this mindset again in 2018. Recall that Michael Whalen had to set up a make-shift news conference on a pubic sidewalk outside the chancery building on a chilly February day to air the horrors of his clergy sexual abuse story as a teenager. His abuser, Norbert Orsolits, also mysteriously vanished in the 2003 Bishop Mansell sweep, suffering no legal consequences for destroying this man’s life and dozens of others. Other survivors and laity with grievances followed suit with their own media conferences on that same sidewalk, and still no lay advisors–who met face-to-face with our bishop throughout 2018–thought to advocate to get fellow laity off the public street and bring them inside to share their stories with the dignity they deserved?

Our present Apostolic Administrator, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, calls such circumstances “disturbing.” In a radio interview, he stated:  “When it comes to a point where somebody has to take a picket sign outside in front of their brother or sister’s house because they don’t feel they’re welcome, because they dont’ feel there’s conversation going on, it’s disturbing, particularly in a Church that’s all about healing, reconciling.”

But news of diocesan disfunction turned positively outlandish when we discovered that laity in 2018 were still paying living expenses for not only men like Norbert Orsolits, but also Thomas McCarthy one of the two rural priests named in the 2003 News article, due to the diocese’s negligence in sending these cases to Rome. [Siobhan O’Connor detailed shocking circumstances at the chancery building surrounding one employee who discovered she had been cutting checks to the self-admitted serial-pedophile, Orsolits.].

Listen to Bishop Mansell–Video above: 2003 WKBW-TV report on the Buffalo News‘ discovery of the names of two priests removed for “past incidents of sexual abuse of minors.” Bishop Mansell is featured in this report saying it was upon “strong advice of rehabilitation institutes” which treated such accused priests that he re-assigned them to active ministry. The US Bishops’ Conference issued its zero tolerance policy in 2003, forcing Mansell to remove credibly-accused pedophile priests from ministry.

Naturally, we ask: Just how bad does it have to get before lay advisors to the bishop step forward to challenge him on our behalf? In the 15 years between 2003 and 2018, roughly 37% of members on the largest diocesan lay advisory group had been on board advising our bishops the entire time. In fact, most of the principle lay advisors today served as lay advisors to Bishop Mansell.

Who are these lay councils and who serves on them? The flow chart below illustrates the various bodies that give council to the Bishop of Buffalo.

Consultative bodies flow chart

This chart is plucked from the diocesan website linked to a page for folks serving on the Diocesan Pastoral Council. The three councils that concern laity in the Diocese of Buffalo are:

  • the Diocesan Pastoral Council, (DPC) mandated by the Church,2 made up of 29 laypeople (as of September, 2019), three clergy and a religious sister. There are supposed to be 34 people representing all 12 vicariates and other lay constituencies, but Vicars Forane, who choose the [vicariate] members, are not reliable in ensuring laity are adequately represented. The DPC meets with the bishop quarterly to “recommend action to the Bishop regarding pastoral concerns facing the Diocese.”
  • the Bishop’s Council of the Laity, (BCL) established more than 50 years ago, is (as of January, 2019) made up of 287 individuals [the title is spelled wrong in this chart] who contribute to a charity arm of the diocese. As “voices and ears of the community,” according to its communications, the BCL meets at five planned gatherings with the bishop during the course of the year to share “issues, concerns and priorities of our faith community.” They are presumably recommended by pastors and approved by the bishop and/or his staff. [This post explains.] It is important to note that membership is overwhelmingly chosen from the region around the City of Buffalo. As of 2019, Allegany County and Chautauqua County each have one member, and there are NO members from Cattaraugus County.
  • the Movement to Restore Trust, (MRT) is not included in the flow chart because it is an independent leadership group of laity formed in November, 2018 by six long-time members of the BCL from the Buffalo area and three other Buffalo-area laywomen, competent in their fields, with the goal to rebuild trust and confidence in the diocese.

[2019 membership rosters for these three lay groups are linked above.]

These three predominantly lay councils have direct lines to the bishop which means they have his ear a few times a year and vice versa. [Bishop Richard Malone explained his work with the two diocesan lay councils here and here].

Earlier, I asked how bad this crisis has to get before laity in those positions stand up to the bishop to advise properly in advocating for fellow laity, especially clergy sexual abuse survivors?

The formation of the MRT in late 2018 is surely one such response which assures us at least these nine advisors on the organizing committee (most of them hand-picked by clergy decades ago), are challenging the bishop and diocesan practices now. But the proposals for reform fall woefully short, as I’ll demonstrate in this series of posts. While that independent lay group’s full report of recommendations (released last year) to heal our diocese and instill trust is filled with many good working principles on a variety of fronts, it lacks some essential elements for sound and lasting reform of not just lay councils (which is minimally addressed in their report) but other arenas of human response to evil that will serve this diocese well into the future which we will explore in this series. That reform begins with many of our lay advisors themselves who, without question, had been nurtured in a toxic diocesan culture that appeared to give inordinate deference to the bishop and his decisions. Here’s one expert’s

litmus test to toxic diocesan culture: “the adversarial way victims of the Church’s own dysfunction are treated.”

To help you see what I mean, let’s go back to the Michael Whalen news conference in February, 2018. The Bishop’s executive assistant at the time, Siobhan O’Connor, offered a detailed description of what went on in the chancery building that day, giving us a front-row seat to how toxic diocesan culture plays out. Right off the bat, we see a dismissive bishop who had other things to do besides concern himself with that guy outside.

Walking into work that day, chancery staff learned: “A victim of a diocesan priest would be speaking out about the sexual abuse he had endured,” she wrote. “This was startling in two ways,” she explained. “First, that a victim would be speaking out in such a public manner, which was without precedent. Second, that this press conference would occur a mere two days before the Bishop’s [media conference on the diocese’s reconciliation and compensation program for survivors].”

Upstaging the bishop’s press conference set the tone for abject rebuff of the man in the green jacket and his concerns, O’Connor noted. “The biggest question was how did ‘this Whalen fellow’ [as the bishop referred to him] know about the Bishop’s press conference?” she wrote. Siobhan O’Connor notes a profound lack of compassion, empathy and sympathy for the survivor stuck outside across the street in front of microphones, clearly trying to communicate to the bishop inside. Breaking ranks with the establishment, O’Connor made the effort to watch the outdoor conference by herself from a room off the bishop’s office overlooking the street. Her sincere response of empathy towards the man she couldn’t even hear was the only glimmer of hope radiating from that towering wall of windows.

Dr. Thomas P. Doyle–“The rejection and duplicity of the church leaders, is for many, even more abusive and painful than the physical violation itself. So many are stunned by the destructive way they are treated by church leaders to whom they disclose their abuse.”

We started this post detailing an incident in September, 2003 with the mystery of the missing priests. Three months later, a Christ the King seminarian was molested by a diocesan priest, according to the victim’s report made to the diocese a few weeks later. As we learned in the previous post, nothing was done about that crime and the seminarian said he was silenced by the auxiliary bishop. So what did we learn of toxic diocesan culture based on the actions and reactions of the bishops illustrated in this post and the previous introductory post thus far? We don’t need an expert to tell us, but I’ll throw one in because his blistering diagnosis should cause all of us to pause. Dr. Thomas Doyle, a leading expert on the subject of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, said:

The inability of so many in the church — hierarchy, priests and lay people — to comprehend that in the adversarial way victims of the church’s own dysfunction are treated is the evidence that the elitist clerical culture is the locus of the fault. If this culture has such high value that victims are sacrificed for its stability and image, then it is truly a toxic virus in the Body of Christ.

So, it is not unreasonable to come to the conclusion that exposure to a toxic culture over a long period of time could unwittingly poison one’s sound judgment. That so much of the dysfunction in the diocese was so profoundly evident on its surface is, frankly, astounding.

Sure, new policies and systems have been put in place. But, its been argued that even though improved reporting procedures may help restrain the activity of sexual abusers, for example, the culture that made the abuse possible is still largely in tact. It was refreshing to read that MRT’s volunteer workgroups agreed that radical transformation of diocesan culture needs to take place. Regrettably, the body of their recommendations imply that lay advisory groups are separate from diocesan culture. They are wrong. Those groups have actuality been imbedded in it for decades.

This is not an assessment lay advisors are likely to come up with on their own. 

Example of toxic diocesan culture–St. Thomas Aquinas Church in South Buffalo where Rev. Art Smith was assigned with the office of “pastor.” He retained that office until 2012, a full 8 years after a seminarian reported his molestation by Smith in the rectory seen on the right of the church building. Smith has denied the allegations. The USCCB’s Dallas Charter gave a free pass to clergy to sexually abuse people over age 18, as Bishop Malone repeatedly reminded his executive staff. This toxic culture reaches into the pews:  To. This. Day. laity at that church lament that their “beloved former pastor” cannot participate in the sanctuary at various parish celebrations.

Again, we turn to Bishop Scharfenberger’s call for personal conversion, examined in the previous post. That call is backed by Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who instructed, if we are to engage in true reform of an institution, we must begin with reforming ourselves.3

We can look at personal conversion as a way to inoculate against the toxicity around us. While the MRT proposals are filled with many social and institutional agendas in their well-intentioned reform plans, Archbishop Sheen instructs, “The key to social betterment is always to be found in personal betterment.”4 In other words, we aren’t looking for radical transformation of the institution but in people. When we reform ourselves, we will be in a better position to help save others, including the institution.

This series of posts is designed to do just that: help us “see” examples of this toxic culture and its apparent effects on laity, especially those who advise our bishop, so we can help eradicate it. Therefore, any honest diocesan reform plan needs an expectation that lay advisors will be evaluated based on certain gospel metrics which reflect our expectations of them, all the while recognizing that they generously serve in a strictly volunteer capacity.

Before moving on to the next post in this series, it is important to clear up one unavoidable concern. Talk of reform of human enterprises naturally involves making judgments on performance based on certain metrics. We are in an epic crisis situation and simply cannot avoid that hard reality. The observations in this series are not meant to be an indictment against anyone’s personal integrity, holiness or good will which are never in question. Always taken into account is the fact that sometimes people do not “see” what’s going on around them or how their actions or omissions impact others.

With that said, some have confused offering valid criticism of the work of our volunteer lay leaders/advisors with a lack of appreciation for their efforts and a lack of acknowledgement of the debt of gratitude we owe these exemplary individuals for their extraordinary service to the Church. Nothing can be further from the truth. They are without a question among our most dedicated, professionally competent and generous Catholics given their service on many fronts including magnanimous works of charity over the years. The core leadership of the Movement to Restore Trust in particular is made up of fine individuals exceptional in their fields.

In announcing the formation of the MRT, one of its leaders, Dr. Nancy H. Nielsen, revealed that she too is a survivor of abuse. Her service in this capacity is commendable5. Dr. John Hurley, president of Canisius College, said the nine members of their leadership group are “broken-hearted, disillusioned, and, yes, angry about what we see happening in the Catholic Church in the United States and right here in the Diocese of Buffalo.” The MRT was established to transform those concerns into action. They are to be commended for this important initiative.

But I am not alone in warning that all three lay advisory groups need to break up an objectively evident bias, dangerous assumptions and other anomalies in sound collaborative work they have naturally cultivated in their particular manner of service for many years as lay advisors, resulting in questionable decisions and omissions in crisis response.

Taking our cue from the seminarian’s case alone [outlined in the previous introductory post] reveals much about us as fellow laity in this diocese and where we perhaps need to make changes–not just in the institution, but more importantly, among us and within us.

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

Future posts in this series explore foundational principles of reform not adequately addressed in the current MRT proposals: the call to personal conversion; accountability for clerics and hierarchy; systemic enabling; and loss of objectivity–all factors that indicate an adverse influence of the toxic diocesan culture. The final part of this series lists reform principles and concrete reform recommendations based on findings/observations noted in this series. The next post, PART TWO in this series, addresses a foundational principle of reform, accountability for clerics and hierarchy.

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.

4 thoughts on “How laity can step up their response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Diocese of Buffalo. PART ONE: Recognizing toxic diocesan culture”

  1. Jenny you have done an amazing Part One informative report on how laity can help heal the church and what was going on in the Buffalo Diocese. Looking forward to Part Two. Joanne Bisson.

  2. Jennifer, I want this all to come to an end. I want that seminarian, who is now a priest who isn’t allowed to minister, because he told the truth! He gave up everything to come here and be a priest and look what happens to him. He goes to aux bishop Grosz for help and he is threatened and bullied to be quite or he would never become a priest. He became the best priest I’ve ever known. He helped me become a better catholic and real Christian. I was so happy for him when he was “chosen” to be bishop Malone’s secretary, till the truth came out. They took a good priest that every one loved out of the parish and into the hell of working for Malone. Where he could be bullied and threatened some more. Until he couldn’t stand seeing all the coverups and lies anymore. So he finally was able to let it out and tell everyone what happened to him. And what does the great bishop Malone do, he first suspends him, then the night before he “resigned” he makes sure that this good and holy priest can’t minister in any Catholic Church. To this day, this victim-survivor is still waiting for justice and to be put back into ministry in the Catholic Church.
    These last two years have changed me. Especially this last year. I can no longer make myself go into a Catholic Church. I don’t trust it and I don’t fit in anymore. Believe me, it hurts. But what hurts the most is seeing what’s happening to all the victim-survivors! It makes me sick and angry and sad. I only pray that somehow soon, they all get justice and my good and holy priest is back doing what God called him to do.

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