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 FIVE: Principles for Reform

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 FIVE Audio read by the author.

10 principles foundational to any reform for this institution so miserably broken. 

Jenny protesting 9-5-19
At the same time the Bishop’s Council of the Laity enjoyed their Mass and meeting with Bishop Malone on Sept. 5, 2019, fellow Catholic laity gathered in a prayer, protest across from the Catholic Center in downtown Buffalo.

Here’s something you probably don’t know about the prayer/protest demonstrations of Catholic laity in Buffalo. As prayer became an integral component, some of our regulars dropped out. The very sound of clicking rosary beads or someone reciting the “Hail Mary” triggers trauma in a lot of clergy sexual abuse survivors–collateral damage to the clergy sex abuse crisis in which the diocese failed to handle victims as if their souls mattered.

Principle 1: Salvation of Souls takes priority.

With pretty much anything we choose to do within Christ’s Church–the salvation of souls is the guiding principle. In fact, that directive is in the final sentence of the body of law of the Church: “…the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law of the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.” Our lay advisors to the bishop work in the saving mission of the Church–within the Church, not outside of it–within an official flow chart and the boundaries of Canon Law.

And because that saving mission excludes no one, attention is extended to both villain and victim.

Canon 1752
The final line of Canon Law ends with this inspired summation of the body of Church law.

Principle 2: Efforts to reform and instill trust are impossible without prayer.

Trust nothing that does not integrate prayer as an essential element of any effort related to this crisis. Nothing happens without Jesus. We see this principle lacking on a couple of fronts. First of all, Prayer needs to be one of those “areas of inquiry” in the MRT diocesan reform recommendations. And our diocese needs to address some of its pastors buying into the concept. For example, during the official Diocesan Year of Healing, parishes were encouraged to pray a particular prayer at each Mass that included intentions for abuse survivors. Throughout the diocese, many pastors ignored this request. This is unacceptable, and laity should have spoken out on this non-compliance of pastors that sadly illustrated either their profound lack of understanding of the value of prayer in relation to this abominable crisis or their lack of interest in having the subject brought up in their parishes.

Principle 3: Personal reform comes before diocesan reform.

The institution did not cause our troubles. People did. Personal conversion (which cannot occur without prayer), covered throughout this series, is the most effective agent of change.

And because the salvation of souls is the guiding principle informing our tasks, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen said we must take our focus off the institution itself which should be the least of our concerns. In his reflection on social revolutions, he said, “Let institutions crumble, blueprints go up in smoke and governments decay. These are mere trivia, compared to the vast question asked of all of us: ‘How is a man the better for it, if he gains the whole world at the cost of losing his own soul?'”1 (Mark 8:36)

Principle 4: To establish trust, we must prioritize the first breach of trust which occurred with the survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

Who reached out to embrace abuse survivor, Michael Whalen, a year after his historic news conference outside the chancery building, and accompanied him into church for the first time in years? It wasn’t a member of the clergy or a chancery official or even a lay advisor to the bishop. It was whistleblower, Siobhan O’Connor, a laywoman. Read about that remarkable day at her website, RespectfulCatholic.com which contains this photo worthy of placement in the diocesan archives.

Souls and lives were destroyed–therefore, finances, bankruptcy, legal concerns, “the spirit of Vatican II,” the role of women in the Church and other agendas designed to instill trust must take a back seat to this foundational breach of trust that occurred with innocent victims of clergy sexual abuse. We cannot continue to treat the plights of survivors with moral equivalency amidst other concerns we read imbedded in the MRT reform proposals. Such moral equivalency feeds desensitization among clergy, hierarchy and even religious women, as illustrated in this series.

Principle 5: Language should reflect the seriousness of the subject.

We are addressing an epic catastrophe of sin ravaging a wide swath of humanity resulting in loss of lives, loss of souls, loss of childhoods, loss of human dignity, never mind the manifest rape of the Bride of Christ, the Church. Language in documents addressed to our diocesan leaders should therefore reflect the horror of the tragic circumstances we seek to tackle and the seriousness with which laity mean business.

For example, MRT recommendations for reform uses the term, “leadership failure,” where they should have nailed it with “systemic coverup of clergy sex abuse.”

Recommendations that strike at the heart of concerns of this abomination should be conveyed in no uncertain terms, stating non-negotiable stances if that is what is meant, with clear language from lay leaders wishing to make their point. Let’s take a lesson from a page of the National Review Board of laity that advises the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In one of their reports at a USCCB national meeting, the NRB president stated:

“It has taken the intervention of the state and the media to fully expose the darkness of abuse in our dioceses. It is shameful that the sin of abuse was hidden and allowed to fester until uncovered by the secular world. Even more unbearable is the fact that so many innocent children and young people suffered because of the inaction and silence of some bishops. You must put the victim first when allegations come forward. How many souls have been lost because of this crisis?”

— Special Report of the National Review Board
to the Body of Bishops on the
Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Church
13 November 2018

Note the overriding emphasis on the salvation of souls. Note the overriding cause of the crisis is plainly stated as sin, not solely “clericalism” which gives hierarchy cover for their crimes and immoral malfeasance in governance. Time to be precise.

Euphemisms also need to be jettisoned in our language because they are tools used in “a playbook for concealing the truth,” we were warned in the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury report. It’s astonishing to read in that report that abuse survivors said diocesan officials told them to substitute the word, “rape,” with “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.” Let’s not play that game in our recommendations. 

Bishops here in Buffalo often use another linguistic tactic, passive voice, to hide their complicity in covering for sexually-abusive priests. For example, to explain how such priests were moved around in the diocese, Bishop Mansell said: “they were re-assigned.” Laity should not condone such linguistic tactics. He should have stated plainly: “I re-assigned them.”

Principle 6: What we expect of the bishop, expect of ourselves.

Leadership standards are the same for clergy and lay leaders. This may necessitate a drastic shift in the mindset of some lay advisors who have worked in the diocesan system for so long. Some may find themselves having to radically re-assess prejudices, biased views, personal attachments, comfort zones and even their own seats at the table for the sake of diversity, justice and objectivity. Social structural reform does, indeed, begin interiorly.

For example, if expediency in transitioning to new norms is expected of the bishop, the same sense of urgency in conforming to reform recommendations should be expected of lay advisors to our bishop. Lay involvement in the choice of leadership like a new bishop should also include our right to have a say in the choice of lay advisors to the bishop.

MRT announcement
News Conference at Canisius College announcing formation of The Movement to Restore Trust. Screen shot from a video on WBEN’s website post, “Lay Catholics form committee for church reforms.” 1 November 2018.

Principle 7: Valid criticism does not mean lack of appreciation.

This was covered in a previous post, but bears repeating here. We are all working in love and service to Truth for the good of the People of God and Christ’s Church. These are excruciatingly difficult subjects requiring healthy critiques of our brothers and sisters in Christ to help us in our salvation journey. So when fellow laity bring forth reports or questions or concerns, we should assume it’s an honest attempt at contributing to the dialogue on this important arena of life that affects individuals and their families in this diocese. Such communications are not to condemn anyone’s work. They are to make it better.

Principle 8: Advisors can “have teeth.”

Currently, Canon Law only allows for laity to serve in advisory capacities on both diocesan and parish levels. Laity have no authority, no power to enact anything. We are working with a veritable dictatorship, for lack of a better description. But we shouldn’t buy into the notion that laity cannot effect change without canonical authority. Look at the remarkable change laity made just in the past year in our diocese! In TRUTH lies power. Advisors can make headway if they use their enormous gravitas that got them in face-to-face meetings with the bishop to begin with. But they need to approach their service with intention, as we illustrated in this series.

And while they have to follow Canon Law, lay advisors don’t have to slavishly follow “charters” or other church-generated management documents. Laity are neither legislators nor judges. So advise appropriately. For example: Sexual abuse of human beings of any age is a crime AND a sin. Lay advisors to bishops should never have condoned following documents generated by the USCCB to hold us to edicts contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of his Church. The Leadership Roundtable, a national organization that consults Catholic dioceses in their reform efforts, uses these powerful verbs for laity working with diocesan officials: encourage, construct, defend, ensure, develop, commission, urge, establish, require. I’ll add another verb: protect, as in: “Protect whistleblowers.”

Principle 9: Keep the focus on the root cause of the crisis: SIN.

Lax treatment/coverup of sexually abusive clergy is a direct result of bishops desensitized to the heinous nature of the sinful acts and their multi-fasciated effects on innocent victims, according to one of the most respected researchers/survivor advocates in the clergy sexual abuse crisis, Thomas P. Doyle. The guarantee that clergy will address sin as sin is no longer a valid assumption. For this reason, a relationship of co-responsibility of laypeople and clergy operating under rules entirely predicated on the integrity of the clergy and the bishop’s understanding of the gravity of the sins of his sexually abusive clergy is no longer reasonable. Don’t let diocesan officials or well-intentioned laypeople distract you from the grave evil you’re trying to eradicate. Advise accordingly.

For example, when Bishop Richard Malone attempted to verbally dance around the definition of “complicit,” with a news reporter, his former executive assistant, Shiobhan O’Connor, publicly challenged him, as any good lay advisor should:  “Bishop Malone – you were complicit. It is grave matter. Stop equivocating.”

Principle 10: Recommendations should be informed by a variety of competent sources.

Clearly, the MRT used a variety of sources to inform its recommendations for reform, including the 150 “amateur” volunteers in crafting reform recommendations and Leadership Roundtable which we’ll examine in the next post. This series you are reading is not a self-referential exercise either. Recommendations for reform are gleaned from numerous competent sources with whom I’ve personally consulted the past 14 years that I’ve stewed in this tragedy.2

Blame the policewoman listed in that extensive footnote for encouraging this series of posts.

These are 10 principles for reform which serve as a basis for recommendations of concrete actions laity, specifically lay advisors to our bishop, can take. Keep in mind that sexually abusive clergy and their abuse-facilitators in chancery offices operate off principles too. And we saw their chief principle in action throughout the examples in this series: Keeping a lid on the exchange of information and squashing dissent at every opportunity.3

Let’s suit up to defeat that toxic principle with a few principles of our own.

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

The next post, the SIXTH and final part of this series, details concrete reform recommendations for laity to regain relevancy in their advisory roles and respect at the table co-responsibly managing our diocese out of this crisis. 

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

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