Pornographic and disturbing. Trigger alert. Discretion is advised.
Like the police who participate in the “blue wall of silence,” our new “vicar for renewal” embodies the chilling, self-protective clerical instinct for which he has been duly rewarded with this visible leadership role Bishop Mike bestowed upon him.
UPDATE: One of the former seminarian/whistleblowers reported to me that none of the seminarians who contributed to the report referenced in this post remained with the diocese. “All were either forced out or chose to leave on their own.” He reports that there were at least four seminarians who reported on the incident. He acknowledged that Fathers Zielenieski and Webster’s shaming of the seminarians in the TV interview by not believing them (see video) added to their misery.
A couple years ago, we got a behind-the-scenes look at the Diocese of Buffalo’s version of law enforcement’s “blue wall of silence.” We all know what it is by now: the shameful extent too many Catholic priests are willing to plunge to protect colleagues, regardless of their misbehavior. If we pray for the conversion of officers who went out of their way to protect rogue police, we similarly pray for the conversion of our priests who shamefully went out of their way to protect their rogue brother priests. Such “protectors” are a concern. The problem is, Bishop Michael Fisher apparently does not share our views.
We can say this because Bishop Mike, as he prefers to be addressed, recently gave the responsibility of vicar for “Renewal and Development” to a diocesan priest who back in 2019 publicly stepped up to protect fellow priests caught in an egregious violation of their Code of Conduct resulting in their eventual temporary leave of absence. Our new vicar for “Renewal and Development,” Father Bryan Zielenieski, didn’t stop there. He also publicly refused to give any credence or consolation to the whistleblowers/victims who dared to expose the offending priests.
Dumfounding that THIS is the priest Bishop Mike recently chose to lead “renewal” efforts in our diocese. This Saturday, you could ask the bishop what the hell he was thinking during the virtual conversation online with Bishop Michael Fisher and Father Bryan Zielenieski [May 8 at 10:00am], but such a question likely won’t make it past the screening process with bishop-approved lay “leaders” in Buffalo running the event. So I’ll ask it here.
A little background about Father Bryan’s participation in the diocese’s “black wall of silence” that protects rogue priests
The April 2019 local television news report of alleged conversations among diocesan priests and unsuspecting seminarians required not only a disclaimer about graphic sexual content but careful editing to pass FCC guidelines for public broadcast of obscene, indecent and profane content. It was that bad.
(April 30, 2019) WKBW-TV Buffalo exclusively obtained a written account that Diocese of Buffalo seminarians gave to their superiors at the seminary. Many of the graphic details were too sexually explicit to air on television.
If our hearts had been stabbed after enduring months of reports of diocesan clergy sexual abuse, this news report of the alleged vulgarity from rank-and-file priests in our parishes ripped the veil off whatever dignity they had left. It was another insider’s whistleblowing report, this time from a group of seminarians who attended a gathering with a few priests at Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Hamburg. Whistleblowing is a big “No-No” in the world of Catholic clergy, especially if those seminarians ever hoped to get ordained, according to one former diocesan official I spoke with. Their sickening report revealed no little heroism because generally you don’t make false allegations about something that could put your vocation in jeopardy.
Happily for the offending priests, their brother priest, Father Bryan, publicly stepped forward to provide cover by dismissing the seminarians’ concerns (a form of victim shaming) and explaining away shocking details of their report. One seminary employee described the seminarians’ allegations as “repulsive and absolutely disgusting.” You decide after reading this excerpt of the seminarians’ report:
Bishop Mike’s new vicar for “Renewal and Development,” casually brushed off such pornographic talk with statements like: “Sometimes there is the nitty gritty” in ministry.
The alleged conversations spiraled into one thread of vulgarity after another that included a priest’s description of hearing one of the seminarian’s parents having sex during a retreat; and light-hearted banter among the priests about vulgar sexual episodes of certain seminary instructors/administrators, especially with students. Keep in mind, the seminarians were the guests at this pizza party with their superiors. You see the power dynamic.
Father Bryan, who attended the gathering, claims that he did not hear any of these alleged conversations, but nevertheless went out of his way to deflect criticism of the accused priests in an interview with WKBW-TV’s chief investigative reporter, Charlie Specht. You can watch the entire interview at this link.
This full WKBW interview (it’s still on YouTube) is a chilling example of Reverends Bryan Zielenieski and Cole Webster engaging in the “black wall of silence”–protecting fellow priests, no matter the allegations. The reporter gave them several opportunities to at least denounce their fellow priests’ alleged vulgarity which they refused, instead choosing to lecture viewers that we have to understand the “context” of even sacrilegious obscenities with subordinates in the workplace.
Note to Father Bryan, our new vicar for “Renewal and Development”: Sexual harassment/humiliation/coercion of seminarians by priests/instructors is gravely immoral. It is also frowned upon by the New York State Attorney General. (Please read her statement in the linked footnote)1 Not only does Father Bryan appear to not understand that fact (or the fact that such topics are not something to joke about with seminarians), he also doesn’t seem to understand that dismissing legitimate claims of whistleblowers/victims (as he does in the full WKBW interview) is not going to score points with efforts to renew hope and trust among laity in this diocese.
Note to Bishop Mike: If this is how your vicar for “Renewal and Development” reacts to reports from victims in the field, we can predict how he will respond in the future to similar reports of depraved behavior exhibited by your priests.
Yes, the whistleblowers’ report needed thorough investigation, but for Father Bryan to uncritically dismiss the victims’ claims of sexual harassment and vulgarity on full display at the pizza party shows an abysmal lack of understanding of the very real depths of depravity that got the Diocese of Buffalo into the present crisis of faith complete with loss of souls.
Another excerpt from the report:
And then there’s this revolting excerpt:
Who can reconcile the vile, sacrilegious profanity that allegedly spewed from the named priests’ mouths with these eye-popping brush-offs by Father Bryan:
“When you are gathered together in a relaxed atmosphere, and when you start to get into the nitty gritty of ministry and you start to really try to be real, you do let your guard down a little bit. I’m not saying everything is a holy dialogue.”
“You have to look at the totality of the conversations [context]…”
“…that’s part of what seminary is. Being exposed to priests and the realness of what ministry is.”
“Sometimes there is the nitty gritty; sometimes there is the crude…”
“Everybody has their story to tell, and that’s what we were doing, sharing stories.”
A living, breathing, smirking product of the formation process in the Diocese of Buffalo
Stomach-turning anecdotes shared by the seminarians (one reported he felt he needed to take a shower after the event) Father Bryan casually dismissed as part of the “formation” process. This gross sentiment was echoed by another diocesan pastor who attended the gathering, Rev. Cole Webster, who also claims in the WKBW interview that he didn’t hear the alleged conversations.
In that interview, both priests actually characterized alleged vulgar topics of conversation as something that’s “part of the process” to endure because, after all, “priesthood is worth it,” Father Bryan says in a ghastly minimization of the alleged details of subject matter too vile to be mentioned in a public broadcast. “We were just trying to be authentic and share ourselves,” said Father Cole adding to the deflection while he flat-out questioned the veracity of the whistleblowers.
The full WKBW interview (it’s still on YouTube) is a chilling example of two priests participating in the “black wall of silence,” diminishing the allegations against fellow priests by lecturing viewers that it is common for priests to discuss people’s lives and their “messy situations.”
Note to Father Bryan: The priests were the ones allegedly displaying their messy lives, immorality and crude mindsets which is precisely why the diocese punished them with a temporary leave of absence.
Pinch yourselves, laity, because this story gets worse.
The heart of our concern does not focus on Father Bryan who needs our prayers for conversion instead of our condemnation. He is merely a living, breathing, smirking product of the formation process in the Diocese of Buffalo. Our concern is with our new bishop who, one would think, would be eager to avoid such examples of poor formation, not reward them with a title of vicar of an initiative designated to help foment hope and “renewal” among we laity.
Does our bishop not see in the WKBW interview that Father Bryan appears more upset with the “process” of how the diocese unjustly, in his view, handled the seminarians’ report than he is with the gruesome allegations themselves which clearly upset the victims for whom he displays zero sympathy? The interim seminary rector acknowledged that whatever the priests said, the diocesan investigation characterized it as “unsuitable, inappropriate and insensitive conversations.”
Sure, Father Bryan acknowledged we are all called to holiness BUT (of course a qualifier) “we are also called to be real.” Is that where the telephone call to the dentist friend comes in? Try that with employees at any business in New York State and your front doors will be papered with lawsuits the next morning.
Clericalism and the Black Wall of Silence
Turning our attention again to Bishop Mike, it’s not just Father Bryan’s embarrassing demonstration of poor formation that is most upsetting. Like the police who participate in the “blue wall of silence,” our new “vicar for renewal” embodies the chilling, self-protective clerical instinct for which he has been duly rewarded with this visible leadership role Bishop Mike bestowed upon him.
Water down for public consumption a very serious, objectively heinous incident with diocesan priests, and you’ll get rewarded by your bishop. Provide a contextual redefinition of gratuitous obscene banter with subordinates and voila! You get to be in charge of renewing a diocese mired in clergy sexual abuse.
Father Bryan’s almost total servility to the diocesan machine is a stunningly arrogant example of the very clericalism that got this diocese into the hell hole it now faces.
Perhaps it’s time for laity to “get real” with Bishop Mike
Our new “vicar for renewal” likes to use the term “get real.” How about this dose of reality: Any exploitation of the power dynamic of priest over seminarian is a form of abuse–there is no other way to interpret the reactions of the seminarians other than the fact they were objectively, verbally assaulted, if we read their report with any honesty.
This glimpse into Father Bryan’s uncritical, cultish, slavish protection of the status quo gives we laity NO consolation. The choice to have him lead anything in this diocese, much less “renewal” following decades of staggering clergy sexual abuse is, frankly, absurd and insulting to our intelligence.
You can join the virtual conversation online with Bishop Michael Fisher and Father Bryan Zielenieski, the diocese’s new vicar for Renewal and Development, Saturday, May 8 at 10:00am-11:30am.
Register for the virtual conversation here to get in. Following acceptance of your free registration, you will be e-mailed a link to the online event. You will be asked not to share that link. You will also be e-mailed an e-mail address to submit your pre-approved questions to the bishop or Father Bryan. Because the Movement to Restore Trust is hosting this event, anything smacking of critical inquiry or expectation of accountability–such as points made in this post–likely will not be addressed.
Let us continue our daily rosary for conversion in our diocese, particularly for the hired help2 tending the flock. St. Joseph, terror of demons, please, please pray for us.