Imagine being a 21-year-old seminarian in a Roman Catholic Diocese facing this choice: Do I report to legal authorities a priest who sexually molested me, OR do I follow my bishop’s warning to remain silent so I can be ordained a priest? That is the sickening choice that Rev. Ryszard Biernat faced, as he disclosed in a recent interview at a “Persecuted Priests Summit” sponsored by a national Catholic media outlet in Detroit, Michigan on June 15.
My fellow laity, here is your Diocese of Buffalo on full display in 96 words:
“So if you try to disrupt the [sexual] predatory culture, of course they’re going to get rid of you. Unless you’re going to conform…or stay silent. And that’s one of my big regrets–that I didn’t go to the press. Because why? I found out later Father Smith [who sexually molested him as a seminarian] victimized several people after me…I’m 40 years old. And it still hurts. It still hurts that I chose to be a priest instead of blowing in a predator. And those are the choices the seminarian needs to face.” –Rev. Ryszard Biernat
This heartbreaking anecdote shines light on what summit participants said is the larger picture of deception orchestrated by American bishops to protect a sexual predatory culture that has permeated our seminaries and the priesthood for decades. And any honest attempt to disrupt that culture will get a priest banned from ministry. That was the conclusion shared by the other eight persecuted Roman Catholic priests who have similarly been banned from ministry by their bishops. Coming from various dioceses across the country, these nine priests participated in a joint discussion that was likely the first of its kind in American Catholic history.
This discussion, uploaded to the internet early this morning for all to see and hear, offers a rare glimpse into the stories of these brave men, most–like Father Biernat–banned from ministry by their bishops for speaking out against the sexual predatory culture and/or bishops’ abuse of power in their respective dioceses. And you do need to see as well as hear this one-hour and twenty-minute roundtable peppered with graphic stories not suitable for a young audience. Father Biernat offered among the most emotionally-charged testimonies.
One conclusion stood out in the first half of the recorded session:
The very act of banning these priests from public ministry (and hundreds more priests across the nation in similar circumstances) is in itself a continuation of the coverup of clergy sexual predatory behavior in our dioceses. And the diocesan officials who enable that coverup do so at the pleasure of the bishop. Generally we see these officials get promoted or receive plum assignments as a reward for their enabling, a phenomena which has been covered extensively in this blog [eg. here, here]. What bishops never count on is one of those officials actually having the moral integrity to say, “Enough. The laity need to know their bishop is lying.”
It was the relentless drumbeat of deceptive practices, Father Biernat explained–like using expensive public relations firms to spin stories about how predatory priests are handled–that eventually drove Bishop Richard Malone’s priest secretary to follow his moral conscience. He recorded chancery meetings and private discussions so that laity could hear their bishop acknowledge the sexual predatory actions of an active priest the bishop refused to remove from ministry. Yes, laity were actively being put at risk. This wasn’t something that happened “decades ago,” as Bishop Malone commonly cloaked the sexual abuse crises. It was happening in real time. And those chancery officials (including Rev. Peter J. Karalus, Vicar General; Rev. James Croglio, AFSC, vicar for priests), groomed in obsequious devotion to their bishop, just played the bishop’s game. That’s what Father Biernat said continues to perplex him:
“Our founder, Jesus Christ, taught us ‘the Truth will set you free.’ Why are we hiding? Why are we lying about the truth?” He projected the harrowing reaction that overcame him when he finally realized, “It’s simply to protect predators like McCarrick, monsters like other predators around. We hide them and shelter them, and that’s the reason for the lie. And it’s so contrary to what we are about in the Church,” he said. [see timeline 23:00 in the video below]
The dire implications of bishops deceiving their flock are clear, he said. “If the bishops, the shepherds, are going to such an extent to lie about such horrible things, how do you expect them to care for the faithful, for their souls to be nourished, for salvation, if they lie about and hide and protect child rapists? We need to sometimes wake up and realize, they’re not just lying about McCarrick; they have been lying the last 30 to 40 years about what’s been going on.”
Father Biernat detailed his experience working with diocesan “secret archives” and the devastating effect it had on not just his mind but his soul.
“That experience really I consider as a rape, almost, to my soul,” he said. “To see that decade after decade these bishops knew what was going on. A number of victims came—160 victims in Buffalo…came forward and described what happened to them, and the priest was removed and sent to Boys Town.” He paused for a moment at the incredulity of such decisions. “And this is not an isolated incident. So what we are seeing is a total denial of truth.”He said this persistent denial of truth carries an obvious implication: We cannot expect the bishops to lead us to the truth if they cannot live it.
“For me, the smell-test for a bishop is: are they afraid of the truth. Very important to me personally is what I saw on the inside. Hiring great PR firms, PR people, changing the narratives. It’s not about the gospel, it’s not about the works, it’s not about salvation but the PR.” His observation mirrors what many clergy sexual abuse experts have been saying for years: The clergy sexual abuse crisis revolved around bishops protecting the image of the institution over the salvation of souls.
One would think an obvious remedy to the hypocrisy would involve having good, honest clergy standing up en masse to call out their bishop and other diocesan officials. The persecuted priests addressed that idea, with Father Biernat illustrating why good priests are not likely to come forward.
“Do I sacrifice my priesthood if I say something? I know some of my brother priests are afraid to stand up and preach the truth or tell the truth because they might be 60 years old, and ‘I don’t have much savings,’ and ‘How will I live?’ and ‘What am I going to do?’ We don’t make a lot of money, and sometimes if your family doesn’t give you money, what do you do? And so you’re totally dependent on the bishop. And the moment you are suspended, you loose a lot of or all of your income. And those are the choices somebody might be facing. ‘Am I going to be honest and challenge or tell the truth?’ Or, ‘How am I going to provide for my medication? I have this insurance for expensive medication.’ But that’s priesthood. Seminarians are far more vulnerable. What I have shared with you, many, many men have had a similar experience.”