fictional remedies to clergy sex abuse crisis

FICTION: Women in diocesan leadership can help prevent clergy sex abuse

It’s a popular notion: If we only had more women in leadership and diocesan positions in the Diocese of Buffalo, this sexual abuse crisis wouldn’t have happened.

“I have been thinking about how my mother protected her children, and it causes me to think,” said Dr. John Hurley, president of Canisius College during a WBEN radio interview and elsewhere discussing the crisis. “If women had been involved in this situation, is there any doubt that the women would’ve done everything possible to protect the children?” Most of us have heard this argument.

But if Dr. Hurley and others who believe in this simple solution honestly examined the actual situation within the walls of the chancery building during 2016-2018 alone, they would see that idyllic presumption is pure fiction.

This woman, who worked beside the bishop, expressed her concerns only to be told to mind her own business…

Siobhan O’Connor, former executive assistant to Bishop Richard Malone who blew the whistle on his handling of clergy sexual abuse cases in the Diocese of Buffalo in 2018. (photo: screenshot from 60 Minutes story revealing her as the whistleblower- October, 2018)

The tragedy is: we had not one but two prominent women working closely with Bishop Richard Malone offering advice. The one who actually did act as Dr. Hurley presumed all women would, was so ignored she had to resort to whistleblowing to a local television station and later CBS’s 60 Minutes to protect the laity from sexual-predator priests she knew were still in active ministry. She is Siobhan O’Connor, the bishop’s former executive assistant, who said she was compelled by her moral conscience to go public with diocesan documents “after gradually realizing that truth was being hidden within the Chancery…” She explained the conundrum of being a woman of conscience working in close proximity to the bishop in an article she wrote for the journal, First Things. Yes, she was in a position to bring her concerns directly to the bishop’s attention, however, she said he merely gave her verbal pats on the head with assurances he was handling these matters.

“…He was not. Malone allowed a priest to remain an active pastor despite the Diocesan Review Board recommending that he be removed for a thorough assessment. Months later, the bishop’s senior staff reviewed the allegations against this priest and recommended that he be removed from ministry altogether. In the face of these strong recommendations from two of his closest advisory bodies, Malone did absolutely nothing. It was inaction of this nature that eventually compelled me to act.”

Gail King, host of CBS This Morning television program, asked Siobhan O’Connor what sort of things Bishop Malone would tell her when she brought up her concerns. She responded, “He would say: ‘That’s not your concern; this is being handled; don’t worry about it.'”

But Bishop Malone was not the only one rebuffing O’Connor’s open concerns on the chancery floor occupied by executive offices. She said some colleagues roundly scolded her for talking to survivors of clergy sexual abuse who telephoned the bishop’s office–something she said she felt compelled to do out of compassion since their calls were generally left unanswered. Many survivors, she noted, had not even told their spouses or parents what happened to them. Their overwhelming grief became hers. And if colleagues’ cold reaction to survivors’ anguish was not enough, O’Connor said one female executive made it known to others on the floor that the bishop’s executive assistant expressed an “inordinate sympathy” for the victims.

So much for her efforts as a woman working in close proximity to the bishop.

This woman became chancellor, and watched the show…

So, let’s look at the other woman at diocesan headquarters who is still working in an executive position as a member of the bishop’s senior staff and now chancellor1 of the diocese. Surely, Sister Regina Murphy could have made a difference where the executive assistant failed.

Sister Regina Murphy, SSNM, served for years as director of research and planning and archivist. Since 2018 she serves as chancellor of the Diocese of Buffalo (Photo: Diocese of Buffalo website.)

Documents uncovered by the New York State Attorney General2 reveal that she knew about a priest who was put on administrative leave in 2015 with eight reported incidents of sexually inappropriate behavior with children. Following two psychological evaluations, which Sister Regina was also aware of, this priest was left to himself to self-enforce3 diocesan restrictions forbidding him to be alone with minors.

Even though this priest had been placed on administrative leave for three years, his name was not listed on the diocese’s original March, 2018 roster of 42 priests removed from ministry due to allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. Laity who knew this particular former pastor was mysteriously sidelined, yet not on the list, wanted to know whether he was accused of sexual abuse with a minor or not. That’s because it was June, 2018 and the clergy sexual abuse crisis had been broiling in media reports revealing credibly-accused pedophile priests still roaming our neighborhoods.

It took two Buffalo News reporters (not the female diocesan chancellor) to alert the public about this priest’s general whereabouts and the diocese’s lack of transparency regarding reasons for his removal from ministry.

This newspaper’s revelations prompted the diocese–with Sister Regina as chancellor–to issue what the State Attorney General’s lawsuit states were false and misleading statements4 about the canonical status of the priest’s case and the nature of his alleged offenses. Additionally, the lawsuit states the diocese “disregarded the risk that [the priest] could sexually abuse minors. The Diocesan Corporation’s actions concealed [the priest’s] conduct from the public and placed its beneficiaries at risk.”5 A year earlier, in 2017, the Vatican had ordered the Diocese of Buffalo to conduct a trial of the priest’s alleged misconduct so his case could proceed. In other words, the ball was in Bishop Malone’s court–something he coolly neglected.

Considering this one priest’s case alone, in what way did Sister Regina “do everything possible to protect children,” as Dr. Hurley insists any woman in her position would do?

But there’s more to our concern with Chancellor Sister Regina Murphy.

Protecting children from a credibly-accused predator is only half of the responsible response. The other half of child protection involves holding accountable those diocesan officials who enabled the predator to continue to have access to children. 

Rev. Monsignor Paul Litwin, former diocesan chancellor, is revealed to have written a letter of good standing for a priest with with eight reported incidents of sexually inappropriate behavior with children, according to the New York State Attorney General’s lawsuit against the diocese and two former bishops. While this action potentially put children at risk (according to the State AG lawsuit) Monsignor Litwin has not been held accountable for this action discovered in diocesan files by Sister Regina Murphy, his successor as chancellor. (Photo: screenshot from USCCB Daily Reflections video 3-5-2016 Daybreak Productions)

The State Attorney General lawsuit reveals that Sister Regina discovered her predecessor, Rev. Monsignor Paul Litwin, as chancellor, issued a letter of good standing for this same credibly-accused priest (described above) to minister in another diocese.6 You can’t make this up.

Sister Regina failed to date her memo in which she noted her discovery of the chancellor’s deception that put children at risk. Monsignor Litwin’s personnel file likely does not include his enabling this priest in such a devious manner. While Sister Regina may have alerted the bishop of the chancellor’s false document, Monsignor Litwin was never held accountable for putting children at risk. Where was Sister Regina’s objection, if she even bothered? Or did she just coolly go about her work? The culture of the diocese is such that it is doubtful the parishioners at Monsignor Litwin’s parish today, Christ the King in Snyder, were alerted to their pastor’s willingness to endanger minors with the priest revealed in the state’s lawsuit.

In this one case with one credibly-accused priest, we see the culture Sister Regina has been mired in for a long time. With no evidence to the contrary, she played along. Clearly, gender does not erase the effects of the toxicity of this culture.

Side Note: Did you know there is a built-in incentive for diocesan chancellors to cover for clergy sexual abusers, their enablers and the diocese’s mishandling of those cases? Check out this video/podcast in which a world-renown expert on the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis explains how this works. [Please scroll to 24:30 on the video timeline]

Let’s set aside our presumption that women working with the bishop would be effective in trying to exert influence to responsibly manage abuse allegations and hold colleagues accountable. Let’s set aside our presumption that these women would even want to (because, clearly, not all of them share those interests). Wouldn’t women in executive positions have an enormous effect in bringing forth compassion amidst a culture so tolerant of sexual abuse?

This next story involving Sister Regina just breaks my heart. In 2016, she worked with the diocesan vice chancellor, Rev. Ryszard Biernat, examining “secret archive” files to determine the status of clergy sexual abuse cases. Father Biernat, who also turned whistleblower in 2019, described to a national audience last week his horror at having to review 160 clergy sexual abuse reports made to the diocese.

Rev. Ryszard Biernat at a Summit of Persecuted Priests (June, 2021) recounts the effects of reviewing diocesan files detailing how officials handled clergy sexual abuse of children. (Photo: screenshot from Church Militant video “This Has to End.”)

“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.”

Father Biernat said the experience of reading how bishops blithely shipped credibly-accused pedophile priests to such horrifically inappropriate places like Boys Town, for example, only added to his spiritual torment. Keep in mind, all that time they worked on the files, Sister Regina knew Father Biernat is a survivor of sexual molestation by a diocesan priest when he was a seminarian–(a priest who was still in active ministry at the time they worked on the secret archives files).

As I pictured the scenario he described, my mind screamed out: “What the hell was this woman thinking!?”

Does she not know how psychologically damaging it can be for clergy sexual abuse survivors to expose themselves to such traumatizing material filled with graphic reference to clerical sexual abuse and heartbreaking testimonies of children? Didn’t Sister Regina have the decency, the basic humanity at the very least to challenge the appropriateness of this task which can only trigger trauma in this young man? How blessed it would have been had she put a stop to this nightmare and took him aside and offered what no one else would at 795 Main Street: pastoral care.

A side note to the Diocese of Buffalo chancery officials:
If you don’t like whistleblowers, stop creating them.

Let’s pause to recall a previous post in which we examined the iconic villain, Nurse Ratchet, as depicted in the movie, One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest. The actress who portrayed her brilliantly chose to play the nurse as a woman who is convinced she is doing good for humanity when she is actually perpetrating evil.

This woman was chancellor in another diocese. She learned that you don’t remain chancellor if you have a moral conscience…

Dr. Jennifer Haselberger holds a Ph.D. from the University of London, England, and a licentiate in canon law from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. She served as the Chancellor in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul/Minneapolis until April of 2013, when she resigned in protest of the Archdiocese’s handling of sexual misconduct by clergy. (Photo: screen shot from panel discussion, “Integrity and Accountability in the Catholic Church” at Loyola University, Chicago–Oct. 11, 2018)

Another female chancellor of a Roman Catholic diocese recognized the evil she had perpetrated in her position with the Archdiocese of Saint Paul/ Minneapolis and quit. Dr. Jennifer Haselberger resigned in protest in 2013 over the Archdiocese’s handling of sexual misconduct by clergy. At a speaking engagement on accountability in the Church , her first words were to apologize for failing the people of her diocese.

“I failed…I didn’t do enough to keep all of you safe. And I’m sorry for that,” she said before detailing a particularly horrific clergy sex abuse case which finally got the diocese’s attention after years of cataloging abuse incidences with this priest. Haselberger said she had attempted to get him removed from ministry in the past to no avail. These aren’t cases that happened decades ago, she warned. “This was 2011.”

Side Note: Haselberger discovered a complex system of ways and means the bishops used to cover up clergy sexual abuse and hide its pedophile priests in her archdiocese. The evidence she produced as a whistleblower formed the basis of this groundbreaking radio documentary by Minnesota Public Radio in 2014.

Contrast the radical actions of that chancellor with the Diocese of Buffalo’s chancellor’s chilling silence and aloofness as she coolly performs her duties.

Or contrast Siobhan O’Connor’s reaction with Sister Regina’s as they witnessed the horror show in the very same office space–ground zero of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in our diocese.

“What I was witnessing boggled my mind, broke my heart, and burdened my soul,” O’Connor later recounted. “With each passing week, my conscience felt as if it were in an ever-tightening vise. My primary prayer became a three-word plea: ‘God, help me!”

Women in the chancery are not the silver bullet to helping solve this crisis

Clearly, having women in executive positions is not a predictor of anything in a Medieval system in which the bishop holds absolute power, reigning with impunity. And because the bishop is, by all accounts, exempt from any accountability, women in executive positions can either play the game and stay, or they can act on their moral conscience and leave. A bishop is not necessarily going to be persuaded by whatever they bring to the table.

Of course, Dr. Hurley isn’t alone in making blanket statements about the silver bullet effect women would have in diocesan chanceries to change the way clergy sex abuse cases are handled. His Movement to Restore Trust–an independent group lead by Buffalo-area laity focused on diocesan reform–drafted proposals so obsessed with the idea that women could make a difference, they made it a major point for renewal. The two sentences below that form the basis of their rationale make us wince in embarrassment given the experiences of the three women above:

“The presence of women in greater positions of authority within the administration of the diocese would be highly beneficial to the church.  Undoubtedly, responsible women would have understood and advised the Bishops that no other interests could have justified exposing children to sexual abuse.”

Dr. Hurley’s group never once talked to Siobhan O’Connor. This tells us even they don’t believe their own remedy. But it sure sounds good in public.

So, who does the bishop listen to?

In Bishop Malone’s case, wealthy donors could get his attention, O’Connor said she observed. “If someone is prestigious, powerful or prosperous, he will at least listen to them and might be influenced by them.”

Holy Mary, Mother of God. Pray for us sinners. Rosaries, everyone.

Leave a Reply