“You just can’t fathom it. Normal people can’t comprehend it. Such carelessness, recklessness, stupidity or evil? I will think about it for the rest of my life.”
Words of a Polish laywoman who is a corroborating witness of a bishop’s complicity in protecting a priest who raped children. From 2020 documentary film, Playing Hide and Seek. Reports to the Vatican under a new system helped oust that bishop from her diocese in Poland. Permanently.1
Frankly, this woman inspired me. I filed my report to the Vatican on Bishop Edward Grosz through this same system on March 21. Allow me to walk you through that journey.
It is as rare as hearing someone cracking open a beer can in the back pew: the Catholic Church investigating a bishop’s coverup of clergy sexual abuse reports. Because of the futility of reporting one bishop to another bishop, those men have reigned with impunity. In the Diocese of Buffalo, such a situation spawned whistleblowers. Consider Siobhan O’Connor, Bishop Richard Malone’s executive assistant, who said her ONLY option to report her boss in 2018 was to take her documentation directly to the news media, including 60 Minutes. Same goes for Rev. Ryszard Biernat a year later who, as vice chancellor, disclosed secret audio recordings to local news media so laity could hear their bishop acknowledge the danger posed by an alleged sexual predator priest that the bishop continued to leave in ministry. For this, the bishop threw Fr. Biernat out of ministry.
Today, whistleblowers have another tool at their disposal. Anyone with knowledge of a bishop’s sexual abuse or his deliberate interference in clergy sexual abuse investigations can file a report through a third-party, bishop reporting system designed to get your report into the hands of qualified people outside the diocese, all the way to the Vatican.
That’s not good news for the Diocese of Buffalo’s Edward Grosz, auxiliary bishop emeritus, who has already faced numerous allegations of malfeasance for the way he handled clergy sexual abuse reports for a quarter century.
As a corroborating witness to Bishop Grosz’s deliberate interference with the investigation of an allegation of clergy sexual abuse, I recently filed a report utilizing this system and included details of his abuse of authority punctuated by blackmailing the victim.
Before we get to the new system and my report, we need to understand where we came from–how allegations against a bishop in our diocese were handled before March, 2020. Whistleblowers and the New York State Attorney General’s 2020 lawsuit against Bishop Malone, Bishop Grosz and the diocese are our best sources.
After three years working in executive offices in the chancery building for O’Connor and seven years for Fr. Biernat, both observed that only news media reports or lawsuits by clergy sexual abuse survivors would prompt Bishop Malone to remove priests he continued to leave in ministry following sexual abuse reports. Despite church norms in place (never mind the moral gravity of the alleged offenses), this negligence is common in virtually every diocese in the world, according to clergy sexual abuse experts. But to get a bishop to investigate a fellow bishop, especially one within his diocese, nothing could get him to budge.
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger (Albany) provided our best example of an arrogant obstinance against such investigations when he administered the Buffalo diocese a couple years ago. Recall his answers when reporters asked if he planned to investigate allegations of coverup of clergy sexual abuse reports and other nefarious acts of diocesan executives like auxiliary Bishop Grosz. Relentless clobbering by secular and Catholic news media outlets not only in the United States but around the world amplified local news coverage of some of the more shocking allegations concerning Bishop Grosz. Bishop Scharfenberger, acting as if hearing these allegations for the first time, responded with the ease of an actor who knows his lines well:
“In order to come to conclusions, you have to have specific allegations of…malfeasance…If someone comes to me and specifically says this is something you have to look at–I have to see the specific–I can always do investigations in that regard.”
Scroll to time mark 14:59 in the video below to catch his performance.
Formal investigations into reports of Bishop Grosz’s improprieties (and, frankly, abuse of authority) in handling clergy sexual abuse allegations never went beyond those words. Ask the current bishop of Buffalo, Michael Fisher. Bishop Scharfenberger holds advanced degrees in civil and canon law. He is fully aware a bishop can only say he “knows” something if it comes from some kind of official report he actually sees. But there was no formal mechanism to report a bishop. He knew that too.
Now there is.
Today’s formal system to report a bishop through a third party is designed to circumvent your local bishop (ie. your Malones, your Scharfenbergers, your Fishers) in handling the evaluation process. That’s because the new model derives its authority from the Holy See, not the national bishops’ conference. No longer are such reports left to mold in a chancery office file cabinet (if they ever get that far). No longer can your bishop claim “I only know what I see on tv” (see video above) as he shamefully humors laity who expect their bishops to be investigated and held to account–just as laity are held to high moral and ethical standards in their professions.
Not long after the Bishop Scharfenberger interview, the U.S. bishops put in place that new Vatican-mandated reporting system. It was a response to procedures for bishop accountability that Pope Francis set forth in 2019 in his official edict (motu proprio), Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”). This document mandates an investigation into any allegation of a bishop’s sexual abuse or deliberate coverup of clergy sexual abuse. To implement the norms of Vos estis, the U.S. bishops launched a Catholic Bishop Abuse Reporting service (CBAR) in March 2020. The service is operated by Convercent, Inc. an independent, third-party entity that intakes individual reports through a secure, confidential, and professional platform, according to its website. Reports concerning these specific allegations that pass through such third-party services following Vos estis norms are generally called “Vos estis” reports.
So to report a bishop, you literally type your report into that independent website. They even let you upload supporting documents. The Convercent website states it will forward your report to the proper authorities. That means (per U.S. bishops conference directives) your report goes to law enforcement (if applicable) and/or your bishop’s metropolitan archbishop (in our case, Cardinal Timothy Dolan in the Archdiocese of New York) for his input and assessment. Yes, go ahead and be skeptical because you’re reporting a “brother” bishop in his state, but Cardinal Dolan also works with a qualified layperson competent in evaluating such reports, Kevin Reynolds, whose sole responsibility is to oversee the archdiocese’s response to sexual abuse complaints including Vos estis reports like mine. From there your report goes to the pope’s ambassador and on to the Vatican for adjudication in how to proceed (perhaps a full investigation). It’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the gist. Your bishop with the help of his cronies in the chancery office cannot hide your report or lie about knowledge of it. That it gets investigated by the Church is of no comfort, of course, but at least it’s a start.
“Worth a try,” said O’Connor.
Legally, the church’s silence (inaction) means the church consents.
It’s worth a try because canon law (church law) requires an investigation if the allegation “at least seems true” [Can. 1717 §1] If a Vos estis report results in a determination that a bishop engaged in deliberate malfeasance in handling clergy sexual abuse reports or is a sexual abuser himself, penalties and punishments, according to church law, are supposed to be applied.2 A Vatican official explained that penalties/punishments in such cases are expected in church law because to not “react,” would be tantamount to consenting to evil. “A negative act necessarily must be condemned; it requires a reaction,” he said. Silence (not punishing a bishop who commits a grave offense) means consent of his actions.
While a pedophile priest may see jail time for a few years IF he is caught within statute of limitations, the bishop who ignored reports about such a priest will likely suffer life-time consequences. That is if Vatican sanctions meted out to bishops after Vos estis investigations thus far are any indication.
For example, last March, the Holy See imposed life-long penalties upon two Polish bishops following investigations prompted by Vos estis reports. Both were thrown out of their former dioceses and forbidden from certain ministries including celebrating public liturgies in their dioceses. Each was also ordered to pay a significant amount to a charity that aids sex abuse victims. So far, an unprecedented 10 Polish bishops have faced sanctions from the Vatican following Vos estis investigations.
A month later, Pope Francis ordered the resignation of the first bishop in the United States investigated under Vos estis norms, Bishop Michael Hoeppner (Crookston, MN). Held accountable for mishandling clergy sexual abuse allegations, Hoeppner was also hammered with life-long penalties–thrown out of his diocese, barred from public ministry there, and forced to accept a reduction in his retirement benefits. Presently, five or six U.S. bishops are known to be subjects of Vos estis investigations, according national Catholic news sources following that statistic.
Does the mere filing of a Vos estis report have any impact on a bishop accused of malfeasance before the investigation is complete?
Apparently, only if the report is made public, as was the case with the two Polish bishops who were prominently featured in two powerful, award-winning documentary films in 2019 and 2020. While a sexual abuse report against a priest is handled publicly with his immediate suspension from ministry pending a full investigation, not so with bishops. Vos estis reports against bishops are handled behind closed doors, out of public view, with utmost discretion, according to a national Catholic news outlet, The Pillar, in its recent story about a Vos estis report they were made aware of from the Brooklyn diocese.
The Pillar broke the story about the report against the Brooklyn diocese’s auxiliary bishop who concealed a document resulting in an alleged problematic priest with red flags in his past getting put back into ministry.
Hmmm…That particular case is strikingly similar to allegations made against Bishop Grosz in one case that comes to mind (which I will outline below). The only difference? A vice chancellor in the Brooklyn chancery office filed a Vos estis report about the auxiliary bishop through this third-party complaint service contracted by the U.S. bishops.3 So when the new bishop tried to retain the retired auxiliary on the executive staff, the vice chancellor (a laywoman) made sure people knew of the Vos estis report dangling over the auxiliary bishop’s head–including The Pillar. Things got messy. The whole saga is a lot more complicated, so please wander over to The Pillar to see how it has played out thus far. This didn’t happen decades ago. It’s playing out today.
It’s fair to say that had the diocesan official not made her report known to the public, the auxiliary bishop would have been kept in place in his executive administrative role, if we read The Pillar article correctly. Transparency, therefore, is in the hands of the reporter if he/she chooses to let the public know (which I do).
We can imagine other possible consequences of letting the public know about a Vos estis report on a bishop. His career advancement could be delayed (like a transfer to a larger diocese or appointment to some office in the USCCB or the Vatican). If he is actively engaged in ministry, a Vos estis report brought to the public’s attention could pause that. We can also imagine outside entities withholding awards, honors, titles or speaking engagements pending a full investigation.
Last July, when Bishop Fisher publicly reported Bishop Grosz under Vos estis norms with an allegation of sexually abusing a child, (revealed within a New York State Child Victims Act lawsuit) that at least led to Bishop Grosz’s self-imposed hiatus from ministry (left to his discretion to break) pending results of an investigation. A grocery store cashier missing money out of the cash drawer at the end of a shift faces more accountability. Once again, it was a combination of a lawsuit and local news media reports on that lawsuit which forced the Buffalo bishop to pull the trigger on a Vos estis report AND make that report public.
Now Bishop Grosz faces at least one other Vos estis report–the one I recently submitted as a corroborating witness to his committing actions and omissions intended to avoid civil and canonical investigations against a cleric. I also reported abuse of authority.
Let’s look at that ONE case rife with allegations against Bishop Grosz concerning the way he protected an alleged predator priest.
1. Bishop Grosz was in charge of the Diocese of Buffalo during a time seminarian Ryszard Biernat reported to him that he was sexually molested by a diocesan priest, Rev. Arthur Smith, in late 2003. That is because the diocese was in between bishops at the time, and Bishop Grosz was appointed apostolic administrator.
2. Bishop Grosz was one of the first diocesan officials the seminarian went to with his report because Grosz was the point-man for such reports in the diocese–in addition to his duty leading the diocese in the months it was in-between bishops.
3. While Bishop Grosz was administrator from May until October that year (upon Bishop Edward Kmiec’s appointment), he did not turn the seminarian’s report over to the Diocesan Review Board or to diocesan attorneys as per protocols in place. This we know from the New York State Attorney General’s lawsuit [See pages 172-186].
4. Decisions were subsequently made about Smith’s assignments over the next 15 years without the review board’s, diocesan lawyers’ or laity’s informed knowledge of the alleged sexual assault of the seminarian (that was never investigated anyway).
5. Law enforcement never received the abuse report so that it could be properly investigated and Smith’s case could be adjudicated in civil court within the statute of limitations.
6. Smith, Bishop Grosz’s seminary classmate, faced no substantive punishment. He even received the diocese’s “Priest of the Month” honor. He was completely free to interact with unsuspecting laity who were deliberately kept in the dark about the allegations over his head, potentially putting them at risk.
7. More allegations of Art Smith sexually molesting/grooming/assaulting vulnerable adults and children surfaced over the years following the seminarian’s report. While he had been removed from ministry briefly, Bishop Malone reinstated him in 2012. Smith was removed again in 2018 after an allegation surfaced that he sexually abused a child.
8. In 2006, seminarian Biernat confided to me, as a member of his lay formation evaluation team, he had been sexually assaulted by Smith when he was 23 years old. He also disclosed to me that despite the fact that virtually all the chancery officials were aware of his abuse report (documented in the lawsuit), no one had done anything about it in the intervening two years (also documented in the lawsuit). Watch this video if you do not understand the impact of the seminarian’s testimony he publicly disclosed 16 years later. It still hurts to hear this:
Seminarian Biernat further disclosed to me in 2006 that:
- Bishop Grosz had threatened Biernat against telling anyone about the incident or he would be kicked out of the seminary (resulting in deportation to his native Poland and blackballed in the Church from ever being accepted into any seminary).
- Bishop Grosz told Biernat in no uncertain terms that he would never be ordained.
- Bishop Grosz said Biernat should have locked his door to prevent the priest from entering his room, suggesting the assault was the seminarian’s fault.
- Bishop Grosz did not affirm any law was broken–completely downplaying the nature of the incident in a deliberate attempt to mislead the immigrant seminarian about the civil and canonical gravity of the sexual assault (validated in 2020 with documents in the state lawsuit).
- Bishop Grosz sternly warned Biernat: “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.” This both Biernat and I took as a threat of bodily harm.
- Bishop Grosz had help from diocesan employees/executives like vice chancellor Monsignor David LiPuma (validated in 2020 with documents in the state lawsuit, page 174) and seminary rector Monsignor Richard Siepka in concealing the seminarian’s report and misrepresenting the nature of the criminal/canonical offense.
Had enough of this wild ride? That thumbnail sketch of allegations agains Bishop Grosz in this ONE case is actually more twisted and surreal as you dig into it.
Netflix crime series have less drama and intrigue. You can read details of this saga [here, here and here] along with the cascade of media reports concerning Bishop Grosz’s alleged intentional interference in a clergy sexual abuse investigation [here, here, here, here, for example]. With all the media spotlight on him, I felt it was finally safe to mail my own corroborating reports about Bishop Grosz’s malfeasance in the seminarian’s case (starting in 2018) to:
- the seminary rector…
- the complete 300+ registry of the Bishop’s Council of the Laity (which included the diocesan attorney) which some blithely passed on to
- Bishop Malone…
- Bishop Scharfenberger Remember? He asked to see a “specific allegation”…
- Bishop Fisher as he was copied in my report to the
- papal nuncio (pope’s ambassador to the U.S.)
Following these reports made in good faith (and notarized for bishops), I never received so much as an acknowledgement of their receipt with the exception of the interim seminary rector‘s letter to me.4 Meanwhile, Bishop Grosz was allowed to enjoy a retirement party (he retired in March, 2020), maintain his ability to minister sacraments in the diocese, keep his full retirement benefits and retain his ecclesial perks. It doesn’t sound like much of an investigation went on. Writing to your bishop or the papal nuncio about another bishop is an exercise in futility. Writing to your fellow laypeople who “advise” your bishop is even less effective (their job is to protect the bishop’s interests, not laity’s, not the Church’s, not survivors’).
If Bishop Grosz can’t be held accountable for his malfeasance, what diocesan official could be?
This is the problem with keeping investigations (or lack thereof) in-house. Sister Regina Murphy, chancellor of the Diocese of Buffalo and long-time archivist, could explain, for example, how the filing process and follow-through with clergy sexual abuse reports and investigations in the diocese isn’t what you may think (also documented in the state lawsuit). We should not be surprised, for instance, that the seminarian’s 2004 clergy sexual assault report (that he had to write up himself and mail to diocesan officials) was not even placed in Fr. Art Smith’s file, as Fr. Biernat discovered years later when he worked in chancery offices reviewing personnel files. Upon Bishop Malone’s receipt of my letter to the diocesan lay council as a corroborating witness to this whole sordid affair, he ordered Fr. Biernat to take an active part in perpetuating the coverup of his molestation by this priest Malone had actively harbored.5 That goes beyond abuse of authority. It is an objective abuse of another human being.
I think it’s safe to say that the recipients of those reports collectively embody the unrealized hope of what the Second Vatican Council said we are supposed to be as church. So much for all the fancy words about the “dignity of the human person.” If you don’t believe me, watch both videos imbedded in this post.
In good faith, I took one more dive on March 21, 2022. Maybe the Vatican will respond appropriately.
How to file a Vos estis report on a bishop
Let me walk you through the reporting process as I went through it with the third-party bishop reporting system the U.S. Bishops contracted for us to use.
Here’s the first page of the website…
You can report a bishop’s “intentional interference in a sexual abuse investigation.” There’s a fit.
“Your report will be provided to the appropriate Church authorities,” as explained earlier. Yes. We notice that apparently happened in the former Brooklyn bishop’s case, if we read The Pillar’s account of a curious timing of events correctly.
Now, let’s see if our man is in the system. Simply hit that button that says: “Make a Report Online,” and in the “Search” box start typing G-R-O-S…
There he is.
You can see the big green button linked to the actual reporting page labeled: “Tell us what happened.” A blank field opens for you to start typing. Below that field, you will see fields in which you can upload your documents. Below that you will see the option for letting the world know who you are. I clicked on that radio button. If you don’t select that blue button, your report remains anonymous.
Who can file a report?
Any person may file a report who has knowledge of a bishop’s sexual abuse of an individual or knowledge of a bishop’s hand in the intentional interference in a sexual abuse investigation. [see USCCB directives for full list of grave offenses] For example, the reporter could be the actual victim of abuse, or a parent, or a first-hand witness, or someone who has access to documentation, or even, say, a corroborating witness to whom the victim confided near the time of the assault. Any big city police detective in a sex crimes unit (like my best friend from college) could tell you that.
I was told by a person who has filed a Vos estis report in another diocese that while the person reporting will eventually be contacted for an interview, the system does not allow the reporter to find out if the case investigation is ever completed or what the final outcome is. So much for the transparency Vatican officials and bishops have promised us.
The process of investigating a Vos estis report can take months. If you have evidence your bishop is currently sexually abusing someone or is actively engaged in harboring a credibly-accused sex abuser among the clergy, contact law enforcement for immediate response.
Yes, we can and should be skeptical of a reporting system that relies on the scrutiny of fellow bishops tainted by their cultural protection of one another. Yes, we should also be skeptical of a system designed to keep any investigation and its results secret.
As Fr. Biernat has said many times:
Isn’t it secrecy that got the Church in this catastrophic sex abuse scandal to begin with?
Let’s try transparency. The souls of survivors, the general public and, yes, even sex offenders and complicit bishops are at stake. Accountability IS mercy.
- Yes, the reporting website is encrypted.
- Yes, you can choose to report anonymously.
- Yes, the pope’s norms call for whistleblower protection stating that “prejudice, retaliation or discrimination as a consequence of having submitted a report is prohibited” and anyone violating that prohibition may be charged with obstruction of justice in church (canon) law.
- Yes, you will receive confirmation of the receipt of your report (which I did).
- Yes, the reporting system will update the status of your report (which you can access online) with this caveat: “the information you submitted may not be reviewed immediately, but it will be reviewed thoroughly.”
This particular case is long overdue for a thorough investigation.
Let’s see what happens.
For the love of Christ and his Church and our dear survivors.