Accountability IS mercy, Bishop Accountability, Buffalo Survivors Group

Understanding the reactions of abuse survivors any time an alleged complicit bishop ministers in public

[Updated April 23, 2022] Concerns expressed by clergy sexual abuse survivors with Bishop Richard Malone concelebrating Easter liturgies at the cathedral have nothing to do with the celebration of the sacraments. They have everything to do with just accountability within the Catholic Church.

I am going to presume that any diocesan officials to whom news reporters talk about this subject will trot out the same moral platitudes about how the sacraments are not a prize for good behavior (or words to that effect) which we hear just about every time there’s a call for professional and moral accountability of officials in the this diocese.

That admonition in itself is abusive. Please, news reporters, challenge anyone who makes such statements concerning survivor’s (and laity’s) basic expectation of accountability among our leaders.

A couple important points to remember in the big picture…

Canon law (church law) has an entire section (Book VI) devoted to penal law. The Church must take grave violations of its clerics seriously and act upon them because “A negative act necessarily must be condemned; it requires a reaction,” a Vatican cardinal involved in Church legislative texts explained. Silence (not punishing a bishop who commits a grave offense) would be interpreted as consent of his actions, according to the Vatican official. The Church cannot consent to evil.

So if there is a determination after an investigation that a bishop engaged in deliberate malfeasance in handling clergy sexual abuse reports, then penalties and punishments, according to church law, are supposed to be applied. These penalties are something the pope fleshed out in  Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”) providing norms for holding bishops accountable in matters concerning the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Due to lack of transparency, we don’t know if the Vatican imposed penalties on Bishop Malone following its investigation into allegations against him that included repeated instances of putting the public at risk by allowing credibly-accused sex offenders to remain in ministry. Taking an early retirement is no penalty in a survivor’s mind. The fact that no penalties were announced and he could continue in ministry in our diocese as if nothing happened is understandably interpreted by many clergy sexual abuse survivors that the Church consented to Bishop Malone’s malfeasance. That is not a small point.

Elsewhere in the world, the Church seems to understand the gravity of such actions by its bishops. That is why, following thorough investigations under Vos Estis reporting, the Vatican has imposed LIFE-LONG penalties on bishops throughout the world, including here in the US.

For example, in March 2021, 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. 

Survivors of clergy sexual abuse in the Diocese of Buffalo expect nothing less for Bishop Richard Malone. The concern about the former bishop’s concelebrating the cathedral’s Easter liturgies is a symptom of a dysfunctional organization that on the one hand claims to champion the cause of the most marginalized and damaged of its flock, yet at the same time refuses to be transparent about penalties that may or may not have been imposed on a bishop who so flagrantly exacerbated the damage done to clergy sexual abuse survivors and put the public at risk.

I have talked with many clergy sexual abuse survivors. When they see in a church sanctuary bishops or diocesan officials identified in documents and a state investigation as men manifestly complicit in the coverup of sexual abusers, survivors only interpret the scene as the Catholic Church consenting to gravely immoral actions of these men. It is more than an insult to survivors. It hurts their very souls.

Finally, supporters of the diocese’s modus operendi in handling such complaints by survivors will often trot out the gospel principle of “mercy.” 

Survivors (and laity in general) expect executives working for the Catholic Church to follow the same moral and ethical standards applied to laity in their workplace.

It is not within the realm of “mercy” to let off diocesan executives who abuse their authority over subordinates, coddle sexual molesters, fail to follow minimal ethics in reporting sexual abuse, fail to consider sexual abuse of human beings of any age as a grave evil, threaten seminarians and subordinates, fail to offer aid and comfort to abuse victims, lie to abuse survivors and put laity at risk. Such “mercy” is an emotion, not a virtue, as Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen warned, adding:

“The divorce of mercy from justice is sentimentality.”

Survivors do not dwell in sentimentality. Their pain is real. This is about the salvation of damaged souls and bodies.

UPDATE: April 23, 2022

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Header photo: Bishop Richard Malone at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in 2017. Photo credit: Daryl Gronemeier

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